LOS ANGELES, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- Behind the headlines about kidnappings, assassinations and shootouts, the escalating conflict in Mexico between drug cartels, gangs and the police is evolving into a kind of criminal insurgency.
Vying for domination of the lucrative drug trade, the cartels are seeking both market control and freedom from government interference. Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and other border towns are racked with violence. Mexico City itself is not immune. Corruption joins the extreme violence and helps fuel Mexico's downward spiral.
Drug murders in Mexico have more than doubled this year to nearly 5,400, with 943 occurring in November alone. On Nov. 30 nine decapitated victims of the drug wars were discovered in Tijuana. Within the past few weeks, Mexican "drug czar" Noe Ramirez Mandujano was accused of taking $450,000 in bribes from Sinaloa's Pacific cartel. Five hundred municipal police in Tijuana were replaced because of fears that they were corrupt. Mexico's liaison to Interpol, Ricardo Gutierrez Vargas, was arrested under suspicion of leaking information from criminal intelligence databases to the cartels. A newspaper office in Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital, was also attacked with grenades.
Mexico is under siege by a set of interlocking, networked criminal insurgencies.
The drug mafias have abandoned subtle co-option of the government to embrace active violence to secure safe havens to ply their trade. This de facto "criminal insurgency" threatens the stability of the Mexican state and already has started to reverberate north of the Rio Grande. The Los Angeles Times reported penetration of Mexican cartels into at least 195 U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Seattle and Honolulu -- not to mention Los Angeles.
Not satisfied with their feudal outposts in the Mexican interior and along the U.S.-Mexico frontier, the cartels are also starting to migrate southward. From Central America to the Southern Cone, they are setting up business as far away as Argentina and across the South Atlantic to Africa. Money fuels global expansion, and transnational organized crime has learned it can thrive in the face of governmental crisis.
The cartels are joined by a variety of gangs in the quest to dominate the global criminal opportunity space. Third-generation gangs -- that is, gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) that have transcended operating on localized turf with a simple market focus to operate across borders and challenge political structures -- are both partners and foot soldiers for the dominant cartels. Gangs and cartels seek profit and are not driven by ideology. But the ungoverned, lawless zones they leave in their wake provide fertile ground for extremists and terrorists to exploit.
Concrete steps are under way to contain Mexico's criminal insurgencies, but more needs to be done to stem the cross-border onslaught. The Merida Initiative -- a $400 million U.S. aid package to Mexico -- is a good first step. It enhances information sharing and promotes efforts to build effective civil police. But too much emphasis (41 percent of the funds) is directed to technology solutions. More concern must be placed on human and social dimensions.
Other Merida efforts soon will be implemented. To enhance effectiveness, five elements must be prioritized. First, rout out corruption. Next, accelerate reforms in policing and enhance cross-border police training. Build new avenues for cross-border information exchange and cooperation, and, finally, support community-based initiatives for economic development and human services. Together, these efforts can help build government legitimacy and assist communities themselves to resist cartel penetration and gang domination.
Mexico obviously must take the lead in securing its internal security, and President Felipe Calderon has taken concrete steps to do so. Yet Mexico cannot go it alone. The reach of transnational narco-cartels and gangs has global consequences. U.S. border states can and should play a role.
The Border Governors Conference/Conferencia de Gobernadores Fronterizos is an ideal forum for building cross-border security cooperation. Comprising the governors and their staff from all 10 (four U.S., six Mexican) border states, it meets annually to address cross-border issues, including border security. Genuine cross-border police cooperation is a natural extension of their work.
Globalization of economic processes has empowered a new class of transnational criminal actor, including terrorists, organized crime and gangs. These "global criminals" fuel conflict and stimulate a new security environment -- an environment in which non-state actors threaten global stability and policing, and law enforcement must become an instrument of national power.
Despite an exponential surge in violence, the situation south of the border remains largely obscure to the American public. The cross-border cartel-gang nexus must become part of our own national security debate.
(John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He is currently a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department assigned to the Emergency Operations Bureau with responsibility for tactical planning. He is a senior research fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism, co-editor of "Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network" (Routledge, 2006) and a frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal.
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)