‘The Most Important National Security Issue Facing America, With the Least Amount of Attention’

“The cartels are now engaged in activities that make control over territory and local authorities a business imperative. Politicians and policemen are reluctant to stand up to them or are in their pockets. That helps explain why the Catholic Church stepped in to end the violence here. And Chilpancingo is the seat of the regional government, on the surface at least with the evident trappings of state authority. In the more remote hills around here and down to the Pacific coast around Acapulco, there are places run fully by the cartels. In nine municipalities they pick the mayor and police chiefs, according to a local security consultant who, out of fear for his safety, insisted we not use his name. Resistance is dangerous. Two years ago, in San Miguel Totolapan, the mayor and 20 other people were gunned down at his house and the town hall after defying a local cartel.

“The gangs love territorial control,” says Eduardo Guerrero, a former senior government security official who runs a consulting business. “You can do many kinds of business once you control territory. They seek political support. They intervene in elections aggressively. At the local level, we are losing sovereignty.””

“Mexico’s criminal networks and their ability to whittle away at state power here present a national security threat to both Mexico and the U.S. These groups are growing in sophistication, corrupting state institutions and people, arming up and seeping into communities on both sides of the border. They pose a challenge to Mexico’s still fledgling democracy, at the federal level just 24 years old, and hence the stability of America’s southern neighbor. They have enabled a record number of migrants, mostly from other countries, to get north through Mexico. They’re responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in both countries. Some 26per 100,000 people are killed in Mexico every year, the highest homicide rate among the world’s larger countries. Fentanyl, recently the most lucrative drugthat the Mexican criminal groups traffic into the U.S., is responsible for the deaths of some 70,000 Americans every year.

Seen through the prism of violence there and its impact on the U.S., Mexico is the rich Afghanistan next door, a place where the central authorities have lost control over key territory to armed groups. Imagine if al Qaeda were killing that many Americans? “It may be the most important national security issue facing America, with the least amount of attention,” says Hank Crumpton, who ran the CIA’s covert operations in Afghanistan after 9/11 and works in security out of Texas. “I think of [the cartels] as enemies that exhibit in structure and behavior the same characteristics of terrorist networks and of an insurgency.”

Mexico’s narco-state problem matters for larger strategic reasons. Security is the biggest hurdle to Mexico fully becoming part of North America in more than a geographic sense — an economic and demographic engine for the region, and a strong and stable American ally in the global competition against China.

This more hopeful vision of Mexico can give you whiplash. The country is a daily contradiction. But put aside preconceptions and look even more closely at Mexico. The last couple decades have brought stunning violence — and stunning economic gains.”

“If there was an easy solution, it would’ve been tried by now. The security expert Eduardo Guerrero, like some other experts on both sides of the border, says the Mexican authorities alone can’t handle the challenge from the cartels. “If we don’t stop them they will take over several key Mexican states at this rate,” he says. “We need help. We aren’t able to control these groups alone.”

Some polls in Mexico show support for U.S. help, including even the deployment of troops, which won’t be politically workable with the current government.Itscritics are trying to nudge the option on the table.

What’s indisputable is that this isn’t only the Mexicans’ problem.”


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