Mexico drug war likely to intensify
Drug-related violence in Mexico, already at unprecedented levels, is expected to escalate further this year, with targets likely to include top Mexican politicians and law-enforcement agents and possibly even U.S. officials, according to diplomats and intelligence experts on both sides of the border.
The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON — Drug-related violence in Mexico, already at unprecedented levels, is expected to escalate further this year, with targets likely to include top Mexican politicians and law-enforcement agents and possibly even U.S. officials, according to diplomats and intelligence experts on both sides of the border.
The warning underscores the difficult choices confronting President Felipe Calderón as he takes on drug cartels while weighing the implications of growing casualties in a year of midterm elections and a slowing economy.
It also reflects rising concern among U.S. officials and analysts about the deteriorating security situation, corruption among Mexico's top crime fighters, and the vulnerability of the military to possible corruption in battling cartel gangs.
As the war against cartels escalates in 2009, so will threats, particularly against U.S. officials and other Americans, said officials, analysts and diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza.
"Calderón must — and will — keep the pressure on the cartels, but look, let's not be naíve: There will be more violence, more blood, and, yes, things will get worse before they get better. That's the nature of the battle," Garza said. "The more pressure the cartels feel, the more they'll lash out like cornered animals."
He advised Americans traveling to Mexico to check State Department travel alerts at www.state.gov.
A U.S. intelligence official based along the Texas border warned that U.S. officials, American businessmen and journalists will "become targets, if they're not already."
The official, citing information from informants and other intelligence, said attacks against Americans may include car bombs placed outside consulate offices and embassies or attacks on "specific individuals."
The threats, the intelligence official said, are a result of "growing frustration" among cartel leaders and the internal dynamics of cartel organizations. He described the drug gangs as "transnational, with deep financial, cultural and social ties to Mexican and U.S. cities, whether Ciudad Juárez; Culiacán, Sinaloa; as well as El Paso, Houston or Dallas."
The soaring level of violence has led the United States to develop plans for a "surge" of civilian and perhaps even military law enforcement should the bloodshed spread across the border, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.
Chertoff said he ordered specific plans to confront the violence last summer.
"We completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge — if I may use that word — capability to bring in not only our own assets but even to work with" the Defense Department, Chertoff said.
Evidence of Mexican drug cartels has spread across the United States. Federal agents in Western Washington last year took down two drug-distribution rings with such links, according to court records.
In May, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents arrested 17 people connected to a cocaine-distribution ring in Burien. The ring was based out of a Mexican restaurant and was moving as much as 36 pounds of cocaine a month, said Arnold Moorin, the special agent in charge of the DEA's Seattle field office.
In September, agents "dismantled" a large-scale drug operation tied to the Sinaloa cartel, seizing $1 million in cash, more than 150 pounds of cocaine and 30 pounds of methamphetamine, Moorin said. The ring had been distributing drugs in Idaho and Washington for years, according to agents.
Violence also is crippling regions and cities in Mexico. Some top U.S. officials and analysts describe these cities, including Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, as "failed cities," in which cartels — not city or police officials — have control.
Ciudad Juárez, whose mayor and other elected officials have moved to El Paso in recent months and commute, ended the year with more than 1,600 drug-related killings. Nationwide, more than 5,700 — criminals, soldiers, police, journalists and bystanders — were killed. That's more than twice the estimated 2,300 slain in 2007.
Philip Heymann, a Harvard law professor and expert on terrorism, characterized the ongoing violence in Mexico as "narcoterrorism, given the tactics used," including beheadings and efforts to silence and intimidate society through threats, gruesome videos and text messages.
"I think the situation in Mexico is very, very dangerous for everyone, including the United States," he said. "The situation hasn't yet registered in the mind-set of Americans, but it will, especially when Americans become the target. All you need are two, three Americans killed and the issue will suddenly become important."
Frustration among senior U.S. officials over Mexican corruption is acute, particularly after the arrest of drug czar Noe Ramirez Mandujano. He is alleged to have been receiving $500,000 a month from the Arturo Beltran Leyva drug gang in exchange for intelligence, some of which originated with U.S. officials at the U.S. Embassy.
Frustration comes as the U.S. expands its role this year under the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion program over several years aimed at providing Mexico with new technology, training and military equipment.
But the assistance may trickle in more slowly, over six years, instead of the three originally planned, a result of the U.S. economic crisis, sources familiar with the program said. Moreover, the initiative, under the incoming administration of President-elect Obama, may be "tweaked" to address the issue of U.S. demand for drugs, a U.S. Senate aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Ultimately," the senior administration official said, "we're not trying to wipe out drug trafficking in Mexico. We're trying to reduce it from the existential problem threatening democracy in Mexico and law enforcement. And you can't really do that until you weaken drug traffickers and strengthen the security forces."
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Carter and The New York Times contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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