Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Invasion of Mexico

Now that I have your attention . . .

(1) I do not favor the invasion of Mexico under the present circumstances or any that are likely to obtain in the next several years, at least.

(2) I like Mexico. I like and admire Mexicans and am very much attracted to Mexican-American culture (art, architecture, chow). I have great empathy for people who leave their native land and language at great risk to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones. I am hopeful that Americans can find a reasonable and fair way to solve the problems caused by illegal immigration and the illegals who are already here. I am not heartset against some form of legalization as part of a stern program to regulate our border, which may or may not include a English language requirement, a physical impediment to crossing, and a constitutional redefinition of citizenship. I’m open.

(3) You will not read anything in this article critical of President Obama. The problem to be considered here is not one for which he is responsible, and one he has only marginally worsened. (Oops.) Nor will this post express any views on Arizona's initiatives or those of some of its law enforcement officers.

Sunset on the Rio Grande

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, consider:

What should be the United States' response to the appearance of one or more hostile and aggressive Mexican states on its border?

I'm talking about drug crime. I’m talking about bordering Mexican political subdivisions effectively controlled by criminals whose explicit aim (and present activity) is the invasion of the United States – controlled, that is, by terrorists.

The slaughter in Mexico is horrific and escalating. The speculation surrounding the recent discovery of mass graves is that the victims were hopeful emigrants who refused to join the cartels' program of drug importation into the United States. But if the murder of Mexican citizens on Mexican soil were the only problem, the United States could have little to say about it.

Your Cool Hot Center's concern is the effective control of one or more of those Mexican states – Baja California Norte, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon (barely), and Tamaulipas, west to east -- by drug cartels. Unlike organized crime in the United States, the cartels kill and threaten local law enforcement officials and unfriendly politicians without fear of retribution. Corruption in local police departments and the army is rampant. Officers frequently switch sides and serve to enforce the cartels' control. Elections -- hard to believe the drug lords do not have a voice there as well. The cartels operate their own armies that are well-armed, disciplined, and vicious.  They already control large portions of the Mexican countryside.

I do not know what Mexico or its states are doing to combat the cartels. I believe it is safe to say it is not working.

So:  If it is not already here, the day may soon be upon us when the United States is bordered by Mexican states that are directly or effectively controlled by terrorist organizations against which the Mexican national government is impotent. The terror they practice is aimed at the uninterrupted flow of illegal drugs into the United States.  The national border will not inhibit their inclination to corrupt political subdivisions within the U.S. itself, and it is beyond doubt that they will import their more violent techniques along with the drugs. Hell, they already do so.

The threat is explicitly terroristic. It is not conventional crime, although abetted by murder, torture, and kidnapping. It extends beyond the immediate violence needed to maintain control (and to compete effectively with other cartels) to the sustaining of the American urban ghetto, whose hopelessness and resistance to change is fueled by drugs forced across our borders by the cartels.  It extends to the ruin of lives up and down the American social scale.

So ask yourself: In terms of the death they deal and continue to threaten, their political threat to America, and the effectiveness of their organizations in this quadrant of the globe, how would you rank: (a) al-Qaeda, and (b) Mexican drug cartels?  If you had to think about it, add this parameter:  Choice (b) operate at the largely unprotected border with the United States, and threaten to control the bordering states.

I do not minimize the of Islamist extremism here or worldwide. It is substantial and must be fought. I do feel that the immediate threat to the U.S. mainland represented by al-Qaeda since 9/11 has shown itself to be, in general, spasmodic, amateurish, and so far rather easily deflected. I merely suggest that an explicitly hostile political subdivision on our border engaged in active importation of crime to the United States, enforced by paramilitias, can scarcely be regarded as a lesser threat than an international conspiracy headquartered in the Middle East.  The cartels are effective, successful, and operate actively 24/7 against the United States. The cartels and the drugs they supply have been responsible for the deaths of many more American civilians than al-Qaeda, even counting 9/11, as well as for the massive societal cancers already mentioned.  We felt that the al-Qaeda threat in 2001 justified a massive invasion on the other side of the world. (Come on now, most of us, me included, applauded and continue to applaud the routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, if not its admittedly more questionable extension into Iran.)   And speaking of al-Qaeda, what ideological principle would prevent an alliance between it and the cartels? 

And consider our continued ostracism of poor old ruined Cuba, 90 miles away, nowhere near the threat to the U.S. of the drug cartels.

How, then, should the United States respond to a hostile terrorist regime established directly on its border?

A guerrilla war fought by U.S. troops on Mexican soil -- probably at least partly in municipalities -- is unthinkable. U.S. public opinion; world opinion; nominally friendly U.S.-Mexico relations; the explosion in Mexican refugees; the threat to U.S. border residents; the impossibility of judging success and the resultant strong possibility of failure should the cartels simply retreat into the vastness of Mexico. This wouldn't be Black Jack Pershing commanding the 1916-17 Punitive Expedition into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa and his militia (who actually did attack Columbus, New Mexico; The Punitive Expedition, incidentally, failed). (Fun fact: During this period, approximately 140,000 U.S Army and National Guard troops patrolled the Mexican border.) The mind reels.

John J. Pershing and Pancho Villa in less fractious times, two years before the Punitive Expedition

I'd be interested, however, in other possibilities:

(1) Surgical air strikes, in and out. The targets would be drug-lord compounds and any identifiable locations of cartel militias. Cartels gots airplanes, but are bomber- and fighter-deficient. Probably not a lot of sophisticated anti-aircraft hardware. Any incursion of this type would require a widespread recognition of the threat among U.S. citizens nationwide, superb intelligence, and exquisitely nuanced diplomacy with Mexico, if not its government’s explicit endorsement and cooperation.

(2) Joint U.S.-Mexican military operations.

What about escalation and retaliation? Hey, I don't have all the answers. (None, in fact.) One can foresee, however, that even precision attacks aimed solely at drug operations and operators would devastate the Mexican tourism industry to the extent it relies on American travelers. And, of course, there are large numbers of Americans working and living in Mexico – not to mention American assets generally – that would be at a severely heightened risk.

Don’t care for a solution that includes military operations in Mexico? Can’t blame you.   But what should we do?  How have solutions worked for the last 50 years as this threat has grown? I’m not under any illusions that treating the drug cartels as a terrorist political threat to be dealt with militarily and diplomatically rather than as an unusually nasty organized criminal enterprise will end that threat. But somewhere along the line, surely this powerful nation will have to convey the message that a sustained attack by a secret or not-so-secret government on its borders is unacceptable. It might – and if anyone asks, you didn’t hear it from me – require us to take actions that would cause other countries to criticize us.

Can Mexico do a better job of fighting this threat within its borders? I’ve considered whether Italy, a country with which Mexico shares a strong Roman Catholic tradition of public morality, might be a useful model for our neighbor. Italy is still shot through with numerous organized crime families, but there is some feeling that the tide is turning there. Progress has come at the price of the assassination of fearless prosecutors like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, both murdered at the order of now-imprisoned boss Salvatore "Toto" Riina. Public disgust at the authorities' corruption and inaction led to a massive crackdown, the positive results of which continue to date. A difference, of course, would be that the cartels do not share Italian organized crime's (admittedly selective) concept of "honor," which may somewhat limit the mafiosi’s willingness to slaughter civilians in large numbers. The unarmed Mexican populace is understandably cowed in a way that Italian citizens apparently are not. Still, if Mexico is to suppress what amounts to a criminal insurrection in large parts of the countryside – it cannot eradicate it, just as we have not eradicated organized crime in the U.S. – it must start with incorruptible and brave political and military leaders, legislators, prosecutors, judges, and juries. And I would think the Church might offer a few words in support.

The late Giovanni Falcone; Salvatore Riina

On our side of the Rio Grande, we must deal with the demand side -- America's hunger for illegal drugs. I have seen it written that the thing the drug lords fear the most is legalization. (The link goes to an article discussing legalization in Mexico, not the United States. The writer, Johann Hari, believes that Mexican legalization would put an end to the cartels, but does not consider how it would affect export to the United States.)  It is hard to imagine that this would be an acceptable solution in the U.S. I don't know the percentages of cartel profits accounted for by marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth, and other chemicals. While the legalization of marijuana is a subject of debate here, legalization of the others is not.

That leaves enforcement and border patrols and fences and tough sheriffs and Arizona legislation and flaccid national political leadership for the past half century and here, gentle Centrists, I must leave you. I’ll throw this out: I ponder whether the current policy of prosecuting from the top down -- getting casual users and freshman criminals to give up the higher-ups -- is going about it wrong. If we start jailing more severely and imposing jumbo fines for even small-quantity possession and party use (and fining parents and legal guardians when Colin and Emily get busted with blow after prom) and putting the brakes on plea bargaining, I wonder whether we might see a withering of that demand and greater difficulty of the cartels in recruiting the foot soldiers in the drug invasion. (Might have to build a few dozen more prisons – Infrastructure! Jobs!)  Legislation more vigorously regulating the massive flow of legally-purchased U.S. arms to Mexico would also seem to be in order.  Don't forget all those little airfields that should immediately come under stricter federal control, and new ones forbidden.  And, of course, there's the border itself. If that isn't a national identifier worthy of federal military protection, then nothing is.

Perhaps the invasion of Mexico starts at home.

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  1. Steve, another interest to me, from a defense/battlefield perspective would be the terrain. While I do see some similarities in mexico between the Afghan mountains and Iraqi desert, I believe due to proximity and geographic knowledge our warfighters success rate would be much improved. On another note, check out the below article. I read this last year in a Detail magazine. Just goes to show that there are some extreme issues just down the road on I-35.

  2. Michael, thanks for the comment and I'll check out the article. My concern would be that cartel militias would be less concentrated, less "army-like," than Afghan Taliban fighters. I'm not at all sure what we'd attack. You wouldn't want the thing to turn into an urban guerilla war. I think it would depend critically on the intelligence and cooperation received from the Mexican military. Thanks again.

  3. Interesting and, of course, provocative. Did you see the WSJ article Friday (or Saturday) about the business center of Mexico, Monterrey, being virtually under the control of the drug gangs? Local leaders and expats alike are fleeing the drug war terror. The nightmare scenario is about to become real.

  4. John: Didn't see it but thanks for calling it to my attention. Another correspondent said that Hillary Clinton was doing some sabre-rattling the day after my article appeared. The Cool Hot Center -- on the vanguard of informed international commentary. Seriously, Mexico should be a big, big diplomatic and, in my judgment, military concern to the US.

  5. Steve, this WP report on a US border guard caught working for a Mexican drug cartel is a sobering reinforcement of your point:

    Policy heads need to anticipate that this form of terrorist organization can purchase support in the US - border guards, teenage hitmen (see Michael's post above) - in ways different from Al Qaeda and more like Soviet recruitment techniques. Also, your analogy to Mafia in Italy is on point, in light of the potential for a $25B drug business to corrupt both lower level and potentially higher level officials.

  6. Steve, I myself am a former US Marine and veteran of the Iraq war. I fully believe right now as I type this blog the US government is planning a pre emptive strike into Mexico. I believe the killing of the ICE agent Zapata is the first of many agents who will be killed there. The US government will continue to use these men as guinea pigs as secondary reasons for the attack. The primary reasons are obvious. Its no secret that the United States historically has attacked many other countries for less. "Michael" suggested that Mexican terrain is similar to Iraq and the Afghan's, but he is dead wrong. I am very familiar with the terrain of mexico and it is not similar. The cartels would have no way of hiding in the woods. US drones and AIR Force would instantly hone in using body heat infrared instruments and they would be sitting ducks. Their best option would be to retreat into the major cities where anti cartel citizens would be lets just say more than happy to assist the US MARINES , Army, CIA, and every special forces soldier available. I would go as far as saying they would take arms themselves and provide all the necessary intel we needed. The US government would assist the highest levels of the Mexican government in rooting out, then prosecuting corrupt officials. Not only do I think an invasion is possible, but more like imminent. Im all for it, as I am married to a mexican national and deeply care for family. That may sound like a contradiction considering our history of what we call "collateral" damage, but anyone who shares blood with my wife would be safely brought to the US way before the attack. Your thoughts......

  7. Interesting, Matt. I certainly agree that any military action would result in the cartels taking refuge in the cities among the citizenry, much as guerillas have done in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. As far as the locals taking up arms -- they'd probably like to, but where would they get them? I fear that the cartels are just too well-armed, strong, and ruthless to really face much of a threat from civilians. They haven't so far.

    I'm doubtful that an invasion is imminent. The political issues are just too difficult. Mexico is a sovereign country and an attack across our border into Mexico would require coordination at the highest political and military levels. As much as I'd like to see direct military action against the cartels, the political will is lacking in the US, and that extends across the political spectrum.

    Thanks for checking in.

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