Discuss as:

Mexican drug war 'alarming' U.S. officials

MEXICO CITY – Virtually every day now there are disturbing headlines here about the assassination of yet another Mexican official, gangland-style shootouts in broad daylight, the gruesome discoveries of kidnapped and tortured murder victims – many of them beheaded – and police chiefs quitting their jobs and fleeing the country in terror.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon vowed a year and a half ago to confront the drug cartels and take back vast areas of the country that these powerful criminals have controlled for years, more than 4,000 people have been killed. The murder victims include some 500 police officers, soldiers, mayors and other officials. 

As the government pushes into cartel territory, the traffickers fight back while at the same time killing each other in internal battles over the remaining turf and smuggling routes – most of this occurring just south of the U.S. border.

VIDEO: Mexico's drug war crosses the border

Borrowing a page from Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's playbook for fighting traffickers and guerrillas, Calderon has deployed 25,000 army troops and federal police forces around Mexico.   

Their primary mission is to regain control, establish peace, rebuild judicial institutions and try to reign in some of the endemic corruption infecting local police departments. 

The jury is still out on whether any of that has been accomplished yet. But the current Mexican government is certainly trying and is paying a horrible price in human lives. Even Mexico's National Police Chief Edgar Millan was murdered in a hail of bullets inside the protective walls of a Mexico City home.

 "We have no choice, there is no alternative here," Mexico's Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said, defending the government's crackdown. "If we want to build a sound democracy, a country with a rule of law with liberties, we have to do this and we will."

American officials watch nervously

In the American Southwest particularly, the Mexican drug war is drawing the attention of senators, governors, federal law enforcement officials and sheriff's departments. The White House is also on alert and is urging Congress to approve a $1.4 billion law enforcement aid package for Mexico.

Former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey, a retired U.S. Army general, insists the United States has a lot at stake and must help the Mexican government win this battle.

"The Mexican president, Calderon, is an honest man, a courageous patriot," McCaffrey said.  "If Mexican authorities don't re-establish control in the six [Mexican] border states along the 2,000 mile-long border, we will see this level of violence, corruption, kidnapping, drug organizations on this side of the frontier."

Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison agrees and argues the violence has already spread north. "It's just a pathetic and terrible situation," Hutchison said. "Our Border Patrol agents have seen hundreds of attacks from across the border. These drug cartels have put bounties on DEA agents' heads on our side."

Americans finance Mexican traffickers

In seeking more help from the United States, Mexican officials point out that most of the financing for the Mexican traffickers comes from the American users of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin smuggled across the border.

U.S. law enforcement officials estimate that $12 to 15 billion a year flows from the United States to the Mexican traffickers. And that is just the bulk currency amount, actual dollar bills, and doesn't include all the money sent by wire transfers.

"In that sense, the U.S. is already financing this war. It is just financing it on the wrong side," Attorney General Medina Mora said grimly.

Another problem is that most of the weapons used by the traffickers come from the United States. Typically, the drug smugglers have much more firepower than local police departments, and sometimes can even outgun the federal police and the Army with high-caliber machine-guns and grenade launchers.

"Most of the weapons, I would say around 95 percent of the weapons that we have seized, come from the U.S.," said Mora. "If the U.S. would stop the flow of weapons to Mexico the equation would change very rapidly here. We need the U.S. to stay committed in this war in reducing demand, in stopping the flow of weapons and stopping the flow of cash."

Mexican traffickers throughout the U.S. 

Another trend that is particularly disturbing to federal drug agents and local authorities is the widespread entrenchment of Mexican smuggling organizations within the United States, and not just along the border area.

In fact, agents say, Mexican smuggling groups have taken over drug distribution operations in U.S. cities from coast to coast. Atlanta is now considered a major Mexican drug-smuggling hub. In Chicago, Mexicans have pushed out local drug dealers and are handling the illicit business themselves. Even in rural Tennessee, sheriff's deputies are faced with more and more criminals speaking Spanish, a language most of the officers can't understand.

While declaring that the cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials is at its "best level ever," Mora urged the U.S. Congress to pass the Merida Initiative, the Mexico law enforcement aid package. While the money is important, he argued, the critical component is the commitment it would represent in terms of U.S. assistance in the drug war.

"I have said to my American counterparts that this war cannot be won by neither one of us alone," Mora added.  "If we do not win it together, we will lose it together."

In that argument, the Mexican attorney general is finding U.S. supporters, despite the many detractors who condemn Mexico for its drug-related woes and blame past governments there for allowing the problem to grow out of control.

"We have to be helpful to them, this is not now a thousand miles away. It is right on the border of America and we have to stop it," said Sen. Hutchison.

The former U.S. drug czar, McCaffrey, agreed. "This is the most alarming situation I've seen in Mexico in 15 years," he warned. "Our own interests are at stake. We must stand with these people, they're literally fighting for their lives."

Read more of Mark Potter's reporting on U.S. concerns over the Mexican drug war: 
Border officials fear growing Mexican drug war
Why educate American kids from Mexico?