April 24, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Americas: Mexican Drug Cartel Violence Becoming a U.S. Policy Nightmare

• U.S. State Department travel warnings do not begin to capture the drug cartel-generated violent reality occurring in Mexico. The anti-drug policies that began in 2006 have thus far been a dismal failure. Citizens blame corrupt politicians and government agencies, while politicians lay fault with the U.S. and its insatiable market for narcotics. The next Mexican president will face an uphill battle in managing, much less mitigating, the scope of violence plaguing the country.

• The growing wave of “narco-refugees”  – Mexican nationals seeking asylum in the U.S. to avoid insidious violence at home – will add to the chronic flow of illegal immigrants, presenting U.S. Government agencies with a policy conundrum driven by conflicting mission interests.

Mexican Drug Cartel Violence Becoming a U.S. Policy Nightmare


As of late April 2012, narcotics-related violence in Mexico continues unabated. On February 08, 2012, the U.S. Department of State issued an updated Travel Warning pertaining to the security situation in Mexico, which recommended deferring all non-essential travel to most of Northern Mexico and nearly half of Southern Mexico. This warning was based on concrete data that only begins to capture the violent reality occurring in the country. The Mexican government's most current crime and violence statistics reveal that between the beginning of December 2006 and the end of September 2011, almost 50,000 Mexicans and visitors were killed in narcotics-related violence, including 13,000 narcotics-related homicides in the first nine months of 2011 alone. Despite the U.S. warning, tourism in Mexico actually increased by 2 per cent in 2011 over 2010. Even so, experts contend the increase in tourist traffic should have been much greater.

For the people of Mexico, the problem runs much deeper than even the substantial economic damage related to tourism rates. Forced to confront the violence first-hand and on a daily basis, Mexicans see the security forces upon which they must depend as both inefficient and corrupt. Further, they view outgoing President Felipe Calderon's anti-drug policies as a dismal failure with devastating personal consequences. Upon election in 2006, Calderon instituted a highly-publicized offensive against the drug cartels in Mexico. Since then, the death toll has been rising at an alarming rate, with a large percentage of the victims being innocent Mexicans caught in the crossfire. Despite misgivings over the program's consistent failures, the Mexican populace thus far remains generally supportive of the government's attempt to eradicate the cartels. However, that support is not without limits as the Mexican people are increasingly and publicly expressing aggravation over what seems to be never-ending bloodshed. Feeling the sting of public condemnation, President Calderon answers his critics by arguing that fault for Mexico's cartel-violence rests squarely with the United States, the "…the country that has the highest levels of drug consumption in the world."


The Coming Wave of Narco-Refugees

Governments on both sides of the border are struggling under the weight of the dismal costs associated with  narco-violence. The increasingly ubiquitous and foreboding nature of the threat since 2006 has generated an unanticipated surge in the number of Mexican nationals seeking to immigrate to the U.S. with a motivation far more fundamental than employment. The swelling number of Mexicans heading north now includes many whose primary aim is to attain a measure of safety from the insidious violence they encounter daily in their communities. In 2008, over 2500 Mexican citizen formally requested political asylum in the U.S, a fifty-fold increase from just two years earlier. This expanding wave of "narco-refugees" is also comprised of an additional number of like-minded individuals who opted to enter and remain in the U.S. illegally, choosing to face the vexing challenges and inherent limitations of surviving as an undocumented alien rather than endure the incessant threat of violence at home.

The scope of the problem likely exceeds even the most dire official assessments, with the actual number of Mexicans fleeing the wanton violence of the drug cartels in border towns such as Ciudad Juarez, Nogales, and Tijuana and into the nearby American cities of El Paso, Tucson, and San Diego potentially reaching into the hundreds of thousands.


An Intractable Policy Challenge

From a policy perspective, the U.S. faces a number of equally unattractive options for dealing with this inescapable reality. The Commerce Department has a vested interest in portraying Mexico - America's third largest trading partner after Canada and China - as a safe and sustainable location for U.S. business operations. At the same time, the State Department is acutely aware of the diplomatic repercussions if it routinely denied asylum requests and thus forced thousand of innocent individuals - including women and children - back into a growing humanitarian crisis that is emerging from skyrocketing drug violence. On the other end of that spectrum, the Department of Homeland Security urgently seeks to gain a greater degree of control over the torrent of illegal immigrants crossing the boarder for any reason. Finally, U.S. federal law enforcement and military agencies are deeply interested in avoiding sullied reputations that would invariably result from any apparent association with Mexican counterpart organizations that prove to be complicit with the drug cartels (a chronic problem highlighted in a 2009 cable issued by the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez and later made public by WikiLeaks).

As the unlawful and seemingly uncontainable activities of Mexico's narcotics cartel - along with  their unremitting challenges to federal authority - rise to the level of a bona fide insurgency, another policy question involves sorting out the essential nature of this complex problem. Officials on both sides of the border have yet to agree on whether this is a criminal problem for law enforcement to resolve, or a national security problem for the military and intelligence agencies to address. The Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz asserted that one of the most important tasks of the general is to precisely determine the type of war in which one is engaged, and avoid trying to make it anything else. In this instance, perhaps the first step in rendering such a calculus is actually recognizing that a war is taking place.




• Enrique Pena Neito will almost certainly win the July 1st election for president. To the extent he can circumvent long-standing and endemic corruption, he will need to begin immediately in what will be a long and difficult effort to professionalize the army and other security forces in an attempt to effectively reduce the level of violence. In the near term, Pena Neito's election will have little effect in mitigating the unsustainable losses incurred by Mexican tourism and other business interests along the U.S.-Mexico border.



• Mexico's road to recovery will be long and bloody. Tourists and investors will not return in large numbers until there is a marked reduction in crime and violence; and this outcome is far from assured.  The U.S. Government will continue to offer assistance and work to contain the spread of violence reaching into the United States. Unable to aggressively operate across the border, those efforts will fall short and cartel-violence will, in turn, continue to undermine the interests - and safety - of citizens from both nations for the foreseeable future.


Also available: TSG Specialized Reports: The Soufan Group's world-class network of intelligence analysts produces specialized geopolitical and risk assessment products tailored to the unique needs of our clients in the public and private sectors. We welcome the opportunity to discuss your requirements and explore how our intelligence services can assist you in achieving your strategic objectives. For more information, please contact us at: