By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 3/9/2009 9:57:28 AM ET 2009-03-09T13:57:28

With U.S. forces fighting two wars abroad, the nation's top military officer made an important visit last week to forestall a third.

He went to Mexico.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the trip to confer with Mexican leaders about the Merida Initiative, a three-year plan signed into law last June to flood the U.S.-Mexican border region with $1.4 billion in U.S. assistance for law-enforcement training and equipment, as well as technical advice and training to bolster Mexico’s judicial system.

The assistance is intended to help Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa step up his war against drug cartels. The drug lords and their soldiers are blamed for having killed more than 6,300 people since January 2008, including more than 1,000 in the first two months of this year alone.

That’s about 100 people every week for the last 14 months. The cartels usually do not target civilians, but dozens, perhaps hundreds, have died in the crossfire.

“It’s a real war,” says Jorge Ramos, mayor of Tijuana, Mexico, across the border with San Diego. “We’re not faking.”

The point of the U.S. initiative is not just to quell the violence in Mexico. More important for the Obama administration, it is to keep the violence from spilling across the border more than it already has, especially in the border states of Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico.

The concern is very real. Mexican drug cartels already control about 90 percent of the cocaine trade across the United States and most of the market for marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin, with operations in 230 cities, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center. They have essentially supplanted the Colombian and Dominican criminal groups that terrorized major U.S. cities through the 1980s and ’90s, the agency said.

And where Mexican-directed drug operations take root, violence is likely to follow, the federal government said in its most recent assessment of the illegal drug trade.

Mexican drug-trafficking organizations — known in law enforcement lingo as DTOs — “control drug distribution in most U.S. cities, and they are gaining strength in markets that they do not yet control,” the National Drug Intelligence Center reported in its 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment. The report warned that violent urban gangs connected to Mexican cartels were extending their network “from inner cities to suburban and rural areas.”

Its conclusion: “Mexican DTOs represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.”

Internecine strife ripples across region
For many Americans, the threat posed by the cartels became apparent for the first time in late February, when the Justice Department announced the results of Operation Xcellerator, a nationwide sweep by agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The operation netted more than 750 arrests and the seizure of millions of dollars, 12,000 kilograms of cocaine, 1,200 pounds of methamphetamine, 1.3 million ecstasy pills and more than 160 weapons — nearly all attributed to Mexican-connected operations.

Where does it all come from?

The Department of Homeland Security said Mexico’s drug cartels were loosely organized into a small number of blocs that are at war with one another and with the government. One is loyal to the Gulf cartel, which is based in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, near the Gulf of Mexico. Another answers to the Sinaloa cartel, which originated in the state of the same name on Mexico’s Pacific coast. A third is organized around the Tijuana cartel, founded by the infamous Arrellano Felix brothers and centered south of San Diego.

The Tijuana cartel is being consumed by a savagely violent internal struggle for control. The violence that most concerns U.S. authorities is the rivalry between Gulf cartel thugs known as Los Zetas — many of them former military and police officers trained in counternarcotics tactics in the United States — and Los Negros, the Sinaloa cartel’s narco-military brigade.

Their battles take place along a 600-or-so-mile stretch of border between Ciudad Juarez, near the point where Texas and New Mexico meet, and Nuevo Laredo, farther south and east, across the border from Laredo, Texas.

U.S. authorities say the region is the most important launching pad for contraband entering the United States — very little goes on there without the knowledge and approval of the Gulf or Sinaloa cartels. There, the war is a fact of life, and it is presumed that it is only a matter of time before it reaches U.S. soil.

“I don’t doubt for one second that it would happen,” said Randy Ponzio, who is from El Paso, Texas, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez. “The drug cartels hold a lot of power.”

Much of the region is desert and rugged mountain terrain, making it difficult to even monitor the cartels’ activities, much less counter them.

“When you’re fighting an enemy you can’t see and you don’t know where they are, how are you going to fight against that?” Ponzio asked.

El Paso cited as possible target
New fears are rolling across the region, stemming from recent indications by cartel leaders that they are prepared to extend their war across the border, most likely into Texas and Arizona.

Ciudad Juarez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz is a particular target. Earlier this year, drug lords killed six Ciudad Juarez police officers and threatened to continue killing one every 48 hours until Reyes removed Police Chief Roberto Orduña Cruz, an anti-cartel crusader, from his job.

Orduña resigned last month, but that was not enough. Presumably emboldened by their success, drug lords posted new signs threatening Reyes’ life if he did not abandon his fight against the cartels.

Reyes took the threats seriously. He is rumored to have moved his family to El Paso, seeking U.S. protection. El Paso Mayor John Cook promised that the city would take whatever measures were needed to protect Reyes’ family, but the cartel behind the threat said that would make no difference.

“Reyes Ferriz you made a good decision to let go of the pig, but if you continue to support those pigs and helping those people (you know who we’re talking about) we will not ask you to resign,” said signs posted in the city. “We will cut off your head along with your family even if they are in El Paso, Texas.”

U.S. and Mexican officials have called Ciudad Juarez a city in chaos. In recent weeks, Calderón has sent in more than 5,000 army troops to take over the city’s police and jails, with 1,400 more on the way in the coming weeks.

‘Entire country of Mexico’ destabilized
The violence has put an enormous strain on Calderon’s government, which has dedicated itself to wiping out the cartels. Some in the U.S. government have made it clear that while they wish Calderon well, they are not confident that he can succeed.

In November, the Defense Department’s Joint Forces Command named Mexico as one of two countries, along with Pakistan, at the highest risk of “rapid collapse.” Such a collapse, it said, “would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.”

Meanwhile, just before he left office in January, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden said that Mexico was second only to Iran as a national threat to U.S. security.

And last month, the State Department warned college students on spring break and other U.S. tourists to avoid the region entirely for their own safety.

“The Mexican people are paying a very high price because drug-fueled organized crime groups are killing each other and they are being confronted by the Mexican law enforcement authorities,” said David T. Johnson, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. “There is significant violence that’s resulting from that.”

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, welcomed renewed U.S. attention to the Mexican drug war, saying it was “now a matter of national security.”

“You know it’s not a safe place, but [U.S. authorities] are trying to do as much we can,” Cuellar said.

But that assessment is challenged by Gary “Rusty” Fleming, who spent three years investigating the cartels for his book “Drug Wars: Narco Warfare in the 21st Century.”

“In the last couple of years, the cartels have destabilized social order within the entire country of Mexico,” said Fleming, who said cartel leaders felt so secure in their control they gave him access and cooperated with his reporting.

“I have been screaming at the top of my lungs to anyone who would listen to me for well over a year that this was coming,” Fleming said last week in an interview with MSNBC TV. “Why just now the federal government is getting a hold of this and doing something about it — I don’t have that answer.”

Texas pleads for U.S. troops
Now, to hear Texas Gov. Rick Perry tell it, U.S. resources are being focused too much on Mexico and not enough on Americans on this side of the border.

Last month, Perry called on the Department of Homeland Security to send 1,000 troops to the U.S. side of the border. Complaining that the federal government had not done enough to protect Americans in the border region, Perry dismissed potential constitutional concerns about assigning active-duty U.S. personnel to military operations inside the United States, saying bluntly, “I really don’t care.”

Similar fears are taking root in Arizona, where law-enforcement officials last month urged the Legislature to dedicate more state resources to protecting communities in the border region. The Mexican city of Sonora, they said, was emerging as a central battleground just across the border.

“This is organized crime,” Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard testified before a state Senate panel. “The enemy we are combating is extremely well organized, extremely disciplined and extremely well trained.”

Nor is the threat merely regional. The National Drug Intelligence Center lists 230 U.S. cities in 45 states where the drug trade is controlled by Mexican cartels.

Many are concentrated along the Mexican border, of course: 30 in Texas, 27 in California and nine in Arizona, for example.

But the center also lists 22 cities in Washington state and five in Idaho. With their long unprotected northern border, the states are a prime gateway for cartel-affiliated drug smugglers into Western Canada.

Twelve cities in North and South Carolina, where large Latino immigrant populations fuel the states’ textile industries, are on the list. So are eight in Ohio.

In Alabama, which has six cities on the list, Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry said investigators believed that the torture-murders in August of five men in Birmingham were linked to Mexican-controlled drug operations.

“It was clear to me that I was not fishing in a Shelby County pond,” Curry said.

The list even includes three cities in Hawaii and one in Alaska.

“The fact that they have taken over the drug trade in North America is one thing, but what they have done is they are proliferating throughout the United States,” said Fleming, the author of “Drug Wars.”

“You can look at the drug problem, and that’s one facet of it,” he said. “But when you start having narcoterrorists operating on U.S. soil with the abilities that these organizations have, you have now instituted a tremendous threat to the national security structure of our country.”

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