This is a source for analysis, interviews, and commentary on security in Latin America. Herein you will find rumors, the results of off the record interviews, and information you'll not find in international or United States news media.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A drop in the Bucket

Between 16 and 17 September, the Drug Enforcement Administration closed out Project Reckoning, a multi-layered operation focused on the activities of Mexican organized crime inside the United States and Europe. The 15 month investigation, focusing on the Gulf Cartel, culminated in the arrest of some 500 individuals in the US and Italy.

In addition, the DEA seized a large quantity of drugs and money. Their press release reads: “Project Reckoning has resulted in…the seizure of approximately $60.1 million in U.S. currency, 16,711 kilograms of cocaine, 1,039 pounds of methamphetamine, 19 pounds of heroin, 51,258 pounds of marijuana, 176 vehicles and 167 weapons.”

At a glance, this operation was a resounding success. The DEA’s mission has always been to focus on the big fish, the major players in drug trafficking, and by investigating the upper echelons of the Gulf Cartel’s operations in the United States, focusing on Atlanta, it had led a multi-agency effort to dismantle an important faction inside a major criminal network.

It is an impressive conclusion to a long investigation, and perhaps even a good start. But it is still only a drop in the bucket.

Not long ago, in early August, five Mexican nationals were found with their throats cut in an apartment complex in Birmingham, Alabama. Local police responded in force. But it is likely they were too late to catch the perpetrators, who were miles away, en route to Mexico before the first 911 call was even made.

This incident reminded us of the shoot out that occurred in Phoenix, Arizona on 22 June when organized criminal, dressed like Phoenix Police Department SWAT, entered the house of local drug traffickers and killed everyone inside before leaving the scene and fleeing back to Mexico.

Texan teens were recruited by members of Los Zetas to conduct assassinations in the Laredo area in 2006. The recruiters purposely targeted minors who were US citizens for the grisly work. For the duration of one year there were at least three cells of minor assassins operating across Texas.

These are just three examples of how the tentacles of Mexican organized crime have begun to stretch into and across the United States. Continuing demand for methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin and other drugs ensure a constant flow of drug supply north. And as Mexican organized crime consolidates control of all levels and layers of the drug trade in the United States, down to the wholesale level, the need to protect turf will extend north from the border into American cities as far north as Seattle and New York.

As the Merida Initiative indicates, the front line of the so-called drug war has moved north from Colombia to Mexico. But what Project Reckoning exemplifies is the fact that this front line will not stop at the US-Mexico border. It will continue north into American cities, towns, neighborhoods, and the suburbs of small cities like Birmingham, a place most people would consider safe and a fair distance from the blood bath constantly splayed across Mexican press.

For many years now, the argument against a supply-side approach to reducing the amount of drugs flowing into the United States has fallen on deaf ears, Republican and Democratic alike. And when the DEA most needs funding and support to dismantle large smuggling operations, the organization has seen significant budget constraints and a forced hiring freeze in 2007 and part of 2008, while the Department of Homeland Security, perhaps one of the best examples of bureaucratic failure in the past decade, has seen a constant budget boost.

The result is an increase in the number of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents organizing the deportation of immigrant criminals who are back within the week, often bringing others with them. There are many examples that suggest deportation feeds a cycle of violence between the US and Central America, with Mexico in the middle.

The encroaching presence of Mexican organized crime inside the United States is inexorably tied to immigration because both challenges have everything to do with the US-Mexican border. In as much as Mexico is unable to provide security incentives to stay home and contain its own organized crime problem, Americans will continue to watch as violence directly linked to the drug trade migrates from foreign press, to national news, to local reports.

The border cannot be plugged, and deportation is not an answer. The most direct route to improving this situation is by focusing on assisting the Mexican government with a security problem it clearly cannot handle. The Merida Initiative is a start, but when the total aid for three years, some US$1.5 billion, is compared with the annual earnings of Mexican organized crime, estimated between US$15 and 40 billion, one begins to see how much more help is required. It is best sourced from international partners, and if Mexico continues to suffer, the United States will continue to be the first in line to feel the effect.

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