As violence flares in Mexico's drug war, threatening security on the US border, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a historic trip to Mexico this week as part of the Pentagon's push for Latin American countries to deploy more military resources against drug trafficking. It's also part of a security effort to shore up potential threats that could emerge from militants crossing the border.
Mexico's government sent more than 3,000 soldiers and federal police to Tijuana on Tuesday, stepping up a war against violent drug smugglers after 17 gunmen were killed in a street battle between cartels.
The move is part of a broader deployment of soldiers that Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, has initiated at Washington's behest. Mr. Calderon has sent 24,000 military and security forces to areas overrun by drug gangs; Mexico drug trade resulted more than 2,500 deaths in 2007, reported The Christian Science Monitor.
Gates said the focus of his talks in Mexico was the so-called Merida Initiative proposed by US President George W. Bush in October to build up the capabilities of the Mexican military and law enforcement to battle drug cartels.
The multi-year package would provide, among other things, helicopters and surveillance aircraft to the Mexican military, which the Pentagon sees as an opportunity to strengthen military ties that historically have been chilly.
The US administration has requested 550 million dollars for the program this year in a 2008 emergency war funding bill that the US Congress has so far failed to approve.
Gates said he hoped on the basis of conversations with leaders in both houses that the Congress will act on the bill by the end of May.
"Failure to do so I think would be I think a real slap at Mexico, and it would be very disappointing," he said.
Reuters reports that the security package is tied to the U.S. war on terrorism:
Bush administration officials view the program as a possible lever for deepening U.S.-Mexican military relations at a time when Washington needs Mexico's help in shoring up border security against potential threats from Islamist militants.
The Pentagon sees crime, drugs and street gangs as the top security problems facing Latin America and wants the region's soldiers, not its police, to tackle them.
[The shootouts] come amid a spike in violence along Mexico's northern border as drug gangs battle one another and face off against law enforcement agencies that have stepped up efforts against organized crime.
The Arellano Félix drug cartel, long the dominant criminal organization in Baja California, has lost key leaders in recent years, leaving smaller cells to operate more independently, U.S. and Mexican experts say. Some groups have expanded from drug smuggling to kidnapping and extortion.
"There is a war all along the northern border, not just in Baja California," Rommel Moreno Manjarréz, Baja California's attorney general, said at an afternoon news conference.
The supply of cocaine declined in several U.S. cities during the first half of 2007, according to the U.S. National Drug Threat Assessment, a multi-agency report on the problem.
The drop in availability was probably a combined result of several large seizures of cocaine shipments en route to the United States, Mexico's anti-drug efforts, and warfare among rival Mexican traffickers, the report says.
By late 2007, supply "appeared to be returning to normal" in some U.S. markets, the report says. At the same time, the amount of cash smuggled in bulk from the United States to Mexico continued to increase, a sign that traffickers' revenues are still healthy.
Calderón admits the crackdown hasn't reduced violence yet, saying it will take years to seize back control of large parts of Mexico from the drug gangs. That leaves many people impatient.
"Other countries – even Iraq – have strategies against violence," said Dr. Ruben Corral.... "What is our Plan B? We don't know what the government's strategy is."
According to the security assessment group, Stratfor (subscription required), the violence and the drug trade continue because local government officials are involved, which underscores why the problem on the US border may not be resolved through military might alone.
These firefights also came just a few days after an army general responsible for military efforts against organized crime in Tijuana released a letter to the media in which he named state and city officials whom he accused of negligence, corruption and complicity with organized crime. The publication of the letter has already led to at least one resignation – and prompted the general to increase his personal security. Given these developments, it seems unlikely the security situation in the city will improve anytime soon.