Mexico: America's Number One Threat

Forget Syria. The drug war next door does far more immediate damage to national security.

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Those worried about tens of thousands of innocent civilian deaths in Syria might better focus their time, energy and resources on helping a nation where tens of thousands have also died, but whose fate directly and immediately affects U.S. and Canadian security.

That nation is Mexico.

Since 2008, the seven main drug cartels have emerged as an existential threat to Mexico’s future. Cartels like Los Zetas, which recruit members from Mexico’s Special Forces and federal police, behave like organized paramilitaries, not ordinary criminals. They generate perhaps $30 to $40 billion a year in illicit profits. And the price has been horrendous. Between 2007 and 2012, around 47,000 Mexicans were killed in the drug war. Some estimate that the true toll is over 60,000.

When we think of torture, beheadings and assassination, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia come to mind. Many Americans and Canadians would be surprised to learn that these are commonplace in Mexico, a country many associate with beaches and margaritas. Yet the situation in Mexico has deteriorated so badly that one Juarez mayor and a newspaper publisher took up residence in Texas, while one journalist took refuge in Canada.

As neighbors, we should be concerned. But there’s even more to it than that: The drug cartels pose a direct threat to American and Canadian security.

American media reports indicate that the cartels have a presence in Texas high schools and have even hired U.S. soldiers as hitmen. The U.S. Justice Department has indicated that the cartels have a presence in at least 230 American cities. Texas governor Rick Perry and Arizona governor Jan Brewer have long complained that violent criminals from Mexico are crossing the border and threatening American families.

According to Canadian law enforcement officials, Mexican cartels are joining forces with Canadian organized crime around illicit activities including money laundering. There are alleged ties between Mexican drug cartels and Hezbollah. There is a real threat and danger of the emergence of a hemispheric criminal compact with linkages to broader, more sinister networks in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The challenge is not amenable to easy solutions or quick fixes. Mexican leaders remain angry that President George W. Bush retreated from his pledge to continue the ban on assault weapons. The cartels exploited the lapse to purchase AK-47s and heavy arms and adapt them into even more deadly weapons. In the meantime, drugs flow into North American cities. In Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars, Sylvia Longmire reports the cartels are so brazen they are even staking out marijuana farms in national parks. Iowa has been a center for cartel-controlled methamphetamine. It’s no accident that Iowa senator Chuck Grassley has been very outspoken in calling for a serious crackdown on international narcotics trafficking.

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