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So near – and yet so far away

© Reuters/Tomas Bravo

This year, the US Justice Department said that Mexican drug trafficking organisations represent the greatest organised crime threat to the United States. But here Sam Quinones, who lived in Mexico for a decade, argues that the country’s problems have limited security implications for the US – for the moment.

An economist who has studied border murder rates once told me that he compared Mexican drug-gang criminals to Tony Soprano. Essentially they were both criminal capitalists, focused on making money above all else.

Just that the American Tony Soprano was only of interest to local cops and maybe the New Jersey Crime Commission. He never concerned the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, neglect by both countries has allowed Mexico’s Tony Sopranos to “become national threats,” he said. “They control almost the entire Mexican border region.”

That way of thinking about the players in Mexico’s now four-year drug war is helpful when considering what threats they present.

In January, Tijuana police arrested a man known as `El Pozolero’ – the Soupmaker – whose salaried job ($600 a week) it was to dissolve bodies in acid

The war is unprecedented for several reasons.

The Mexican government, under President Felipe Calderon, has for the first time attacked and extradited traffickers, and confiscated their money and guns. For years beginning in the 1970s, elements of the Mexican government facilitated and organised the drug trade.

The lowest point in that chapter came when ex-president Carlos Salinas’s brother, Raul, was found to have hundreds of millions of dollars squirreled away in foreign bank accounts, all protection money paid by the Gulf drug cartel.

In part due to the government’s new attitude, traffickers have grown public and savage with their murder. It used to be that they’d dump bodies in ravines or shallow graves. Now bodies are found on street corners with warnings attached. They’re often decapitated.

In January, Tijuana police arrested a man known as `El Pozolero’ – the Soupmaker – whose salaried job ($600 a week) it was to dissolve bodies in acid for a faction of the Tijuana cartel. Some tubs of that acid turned up in front of a restaurant last fall.

© Reuters/Daniel Aguilar

Meanwhile, traffickers hang banners in parks and plazas, accusing the government of working with their rivals. has become their propaganda forum, on which anonymous production companies upload videos and narco-ballads lauding one cartel leader over another.

This new brazenness is intended to intimidate the public, the government and their rivals.

The war has stressed the Mexican military, which has been asked to police hot spots across the country.

All of this is because of drug gangs whose members started out as hillbillies (or minor criminals of what should have remained local interest) have morphed into threats to Mexico’s national security.

No doubt about it, things are grim.

However, these traffickers are businessmen, not ideologues. What interests them is business.

Yet very little of this violence has spilled over into the United States

Earlier this year, a lot was made of the potential for violence spilling into the United States. CNN seemed particularly obsessed with the idea for a few weeks this spring and ran hours of talking heads opining on the possibility – one of which was mine.

Yet very little of this violence has spilled over into the United States.

This is a remarkable story. In the 1980s in Florida, cocaine-running Colombians shot it out on the streets of Miami, and the murder rate skyrocketed. Chicago during Prohibition was famous for its very public bloodshed. When Bloods and Crips fought over the crack market in Los Angeles and in America’s heartland, drive-by shootings echoed across the country.

But as a drug war of unprecedented savagery rages south of the famously porous U.S.-Mexico border, American streets haven’t felt it.

Ciudad Juarez has tallied some 3000 homicides in the last 20 months. Soldiers with assault rifles patrol its streets. Meanwhile, across a 200-yard ditch, El Paso has had 30 homicides and is one of America’s safest cities.

© Reuters/Tomas Bravo

In 2008, drug cartels battled to control the route through Nogales, Sonora, and that city’s homicide rate tripled to 126. On the other side of a fence, Nogales, Arizona saw three homicides during that time.

In 2005 and 2006, Nuevo Laredo was gripped by a ferocious wave of cartel killings -- registering a combined 367 murders in those years. Laredo, Texas, across the Rio Grande, saw homicides double, but to only 45 – though it’s a city of similar size. Since then, Laredo’s homicide numbers have dropped to its usual 10 or so a year.

Drug task forces across America report Mexican traffickers operating in their areas, but keeping very low profiles. Atlanta, for example, has become a distribution hub for drugs imported by Mexican cartels that decapitate each other back home. Yet the city has seen little of this kind of brazen violence.

With Arizona the new U.S. gateway for Mexican drugs, Phoenix has become the U.S. capital of kidnapping for ransom. But even in these crimes, averaging about one a day, suspects and victims are all Mexican smugglers. Ordinary Phoenicians are hardly aware that it goes on.

Though our world involves vast global inter-connectivity, local institutions still count most of all in making life livable. This is particularly true where crime and equitable economic development are concerned.

That’s certainly the lesson of the Mexico drug war.

American police are, by and large, well paid, trained, armed and motivated. U.S. courts, jails, and prisons work. None of this is true in Mexico

To be sure, the current state of affairs depends on the goodwill of criminals. Mexican traffickers refrain from wanton bloodshed on U.S. streets because the response would disrupt their first priorities: business and the flow of drug profits south.

But that’s largely because they know that U.S. law enforcement is an especially strong foe. American police are, by and large, well paid, trained, armed and motivated. U.S. courts, jails, and prisons work

None of this is true in Mexico. Local institutions have been kept stunted for centuries while the central government grew bloated. Mexican local government was an appendage of state government until 1983, and remains anemic and under-funded. State government is little better. Incapable cops are but one result.

It’s also important to note the difference between the drug business in the United States and in Mexico.

Once the drugs enter the United States, there is no hierarchy, no kingpin or oligarchy whose orders can be enforced. On the contrary, most of the vast U.S. drug market resembles the U.S. economy: a largely unregulated free for all of small-scale individual entrepreneurs. They come and go, retire or are killed or imprisoned in relatively short order – and their space is duly filled about as quickly by others wanting their share of the market.

Drug kingpins, when they have existed in the United States, have had power that’s been local and of short duration. Witness the various Italian mafia dons, or Nicky Barnes, Harlem’s 1970s heroin king, or any number of Los Angeles gang leaders - all testament to an efficient U.S. criminal justice system, not to mention the drug world’s duplicity.

In parts of Mexico, however, drug traffickers have accumulated military weaponry, chilling counterintelligence capability, associates in government, and draw foot soldiers from an ocean of poor young men eager to join up.

Mexican drug trafficking, like the larger Mexican economy, is controlled by oligopolies. Even when traffickers are imprisoned, corruption allows their power to extend beyond prison walls. Witness the 2001 escape of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who remains the poster child for Mexico’s hillbilly-turned-national security threat.

© Reuters/Tomas Bravo

All of which is to say that a national-security threat from Mexican traffickers inside the United States seems unlikely in the short term of the next few years.

Their own business interests motivate against it. Plus, the drug business itself - populated by gangsters, addicts, and other rule-breakers - seems unsuited to methodical, organised attacks of the kind Islamist terrorists have mounted.

A far more plausible threat to the United States would be the slow deterioration of Mexico, under relentless trafficker attacks, and all fueled by arms and money originating in the United States. That is now underway.

It’s quieter than some dramatic attack on U.S. territory and thus far more insidious. Only crisis seems to change U.S.-Mexico relations. The country barely warranted a mention in the U.S. 2008 presidential campaign. And only after four years in which more than 12,000 people died – including many along the border -- did Mexico reach Washington D.C. radar, or that of most Americans, last spring.

Today, it seems that only deepened engagement between the two countries, of a kind never before achieved, will lead to a solution to what’s going on now.

That, however, may force each country into domestic changes so difficult that politicians may prefer to postpone them.

Most analysts believe Mexico must begin reforms. But Mexico’s legislative system is virtually paralysed and change comes slowly

Arizona, Nevada and Texas, for example, have liberal gun-purchase laws that virtually every Mexico observer believes is helping arm the cartels. Taking on the National Rifle Association (NRA) may be more than many lawmakers can stomach.

Most analysts believe Mexico, meanwhile, must begin reforms considered essential to both fighting traffickers and to equitable development so that fewer Mexicans turn to drug smuggling. These include reforms to the education, criminal justice systems, municipal governance, among many others. Some of this has begun. But Mexico’s legislative system is virtually paralysed and change comes slowly.

The drug traffickers have created the last thing they, or many analysts, believed possible: a crisis in which Mexico and the United States can overcome their differences to find common ground and work together.

The strange thing about the Mexico drug war is that it’s a threat as far as the two countries allow it to be. But that’s been the case with drug traffickers since they were hillbillies.

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