Mexico: America's Number One Threat

October 9, 2013 Topic: Security Region: MexicoAmericas

Mexico: America's Number One Threat

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

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.

The United States is unlikely to abandon the emphasis its places on Second Amendment rights, but it could do a lot more to crack down on already illegal sales of weapons that are smuggled across the Rio Grande into Mexico. Mexico is sensitive about accepting U.S. and Canadian security aid, but under Calderon, great progress was made. On taking office after Calderon this past December, President Enrique Pena Nieto made clear his priorities were the economy and education. He reduced U.S.-Mexican cooperation, cutting off the access it previously gave to U.S. security agencies, and centralizing all contact through Mexico’s Ministry of the Interior.

Events have forced him to focus on fighting the cartels, and this summer Mexico has seen successful in capturing key cartel leaders. But it’s a drop in the bucket. What Nieto recognized—but few U.S. and Canadian politicians have—is that the cartels pose a problem for hemispheric security.

What happens next door in Mexico is vital to U.S., Canadian, and Mexican national interests. It requires a recognition that what happens in Mexico affects us all. Mexican instability undermines our collective security. Moreover, it represents an ongoing human tragedy occurring next door, whose consequences will drag on for generations unless they are addressed today.

Responding to the challenge means addressing the domestic problem of drug consumption—which is responsible for the economic incentives that keep the drug industry in business. It also requires that we pay attention to Mexico. That requires commitment and an equal dose of development and security. Neutralizing the power of the cartels depends on helping Mexico developing viable alternatives for its citizens. People need hope. The government needs to be seen as serving the collective interest, including security. Political institutions need reform. Public institutions need to provide health and education. The economy needs security and jobs. If this sounds familiar, it is. Good governance is a universal right and responsibility. A nation that offers opportunities at home will persuade its own citizens to remain there and not emigrate. A strong, secure Mexico will help make the Western hemisphere stronger and more secure.

Mexico is our neighbor. Hemispheric security requires us to forge closer ties to a nation with whom we share a continent. The priority is too often overlooked. But it should be an important focus of U.S. and Canadian foreign policy.

James P. Farwell is a national security expert who has advised the U.S. Special Operations Command and is the author of Persuasion & Power (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012). Rafal Rohozinski is a senior fellow with the not-for-profit SecDev Foundation (Canada), and a Principal of SecDev Analytics, a global analytics firm. The views expressed are their own and do not represent those of the American or Canadian governments, each’s departments or agencies, or COCOM.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Jorge Arana. CC BY-SA 3.0.