Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair recently demonstrated his political acumen by selecting Chas Freeman to become chairman of the National Intelligence Council. On the heels of that blunder, Blair has made another error in judgment with regard to Mexico, with potentially serious consequences for U.S. national security.
On March 26, Blair said that “Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state.” Senator John Kerry made a similar statement on March 30, saying “I am troubled by suggestions from some quarters that Mexico is in imminent danger of becoming a failed state. Mexico is a functional democracy with a vibrant and open economy.”
A confidential law enforcement assessment of the situation clearly contradicts Blair and Kerry’s statements. “We have a criminal insurgency by organized crime that may well be a precursor to civil anarchy in part of all of Mexico.” Former Clinton counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke agrees, observing that “it happens to be an insurgency of drug lords.” An earlier Joint Forces Command report put Mexico’s instability on par with Pakistan, listing the two countries as the most likely to suffer a “rapid and sudden collapse” in 2009.
The death toll tells the story. Over 8,000 people have died in the escalating war between and against drug cartels in Mexico the past two years, a figure higher than that of U.S. servicemen killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. And the conflict is taking on more and more of the characteristics of a war. The well-armed cartels are using guerilla tactics and roadside improvised explosive devices and even car bombs and mini-submarines. In one raid near Texas, over 500 rifles and 100 fragmentation grenades belonging to a drug cartel were seized. In February, members of one cartel robbed a U.S. company in Durango of 900 pounds of water gel explosives and their detonators. The cartels are even said to have more powerful firearms than the Mexican military. It is estimated that if the two main drug cartels joined forces against the Mexican government, they’d have an army of 100,000.
Horrific stories of beheadings, execution-style murders, torture, rape and kidnapping by the drug cartels are easy to come by. A police station in Ciudad Juarez had the severed head of their police chief delivered to them. The beheading of police officers, soldiers and rival gang members has become a common tactic used by the cartels. Another man that worked for a drug lord in Tijuana has admitted to having disposed of up to 300 bodies using acid. They’ve fired on hospitals and warned emergency workers they’d be killed if they helped save any of the wounded.
These incidents have intimidated some members of Mexican law enforcement. In Ciudad Juarez, the cartels threatened to murder a police officer every 48 hours unless the police chief resigned. After five officers and one prison guard were murdered, he stepped down. His predecessor fled after a similar threat was made, and the chief before that one was murdered by the drug gangs. After the cartels launched an attack with grenades on a police station in Zihutanejo, the entire police force went on strike, refusing to work until they were offered better pay and benefits.
The Mexican government has also had to fire large numbers of corrupted police officers, providing the cartels with new recruits and a weakened adversary. Approximately twenty percent of police officers are believed to be corrupted by the gangs. They often utilize the weapons and skills of former members of the Mexican military, law enforcement and even Special Forces. In the past six years, an estimated 150,000 soldiers have deserted. The cartels are known to even post "Help Wanted" advertisements in an attempt to recruit soldiers.
The dire security situation has forced some civilians to try to form their own defenses. The members of Cuauhtemoc, a small village of 3,700 in northern Mexico, became frightened after a nearby village had five people kidnapped by the cartels. They released four, but held onto a teenage boy who was offered in exchange for a specific person in the village they couldn’t locate. The villagers reacted by forming checkpoints, only to find themselves out-manned and out-gunned. The villagers decided that digging moats was their best form of defense.
The activity of the Mexican drug cartels extends into the United States and threatens to bring similar violence to its soil. The U.S. arrested 755 members of the Sinaloa Cartel in February, demonstrating the far reach of these networks. The cartels are also receiving U.S. arms obtained not only from the border states of California, Texas and Arizona, but in places as far away as Denver, Philadelphia and Seattle.
When asked if the violence in Mexico was crossing over into the U.S., Steve McCraw, the Homeland Security Director for Texas, said, “Yes, absolutely it has occurred.” In San Diego, a mother and daughter were kidnapped, brought to Mexico, and held for ransom. In southern Texas, a member of a cartel threw hand grenade into a bar frequented by off-duty police officers. In Phoenix, the Mexican drug lords were responsible for an average of one kidnapping per day. The drug cartels are quickly becoming an international threat. The Canadian government is even connecting escalating violence in British Columbia to the Mexican drug lords. The cartels have grown so bold as to issue a death threat against the president of neighboring Guatemala.
The destabilization of Mexico also presents a unique opportunity for terrorist organizations wishing to do the U.S. harm. According to Michael Braun, the former director of operations at the Drug Enforcement Agency, Hezbollah is using the same routes and smugglers as the drug cartels to transport its own drugs and personnel into the U.S. “They work together. They rely on the same shadow facilitators. One way or another, they are all connected,” he was quoted as saying by The Washington Times on March 27.
As Mexico’s security collapses and the institutions of government become weaker and weaker, Director Blair has sought to portray an overly optimistic picture of the situation – not unlike the reassurances the public received from the Bush Administration as the war in Iraq took a turn for the worst.
The failure adequately to assess and address the threat from the war in Mexico may go down as the first serious intelligence failure of Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. More critically, the failure to draw the proper conclusions from the instability raging on America’s southern border will only increase a danger that a more hard-headed analysis might have defused.