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11.24.08

Mexico's Mob Violence Moves North

Organized crime in Mexico has nearly taken over the country and is quickly spreading into the States, with guns blazing.

Last month, two thugs impersonating Las Vegas police officers burst into six-year-old Cole Puffinburger’s home, tied up his mother and her boyfriend, ransacked the house looking for money, then kidnapped the child with a gun to his head. Three days later, Cole was found wandering alone down a sidewalk on the city’s east side. Local police believe the attack was in retaliation against his grandfather for stealing money from Mexican drug dealers.

Crimes like these -- byproducts of the Mexican drug trade -- are swarming northward across the border, bringing with them plagues of horrific violence into American cities and suburbs. A recent report by the National Drug Intelligence Center called Mexican drug rings “the most pervasive organizational threat to the United States.” These organizations “are active in every region of the country.” Mexican drug cartels are now present in 195 U.S. cities, according to the NDIC.

The death toll from violent crime in Mexico this year already surpasses the total number of U.S. casualties in Iraq since the beginning of the war.

Phoenix has seen a spike in kidnappings and home invasions; 260 abductions were reported this year alone. And in Texas, execution-style murders and burned bodies have been reported as far north as Dallas, where19-year-old Tinesha Taylor and her boyfriend, Antonio Bradley, were found dead in their living room, each with a single gunshot to the head. Police have identified the main suspects as members of a drug-running operation.

These are mere tastes of the maelstrom of violence engulfing Mexico itself. The day before Barack Obama’s historic election marked the bloodiest 24 hours in recent Mexican history. 58 people were killed that day, many of them civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Six bystanders died at a Red Cross hospital in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, where gunmen burst into an operating room to finish off a man who was already being treated for gunshot wounds. A restaurant owner and one of her employees died as they served breakfast to federal police agents. Beheadings have become a staple of local news. There have been shootings reported even at kindergartens. Organized crime has the country on its knees.

Analysts fear that unless this downward spiral is stopped, our southern neighbor could soon become the fiefdom of the world’s most violent criminals—a national security nightmare for the new administration, and one we’re already seeing signs of.

Three weeks ago, law enforcement authorities trumpeted the dismantling of the Arellano Felix Organization. Based out of Tijuana, the AFO was long considered one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations along the U.S.- Mexico border. Authorities announced the death-knell for the family-run cartel—which served as inspiration for the 2000 movie Traffic—with the arrest of Eduardo Arellano Felix. El Doctor, as he was known among his henchmen, was the last of the seven Arellano brothers to have remained at large.

But this is an illusion of progress. Quashing one cartel—no matter how powerful—amounts to little more than a cosmetic change on the drug-trafficking landscape. Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, likens the drug-smuggling business to a Hydra. “Cutting off one head,” he explains, “merely results in more heads taking its place.” The AFO’s demise might be attributed to the American and Mexican governments making it their primary target for the last decade. But Carpenter points out that this strategy was tried in Colombia, and failed. The crackdown on the Medellín and Cali cartels in the 1990s was heralded as a great victory in the government’s war against drugs. They have now been replaced by about 300 loosely organized groups.

In Mexico, the death toll from violent crime this year already surpasses the total number of U.S. casualties in Iraq since the beginning of the war. Over 4,500 people have been murdered—almost double the total for 2007, and four times as many as 2005. The Federal police commissioner has resigned, and five officials in the attorney general’s organized crime unit have been arrested, accused of leaking classified information to drug cartels. Even the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City was infiltrated by a spy working for the drug lords.

The Mexican governments attempts to crackdown on the problem haven’t inspired confidence. President Felipe Calderón has promised to fight the cartels, giving the military an unprecedented role in the drug war. But this move has led only to more violence, increased corruption within the military, and emboldened traffickers. According to a report by the House Committee on Homeland Security, “At one time, members or associates of Mexican drug cartels would drop the drugs or abandon their vehicles when confronted by U.S. law enforcement.” But those good old days are gone:

“In today’s climate, U.S. Border Patrol agents are fired upon from across the river and troopers and sheriff’s deputies are subject to attacks with automatic weapons while the cartels retrieve their contraband. In May 2006, the Zapata County Sheriff’s Office received information that the cartels immediately across the border plan to threaten or kill as many police officers as possible on the United States’ side.”

Pouring taxpayer money into the problem seems fruitless. In 1999, Washington pledged over $6 billion to an initiative known as Plan Colombia, hoping to “reduce the production of illicit drugs (primarily cocaine) by 50 percent in 6 years.” Now that the money has been spent, the Government Accountability Office reports that in the years since Plan Colombia went into effect, “coca cultivation and cocaine production levels increased by about 15 and 4 percent, respectively.” This is why critics remain skeptical of the Merida Initiative, which calls for as much as $1.4 billion in aid to Mexico’s drug war efforts over the next three years. “It is the same old tactics and bogus solutions,” says Carpenter, adding that the only way to stop the drug lords from expanding their power is to eliminate the enormous profit margins created by the black market. Mexican officials have expressed an interest in drug legalization, but according to Carpenter, this would have little impact on the drug trade if the U.S. continued to pursue a prohibitionist strategy.

Drug legalization remains taboo in America, and the new administration is likely to pursue more conservative measures. But what it cannot escape is the fact that a serious crisis is brewing south of the border—one that is already causing terror in some of our cities. Throwing money at it, hoping it will go away, will not do this time. At a campaign stop in Miami in May, then-candidate Obama acknowledged, “It is time for us to recognize that the future security and prosperity of the United States is fundamentally tied to the future of the Americas.” Never was this more evident than in the case of Mexico, whose plague of organized crime is nearly as much our problem as theirs.

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a writer living in Manhattan. He has written for the New York Post , the Washington Blade, El Diario NY and the Orange County Register .