The "Spillover" Myth

05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The theory that drug-related violence from Mexico could "spillover" into the United States gained some currency throughout the past year, fueled by alarmist headlines and breathless news bulletins that created the impression that American border cities are threatened by the inter-gang warfare that erupted in some parts of Mexico in response to President Felipe Calderon's sea-changing decision to roll-back drug-trafficking organizations.

Reality suggests otherwise: the US City Crime Rankings 2009-2010 does not list a single US border city among the 60 most dangerous metropolises in America. While US media has focused on the situation in Ciudad Juarez, where drug traffickers are fighting to control the flow of illicit drugs into the United States and where the violence they have spawned provides surefire grist for the 24 hour news cycle, it rarely mentions the fact that El Paso, San Diego and other U.S. border cities are among the safest in the country. There are no mentions either of the finding of the Southwest Border Task Force Report, issued last September, that the use of the word "spillover" is a misnomer and is likely to remain so. "The risk of such violence physically spilling over the border to threaten American communities," according to the report, "presently remains low and to date has not occurred."

The often one-sided reporting from the border distorts the reality of what has happened -- or could happen -- on both sides of the Rio Grande. To simplistically suggest that drug-related violence in Mexico will spill into US cities assumes that the drivers behind the rise of insecurity in certain areas of the Mexican border region are absent on the US side. In fact, this ignores the reality that violent drug trafficking gangs that distribute and sell drugs in the United States -- many of them not controlled by Mexican kingpins -- have long been in operation and were well established in the US before Mexico-based trafficking organizations morphed and consolidated their role in the late nineties as key players in the supply chain of drugs to the United States. This view reflects a troubling misreading of the joint struggle both our nations are and should continue to be engaged in.

What is so worrisome about the drumbeat of the threat of violence "spilling over" from Mexico is that Spaghetti-Western narratives and unbalanced reporting could lead some pundits to an equally misleading and troublesome conclusion that the way to deter drug violence here is through isolation, by de-coupling the US from Mexico or to push for a radical U-turn in policies from Mexico City. Were this to happen, it would reflect a failure to understand both the real causes underpinning drug-related violence, and the fact that transborder drug trade and demand for drugs are symbiotically interconnected.

It is certainly possible that closer cooperation between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement agencies could create the same kind of pressure on the U.S. gangs that is now occurring in Mexico, with the same unintended but no less violent results. But if that does happen, and if US media heed the recommendations of the Task Force report, the American public should have an easier time understanding that it will not be the result of "spillover" from Mexico. Rather, it will be to some extent the mirror image of the challenges that Mexico has experienced in focal points of its territory and that some have mischaracterized since President Calderon ordered the Mexican Armed Forces and Federal Police to take on these transnational criminal organizations.

Both the Obama and the Bush Administrations and the government of President Calderon have underscored since 2007 that only sustained and increased intelligence sharing, training and other forms of cooperation -- most notably on weapons and bulk cash trafficking which fuel the activities of organized crime groups- can offer hope of significantly reducing the levels of violence. This would also open a window of opportunity to displace drug trafficking operations away from Mexican territory, thus providing game-changing breathing space that can allow us to strengthen civil society and institutions and to generally widen and deepen the rule of law throughout Mexico. Officials in both countries also recognize that the greatest threat to the kind of increased cooperation that's required is the sort of hysteria and fear that could result if the perception grows that the Mexican government's effort to disrupt the trafficking gangs at the source is to blame for any surge in violence on the U.S. side of the border.

Mexico's Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz, once wrote that Mexico and the US had trouble understanding one another because Mexicans did not know how to communicate, and Americans did not know how to listen. Today, Mexico's commitment and actions are speaking loudly as President Calderon leads a fight that is common to the well-being of our two nations. And on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the US has comprehended that only through joint responsibility will it be able to respond to the scourge that we face as neighbors and partners. At the end of the day, by speaking out and by tuning-in, our two governments have underscored a simple truth: we will either succeed or fail together.