US & World

American Deaths Escalate Mexico's Drug War

Analysts say the deaths of Americans in Juarez last weekend may put more pressure on the Obama administration to act. The U.S. already gives hundreds of millions of dollars to Mexico for its drug fight.

Thousands of Mexican troops and hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid have failed to stem the drug wars plaguing Mexico's northern border region.

Now, the killing of Americans last weekend in Ciudad Juarez is likely to escalate the conflict and Washington's already substantial involvement in the fight, analysts say.

"Americans are being targeted, which was not the case before. That makes it more possible for the Obama administration to get the support to provide more resources," says Mauricio Cardenas, director of the Latin American initiative at the Brookings Institution.

Almost 18,000 people have been killed across Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched the military offensive against drug traffickers in December 2006.

According to the government, most of those dead are rival smugglers. But the Security Commission of the Mexican Senate also reports that the dead include at least 620 women, 1,500 police officers, and 87 soldiers.

Last weekend there were some 50 victims of drug gang-related violence in Mexico — including an American consular employee and her husband gunned down in their car. Their baby was found unharmed in the backseat of the car.

Analysts say the deaths of the Americans may put more pressure on the Obama administration to act.

"The tragedy of this weekend just underscores how severe and significant a danger this represents to Mexico, to the United States, to the hemisphere," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Monday.

In 2007, the Bush administration and its Mexican counterpart signed the Merida Initiative, a three-year $1.5 billion plan to fight the narcotics trade. While the money has been appropriated, the spending of it is still in the works.

So far, U.S. assistance has come in the form of big-ticket items like helicopters and speedboats. They arrived only late last year, though. The lag time is substantial because a lot of the equipment is custom built.

And the enemy is formidable, says Crowley. "You're talking about violence fueled by drug use that produces vast sums of money, that produces significant capabilities, that could rival … the strength of any army."

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials and the FBI are already helping elite Mexican forces in intelligence gathering, collecting evidence for trials and providing training on how to lead investigations that will eventually stand up in court.

But Mexican officials say the U.S. must do more to help in the battle against the drug cartels.

For years, Mexican leaders have urged the U.S. to stop the flow of guns south across the border. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reported last year that more than 7,700 guns sold in America were traced to Mexico.

But experts believe that is just a small fraction of the total. More than 2,000 guns — from 9 mm handguns to automatic assault rifles — are trafficked from U.S. border states to Mexico every day, according research by the Brookings Institution.

During the State Department briefing, spokesman Crowley said there were things the U.S. could do to help, "in terms of money, guns, to try to diminish and ultimately defeat these cartels," but he didn't say if authorities would step up security at border crossings.

While U.S. financial aid is impressive, it is a trickle compared to the massive assistance Washington gave Colombia — about $700 million a year for five years — to help fight its drug war, Cardenas says.

About 90 percent of the cocaine and much of the marijuana that enters the U.S. comes through Mexico. That is another reason the U.S. government needs to be more involved in Mexico's fight, says Shannon O' Neil, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Our security is intricately tied with Mexico's security, and so we should be investing in our relationship with Mexico, it's in our own self interest to do so," she says.

O' Neil says the U.S. aid to Mexico should focus on strengthening law enforcement institutions, cleaning up the court system and providing telephone hotlines and other ways for citizens to get involved.

Mexico's police force has long been corrupt and its courts lacking transparency.

But that is now changing, O’Neil says, with background checks for police officers and police recruits and reforms in the legal system.

"They do a background check [on police recruits] to make sure you don't have a lot of money and then they do periodic lie detector tests once you're in, since so many are approached years into the job" by drug cartels looking to bribe them, O'Neil says.

The court system is also changing, with an increase in public trials with oral presentations rather than the traditional Mexican system of having a judge review written arguments and make a ruling from his chambers.

O'Neil says that "should make the whole system much more open and transparent and make people witness to the judicial system."

But all of this will take time.

"The fundamental problems that Mexico has are issues of institutional effectiveness and capacity ... weeding out corruption," O'Neil says. "None of those issues are things that can be solved overnight, no matter how much money you throw at them." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit