January 31, 2009 | Commentary on Latin America, National Security and Defense

Help Mexico Beat the Narco-Gangs

Mexico may be headed to hell in a handbasket as a result of grisly fighting between the federal government and drug cartels - and among the narco-gangs themselves.

Some of last week's news:

  • Authorities arrested a man accused of dissolving as many as 300 bodies in bubbling vats of acid for a Tijuana-based drug lord. (This earned the perp the nightmarish nickname "El Pozolero," after a local stew.)
  • Prosecutors reported three heads found in an ice box. A headless body was also discovered in a canal in Ciudad Juarez, a town known as Mexico's deadliest - just over the border from El Paso, Texas.

The headless victims? Policemen.

But it's a lot more than just these particularly horrific incidents that have come to define Mexican narco-related violence: Last year, the drug war consumed nearly 6,000 lives - double the number in 2007.

In fact, by all accounts the federal government, politicos, the military and police are under the gun - literally and figuratively - by criminal gangs dealing in meth, cocaine, marijuana and heroin. The public is ruthlessly intimidated.

Despite this, the Obama administration and Congress may be wavering on continuing to give Mexico help fighting the growing danger to that country's stability - and by extension ours.

That'd be a big mistake. This is a serious threat.

The drug cartels are well-armed: assault weapons, RPGs and land mines.

They're high-tech, too, using encrypted communications, wearing night-vision goggles, moving by helicopters and transporting drugs by mini-subs.

President Felipe Calderon is game for a fight, but he's up against rampant corruption that reaches deep into his anti-drug forces. (Mexico's former top organized-crime cop was arrested last fall on narcotics-related corruption charges.)

Despite reforms, the judicial system also falls short: It's plagued by payoffs, lack of investigative resources and overloaded courts. And human-rights types complain of reported government violations in prosecuting the drug war.

The police are poorly paid, equipped and trained, leaving them in dire straits battling the narcotraficantes. Mexico's FBI director-equivalent was offed last year. (Some of the cartels' foot soldiers are former military commandos.)

Unfortunately, we're entangled in Mexico's lurch toward chaos.

Mexican gangs obtain some of their weapons from bad actors, who traffic them illegally on this side of the border. And continued American demand for drugs (cartel gangs "feed" an estimated 200 US cities) doesn't help, either.

As a result, popular support for Calderon's fight against the cartels has waned. The widespread violence leaves many Mexicans ready to throw in the towel, saying drugs are an American problem.

But that clearly wouldn't be good for either of us. If Mexico, a country of 110 million people, becomes even a near narco-state, the effect on the United States - make that, the Western Hemisphere - is almost incalculable.

Narco-business is the source of countless troubles: broken families, violence, money laundering, trafficking in guns and people and even terrorist financing. Like Colombia before it, Mexico is now a frontline state in fighting these problems.

Programs such as the Merida Law Enforcement Initiative - a US-assisted, Mexican counter-drug program - are vital to opposing the narcotraficantes. But Merida's funding is up for renewal - and Congress and the White House may go wobbly on it.

Much more than just drugs are at stake. Mexico is the world's 12th largest economy; it's a major US trading partner and provides a third of our imported oil.

And with our mutual 2,000 mile border, instability, cartel-controlled regions or the possible collapse of the Mexican federal government is far too important to be ignored.

That means working together and taking strong action on both sides of the border - pronto.

Peter Brookes is senior fellow for National Security Affairs in the Davis Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First Appeared in the New York Post