03/18/2009 11:32 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mexico's Drug War Hits Home

by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Matt Duss

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With the severe economic recession and continuing U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the growing crisis of drug-related violence in Mexico has thus far received less public attention than it should. But Obama administration officials are clearly aware of the problem. On Feb. 25, 2009, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a congressional committee that "Mexico right now has issues of violence that are a different degree and level than we've ever seen before." Turf wars between drug gangs and Mexican authorities led to the deaths of some 6,000 people last year, more than twice the previous record, according to Deputy Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Mark Koumans. In a written statement to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Koumans said that the number of murders in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border in January 2009 "was three times higher than in January 2008." In response to requests from the governors of Texas and Arizona, President Obama is reportedly considering deploying National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. Yesterday, Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, the head of Northern Command, told a Senate committee that an inter-agency government team could complete work on an integrated plan to address Mexico's escalating drug war as early as this week.

A COUNTRY ON THE BRINK: In an interview with World Politics Review, the head of Colombia's anti-narcotics police, Gen. Alvaro Caro, warned, "It's going to get worse. ... The Mexican cartels are very structured, well armed and organized, and have the power to corrupt." The Los Angeles Times, which has a detailed website collecting its extensive coverage of the issue, recently noted that drug traffickers "have escalated their arms race, acquiring military-grade weapons, including hand grenades, grenade launchers, armor-piercing munitions and antitank rockets with firepower far beyond the assault rifles and pistols that have dominated their arsenals." "It's a real war," Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos recently told reporters. "We're not faking." Though Napolitano recognized that the Calderon government was taking steps to deal with the violence, she did acknowledge "a possibility, remote as it may be...of [Mexico] becoming a narcostate. But the United States has a direct interest in Mexico." "So having a stable and peaceful neighbor is very, very important, and this drug war is very, very important," Napolitano added.

HOMELAND INSECURITY: A 2008 Justice Department report found that Mexican drug traffickers pose the biggest organized crime threat to the United States. The presence of the Mexican drug cartels in the U.S. has more than quadrupled since 2006. According to a December report by the Justice Department's National Drug Intelligence Center, "Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have established a presence in 230 U.S. cities, including such remote places as Anchorage, Alaska, and Sheboygan, Wisconsin." Cartels have established Atlanta, GA as the principal distribution center for the eastern United States. Phoenix, AZ, is now "the kidnapping capital of the United States, thanks largely to the cartels operating on both sides of the border." But confronting the supply of drugs is only dealing with half of the problem. In naming former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske as his drug czar, Obama indicated an intention to increase "drug prevention and treatment, which took a funding hit in the Bush years." At his nomination ceremony, Kerlikowske "said success depends largely on reducing demand."

THE MERIDA INITIATIVE: First proposed by President Bush in October 2007, the Merida Initiative is a multi-year partnership "to provide equipment and training to support law enforcement efforts to curb the flow of illegal narcotics" through the U.S., Mexico, and Central America. The initiative was signed into law last June, and appropriates $1.4 billion for the effort (compared to over $850 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said, "I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past. Some of the old biases against cooperation between our militaries and so on, I think, are being set aside." But the initiative has its critics. Jorge Angel Pescador Osuna, the former Mexican consul general in Los Angeles, said last year that "[Mexican] foreign policy has been subordinated to that of the Americans, the policemen of the world. ... What we need here is to strengthen our democracy, and we will not accomplish that by using the military for civilian law enforcement." Mexican Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino suggested that the conditions established by the U.S. Congress for the provision of assistance represent an infringement of Mexico's sovereignty. Amnesty International, however, called the final bill "an important first step to prevent military and police abuses." Describing current efforts, Secretary Napolitano told the Wall Street Journal that "we already are beginning to increase our operation of looking at guns and cash going southbound, because it's those guns and cash that are fueling the battle against Calderon and...the very, very violent battle in Mexico."