Thursday, February 26, 2009

Trouble Along The Border

Last weekend we had some neighbors over for dinner. One neighbor works in the Fed's Homeland Security department. Halfway through the evening he snuck out to his house and returned saying "I just checked my email and something big is going on along the Mexican border". He's always a little mysterious about what his role is in the department. He basically said that the drug war has hit a "new level". He stated that we now have three drones flying along the border and that our troop level has increased significantly. The article below just appeared in USA Today.

Mexican drug gangs wage war
By Chris Hawley, USA TODAY
Prosecutors say they are still trying to determine whether Munoz's son was an innocent bystander, or involved with the gangs. Either way, Munoz attributes his death to the unprecedented combination of drug-related violence and economic misery that is ravaging northern Mexico — and showing signs of spreading into the United States. "He never caused any trouble for anybody. But in this town, you never know who's going to decide you're a problem," Munoz said. "This is a town without laws."
That's literally true — the entire police force of Villa Ahumada, a community of 10,000 people 80 miles south of El Paso, deserted its posts last May after drug gangs executed the police chief and two officers. The crime wave, plus the crippling recession that has rippled here from the U.S., has caused the town's export factories — possibly the only source of reputable, steady employment — to slash production. "It's just one thing after another," says Villa Ahumada's mayor, Fidel Chavez. "First the economy, and now this."

The story is similar across much of Mexico's 2,000-mile-long northern border: a wave of beheadings, grenade attacks and shootouts as drug cartels battle each other for supremacy and lash out against Mexican President Felipe Calderon's drive to destroy their smuggling operations. The death toll from drug-related violence in Mexico last year surpassed 6,000, more than double the previous year, raising questions about whether Calderon's government can prevail against a brutal and often better-armed enemy without additional help from the U.S. government.

"People are scared and they have reason to be," says Michael Shifter, a Latin America specialist at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "The economic crisis is just going to aggravate the situation. It's very hard to imagine how things will get better in the short term." That's bad news in broad swaths of the United States, where Mexican drug gangs have extended their operations to at least 230 cities from Texas to Alaska, according to a recent Justice Department report. Police in Atlanta and Phoenix, both major drug transit points, have blamed a wave of kidnappings on the spreading turf war among the cartels. Drug-related violence has become ever more brazen and frequent, including a rise in attacks on Border Patrol agents.

In both Mexico and the United States, most of the victims have been linked to the cartels. Nevertheless, several travel agencies, colleges (including the nearby University of Texas-El Paso) and even the U.S. military have discouraged travel to Mexico's border areas as spring break approaches — resulting in a loss of crucial tourism dollars that could make the Mexican economic crisis even worse.

More than 329,000 jobs have been lost in Mexico since June, the government says; that translates to as many as 30% of Mexican adults who are now unable to find full-time work. Rene Jimenez Ornelas, an expert on crime at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is among those who believe that unemployment could push more Mexicans into the ranks of the narcos. The gangster lifestyle has been glamorized by television shows and songs called narcocorridos, and it is a powerful temptation for many youths.

"What organized crime mostly has on the front lines are people who need to eat," Jimenez Ornelas said. So the cartels "have an 'army' available — not all of them, of course, but enough to have a good-sized force at their service."

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