Why is Mexico drug war being ignored?
October 30th, 2012
07:04 PM ET

Why is Mexico drug war being ignored?

By Ted Galen Carpenter, Special to CNN

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books on international affairs, including the just released The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America. The views expressed are his own.

A striking feature of the presidential debate on foreign policy was the total lack of attention given to Latin America –notably the drug violence wracking our next door neighbor, Mexico. Nearly 60,000 people have perished since 2006 in the Mexican government’s military-led offensive against the country’s powerful, ruthless drug cartels. But while President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both obsessed about the Middle East, they virtually ignored Washington’s relations with our southern neighbors. After a brief observation from Romney near the start of the debate that the region offered important – and neglected – economic opportunities for the United States, both candidates quickly abandoned the Western Hemisphere.

That was extraordinarily myopic. Given its geographic proximity, historical ties, and mounting importance as an arena for trade and investment, Latin America should be high on Washington’s diplomatic and economic agenda. And near the top of the national security agenda should be the alarming developments involving the drug violence in Mexico.

Killings continue to rise, and hardly a week passes without a new report of grisly acts south of the border. Portions of several key cities, especially Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey, are now virtual war zones. The Mexican government’s control is becoming precarious in major swaths of territory, including the crucial northern states of Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, and Tamaulipas. Several of the cartels, especially the Sinaloa cartel and the ultra-violent Zetas, pose a threat to the integrity of the Mexican state.

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Equally troubling, the turmoil in Mexico is spreading to Central America and beginning to seep over the border into the United States. One would think that such a national security problem would merit some attention from the incumbent president and the man who aims to replace him.

Indeed, Mexican opinion leaders were justifiably miffed at the failure to address the drug war. Prominent journalist Leon Krauss’s widely circulated tweet summarized the frustration. “Mexico, facing 100,000 deaths, neighbor to the United States, didn’t deserve a single mention tonight. A disgrace.”

Mexico’s problems with the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas are now plaguing the countries of Central America. According to Leonel Ruíz, Guatemala’s federal prosecutor for narcotics offenses, the Zetas had gained control of nearly half of Guatemala’s territory. Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica, suggest the figure is about 40 percent.

The cartels’ penetration of Honduras and El Salvador has also reached the point that in significant portions of those countries governmental control is eroding or already nonexistent. El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, admits that the Zetas successfully bribe elite police units with $5,000 monthly payments to cooperate with the cartel and to steal high-powered weapons and grenades from the military. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo argues that in his country, drug gang members now outnumber police officers and soldiers.

Even Costa Rica, long an enclave of democracy and stability in the region, has come under growing pressure. The drug trade there is more prominent than ever before, and the Obama administration for the first time put that country on the official list of “major drug transit or major drug-producing countries.”

Most importantly, Mexico’s troubles are also beginning to afflict the United States. According to law enforcement authorities, Mexican drug organizations now have ties to criminal gangs in at least 230 American cities, including all of the 50 largest cities. The cartels’ presence now even extends to relatively small cities and, in some cases, to rural counties – and not just in the southwestern states, but portions of the South, the Midwest, and other regions.

People in impoverished Mexican-American communities along the border are feeling the menace of drug cartel enforcers. As Associated Press correspondent Paul Weber reported from Fort Hancock, Texas: “When black SUVs trail school buses around here, no one dismisses it as routine traffic. And, as I've noted before, when three tough-looking Mexican men pace around the high school gym during a basketball game, no one assumes they’re just fans…Mexican families fleeing the violence have moved here or just sent their children, and authorities and residents says gangsters have followed them across the Rio Grande” in a campaign of intimidation.

Even Anglo populations along the border are becoming nervous. Complaints are surging from ranchers in the borderlands of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas that intruders use their properties with impunity as routes to enter the United States. And the level of fear is rising as more and more of the uninvited seem to be involved in drug smuggling rather than being ordinary people looking for work and better lives in the United States.

While Romney and Obama obsess about Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and virtually every development in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, we have a significant security problem brewing much closer to home. Yet that issue did not merit even a single sentence in a presidential debate supposedly devoted to foreign policy. That is a classic case of blind spots and misplaced priorities. But the candidate elected president on November 6 will not have the luxury of ignoring the drug violence on our southern border.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Drugs • Latin America • Mexico • United States

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soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. J100409

    It's simple, neither candidate wants to address the general failure of the war on drugs, so neither candidate wants to address its effects.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  2. a slozomby

    i still love the fact that in mexico the cops are the ones that wear masks.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  3. trina

    While it seems logical to legalize drugs, politically I don't see that happening. I am adamantly for the legalization of ALL drugs, but if I live another 60 yrs, I know that this will not happen. It is highly hipocritical to allow unlimited acccess to alcohol, which is so much more potently dangerous than herbs such as marijuana (which by the way, no one has ever died from smoking weed). But let's get real here..we have American sheriffs, cops, troopers, lawyers, judges, ICE agents, prison guards, CIA, DEA, etc who actually work for the cartels here in the USA. It ought to be a crime to lock people up for smoking weed, or even growing it. The violence will get much worse here and I am so disgusted and aghast that these issues were not even brought up in the debates. Our leaders are a joke, and the people need to rise up and demand that they talk about issues so close to home. America is a country chock full of drug addicts. Central America is experiencing a bloodbath. We are so culpable and responsible, and continue to blame Mexico.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Good posting trina, except that I'm not for legalizing hard drugs like heroin, cocaine or LSD. These drugs are very harmful and have ended many young lives. We have but ourselves to blame for this drug problem that we now have. Like you said, our current leaders are a joke and I will vote for neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama who has been slaughtering people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen with those ungodly drones over the last four years!

      October 31, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  4. Joseph McCarthy

    The main reason this drug war is largely being ignored is simply the fact that there's little to be made off this war by Washington bureaucrats and the Pentagon. The M.I.C. is to busy making money off the Middle East and Central Asia to care much about Mexico.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Reply
    • blome11

      the war on drugs funds law enforcement the court systems and prisons .stop the war and that industry loses their justification to exist

      October 31, 2012 at 9:44 pm | Reply
    • CA Liberal

      Oh there is a lot of money in Drug Wars. Believe it. Underground untraceable money. Banks love it.

      November 1, 2012 at 2:54 am | Reply
  5. justsayn

    How dare Mexican drug suppliers meet the demand of American drug users.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
    • elbob248

      You mean, how dare the Mexican drug dealers take the lazy approach and blame drug users for their greed. People who want drugs can certainly obtain them without Mexico's "help".

      November 1, 2012 at 7:43 am | Reply
  6. Buck Mast

    the rich Republicans would then buy their drugs from the Socialist Democrats

    October 31, 2012 at 8:43 pm | Reply
  7. Ron

    Media ignoring Benghazi bombing?

    October 31, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Reply
    • Can't spell moron without "ron"


      November 1, 2012 at 1:24 am | Reply
      • Ron

        Well, there you go then. Viscous desperation and name calling and I'm supposed to be the moron? Aren't you transparent?

        November 1, 2012 at 6:29 am |
      • Mara

        FYI – 'viscous' doesn't mean what you think it means....

        November 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  8. matt

    We talk about the illegal immigration issue, but we fall far short on both sides of the argument. We vilify and lament the immigrants, but we remain completely ambivalent to a war that affects 100 times more people, and is the cause of all the immigration to begin with.

    What backroom theorists in the republican party thought it would be a good idea to invade Iraq and ignore a ground war going on every day on our southern border should be fired. And what democrats, who shaking down americans for votes, obsess around a million immigrants from Mexico while completely ignoring the humanitarian causes and the mexican people who have to deal with a life besieged don't deserve their party cards.

    We spend trillions on these wars...and the world decays around us for simple lack of attention. Not even money, not manpower or toil...just attention and care. We can argue all day about the existential necessity of preventing terrorist attacks, but the reality is that when it becomes so all-consuming as to cripple our economy and it keeps us from attending to the greater list of problems in the world, it's an unacceptable liability – and it needs to be reworked.

    November 1, 2012 at 1:09 am | Reply
    • Mara

      If Mexico wants to be free of drug cartels, all it takes if for her citizens to band together and decide that they won't accept it anymore. They won't though. Seems to me that the average Mexican doesn't find criminality as unacceptable as most do here. Whether its graft, illegal migration, fraud, descrimination, or whatever...they just seem to tolerate it. They, as a society, just don't have the stomach to stand up and call to account those amongst them who participate in the crime. They're waiting for someone else – (probably the US since we clean up all their other messes) – to do something about it.

      November 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
      • Cody

        That's nice rhetoric, but what are chances you would do that? If the drug cartels where in your city and destroyed your police force, fought the army to a standstill, and indiscriminately executed people in the street would you band together and fight them? No, I doubt any of us in this thread would we would run or cower just like they are.

        November 5, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  9. CA Liberal

    And what about the American Drug War????????????? End all Drug Wars!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    November 1, 2012 at 2:51 am | Reply
  10. remoteDef

    It's because the only solution to the problem is unmentionable by anyone seeking to have a political career: legalization.

    November 1, 2012 at 7:02 am | Reply
    • william

      It looks to me that more and more politicians have actually sprouted a pair and are doing exactly that.. calling for legalization. Look at Colorado, Washington State, and Oregon for a glimpse at our future.... 6 decades too late, but still.

      November 1, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
      • tacc2

        Those states are only considering legalization because of THE PEOPLE, not the politicians.

        November 2, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  11. Veracraints

    I particularly enjoyed how the author tried to present certain topics as new, such as Mexican gangs with ties in the US, or AZ and NM farmers concerned about drug runners using their lands as travel routes. None of this is new. Secondly, and I'm surprised or disappointed the author isn't talking about this, the reason the Zetas are moving into countries south of Mexico isn't because they're growing more powerful, it's becasue they're being squeezed by the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels. Have no doubt, with the PRI back in power all the "old" rules go back in place as well. The Zetas don't play by the rules and so they will be targeted by the federal police in Mexico and killings of Zetas will not be investigated by police, hence empowering the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels to "clean up." But, even more to the point of the article, why would either Obama or Romney talk about the drug war in/with Mexico and Latin America? From a political perspective, if they bring it up then it will either get spun into how they blaming Mexican and Latin Americans for everything, or not blaming them enough. Neither wants to lose votes so neither bring it up. Most of us understand that is politics 101, so to the author and his fellow "opinion leaders" in Mexico, please step up your rhetoric.

    November 1, 2012 at 9:10 am | Reply
  12. creative36

    This is funny to me.

    November 1, 2012 at 9:20 am | Reply
  13. creative36

    This is funny considering we have american troops guarding Poppy fields in Afganistan. A place where 70% of all the heroin on the planet comes from. USA gov. is silly.

    November 1, 2012 at 9:22 am | Reply
  14. fiftyfive55

    What war on drugs ???
    We can get all the illegal drugs we want,we can even get illegal aliens if we want.

    November 1, 2012 at 9:40 am | Reply
  15. lou

    yes the mexican drug war is being ignored because the most sensible option to help fight the cartels, which is pot legalization, is off the table also. You can't talk about one without mentioning the other

    November 1, 2012 at 9:59 am | Reply
  16. Cleeland

    legalize it all.. register people as users, provide them with cheap what ever it is they like....

    pull the rug out from under gangs and cartels.. reduce street violence, end gangs/cartels

    November 1, 2012 at 10:20 am | Reply
    • fiftyfive55

      how dare you be logical ! lol

      November 1, 2012 at 10:52 am | Reply
  17. Oddball

    correcto Frank 🙂 🙂 🙂

    November 1, 2012 at 11:21 am | Reply
    • Trying

      I applaud you for your faith – if what you were saying is true, your faith in God. People should learn not to judge what they do not understand. Rock on, bro!

      December 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Reply
  18. J.C.

    Mexico's drug war hasn't been ignored at all by the U.S. government. The ATF and justice department have actively taken the side of the drug cartels by arming them during the "too fast, too furious" operation.

    November 1, 2012 at 11:28 am | Reply
    • william

      Just unforgivable. The level of corruption involved id proven by the fact that nobody has been arrested for it. Mr. Holder? Mr. President? Time to do your jobs! End the useless "war on drugs" for the good of the country... OUR country!

      November 1, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  19. Rulas

    Its called supply and demand...as long as there is a demand for illegal drugs, there will be a supply. Legalize it! Tax it, make money out of it. Pot heads, will be pot heads, they will get it either legal or illegal.

    November 1, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Reply
  20. cacique

    They do not talk about it because neither has any adornments to display.
    It is true that the Mexican government by itself has done a terrific effort at containing the gross growth of organized crime and the national narco-deities that were on route to become the number-one power in the country. Crime families were not going to take it in the chin and they responded with vicious violence, no collateral damage was avoided and thousands of civilians died. Even during the world's worst economic crisis, the Mexican government continued to fight drug bosses who appeared to have been supplied with high caliber weapons from USA sellers. The fight raged on for years, whole towns lost any economic edge they had gained and many businesses folded, but it looks that the worst part is over and the country is starting to move forward and to gain its peace back.

    And none of that would be convenient for any of the condidates to mention, so why mentioning it...

    November 1, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  21. cacique

    Now, it will be incoming president Pena Nieto's job to continue the hard stance that Calderon took on the bunch of crooks. It will be very obvious to see that the PRI pick is selling out as an easy form to regain apparent control while just being an organized-crime puppet.
    I really hope he follows through and totally rids the country of those horrible leeches capable of bleeding the country to its bare bones...

    November 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  22. Mara

    I'm sick and tired of American politicians worrying more about the neighbors well-being than they do those who elected them. Frankly. I think it's Mexico's obligation to police themselves instead of always counting on the US to do it for them. Whether it's illegal drugs or illegal labor, it seems that everything that comes out of Mexico is tainted by criminality. That's just the way their society is. No sense in sinking anymore taxpayer money into trying to change them. And far past time for those elected to serve the AMERICAN citizen to actually start doing so. They could start by returning all the criminals Mexico's sent us over the years instead of bestowing legitimacy on them for being so very successful in their illegal enterprises.

    November 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  23. rob-in-austin

    repost: (sorry didn't mean to include this in a response)

    It's being ignored because both obama and romney need the drug war to generate revenue, propel the prison industrial complex and to protect special interest groups like Big Pharm, the Plastics and Cotton industries. man.

    November 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  24. rob-in-austin

    reclassify! decriminalize!

    November 1, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  25. J Staggs

    I can attest to the issues with drug violence along borders as I live in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The drug culture has a stranglehold on local law enforcement and politicians. We might as well be living in Mexico, as the local government is just as corrupt as the drug lords. I say build the damn border wall and staff snipers 24-7.

    November 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • Jorge

      You say that the Mexican drug trade has a stranglehold on local law enforcement and politicians in your town? How well do you think that keeping a hog away from the mud is going to do any good in turning the hog into a silk luggage set? So your saying that if someone's daughter is a s-l-u-t, the way for him to deal with it is to kill all her lovers????

      November 2, 2012 at 7:47 am | Reply
  26. hg

    No, Zakaria, you two-bit plagiarizer, that's Libya that's being ignored, along with the murders that could've been stopped by a president who chose not to do so.

    November 1, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  27. bozo

    Well, obviously too much money is being made off of it.. prisons need product, private prisons have lobbyists.. the dea can get more funding for it's bureaucracy, the banks can get more untraceable cash to launder and balance their books.. it's like politics, it's all about the money.. legalization is the only way, only lots of powerful interests don't want that to happen on both sides of the border.. not like w/ half a day's work you can buy any illegal drug you want.. just ask a teenager how hard it is..

    November 1, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  28. Rich

    Talking about the war on drugs without including the leading force for it is nonsense. Fingerpointing Mexico is the easy way out for the blame game players. Let's not forget the US's responsibility for initiating and sponsoring this war (among others).
    It looks like your knowledge about what is happening in Mexico can only be from security consulting companies and from newswires. I suggest journalists like you to get your feet dirty and visit the places you talk about. You will probably find a large group of people that transcends the niche war you, politicians, and fear mongering individuals keep on talking about. These majority of Mexican people are being punished not only by the bad guys paid by drug money (mostly from US citizens) and their prosecutors paid by the war on drugs money (mostly by US citizens), but to an equivalent degree by the sensationalist-rates driven media like you.
    I suggest you go back and read about the ethics of your profession and get serious about reporting like a professional. There are consequences to real people when you put the whole Mexico and Mexican people into a box and reinforce a steriotype just to sell news. In my view, your opinion is like crying fire in a movie theater.It is shameful to make this issue a political issue.
    I got it, it is the beggining of the high tourism season in Mexico... you have to make sure it will be another weak one. Is that your way of making a difference?

    Thank you for listening.

    November 1, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  29. william

    "Shameful to make this a political issue"? Well, how else can we get our government to pull it's head out of it's rear end regarding the abysmal failure of the so-called wr on drugs? End it, and gangs and cartels disappear, police corruption ends, huge numbers of prisons go out of business, we save billions of dollars a year, and otherwise law abiding Americans avoid jail and a criminal record. Not to mention the fact that marijuana is America's largest cash crop, and we could make hundreds of billions more by simply legalizing and taxing it. Time to pull those heads out!

    November 1, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Reply
  30. mikebo

    Could Mexico do without the money that the cartels put in the economy?No.Could the US go into Mexico and take down the cartels quicker?Yes.Stopping the cartels will take less time than it will take for drug treatment here in the states.

    November 1, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Reply
    • Jorge

      Mexico was actually coming up pretty nicely BEFORE the big rush in demand for pot and cocaine created by all the U.S. stoners, hippies and snorters during the 70s, 80s and 90s gave birth to the cartels. That's why Colombia has had to dedicate most of it's military efforts to drive U.S.-fueled drug empires OUT, it's last mission is to drive out the FARC thugs completely, but it will take years, Mexico will have to do the same, with the added problem that it is much closer to the source of demand and silent-partner finance of the drug trade, the UNITED STATES.

      November 2, 2012 at 7:40 am | Reply
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