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The War on Our Border: Why Mexico is Important

The United States needs to have a serious discussion about Mexico and spillover violence from its war with drug cartels. Here’s why it matters and what can be done.


Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, announced a war on Mexico’s drug cartels in late 2006. Since that time, at least 35,000 (and probably more) people have been killed. Corruption remains rampant, with the cartels often recruiting directly from police forces. A recent Time article by Tim Padgett reported that:

The corruption watchdog Transparency International estimates that Mexicans paid $2.75 billion in bribes to police and other officials last year. Meanwhile, 95% of violent crimes in Mexico go unsolved.

Drug thugs killed by their competitors are easily replaced. In a country where most workers earn less than $10 a day, the cartels have little difficulty recruiting new legions. The Chihuahua state attorney general estimates that close to 10,000 Mexicans work for drug cartels in Juárez alone, not least because even foot soldiers can earn hundreds of dollars a week as sicarios, or triggermen. It isn’t just the unemployed who get sucked into the war. If you have a pilot’s license, for example, you’re useful to a cartel, which makes you a target for rival gangs.

But the crisis is not confined to Mexico. Violence has spilled over into U.S. border states. An ABC article from March notes that:

The ambush of two U.S. special agents in Mexico last month, the December murder of a Border Patrol agent in Arizona by Mexican bandits and the beheading of a Phoenix man in October by Mexican cartel members are the latest signs that the drug-fueled violence has even become a direct threat to Americans.

Additionally, American drug, gun and immigration policy directly affects to both the cartel war in Mexico and the spillover violence in the border states. Guns smuggled in from the United States arm the cartels, with “70% of the guns seized in Mexico in the past two years” coming from the U.S. Drug use in the United States fuels demand for the cartels’ product, sustaining them and ensuring that they continue to operate in their U.S. market.

And defective U.S. immigration policy forces many regular, non-threatening Mexicans who are desperate for jobs to immigrate to the United States illegally. Previously, immigrants would turn to “coyotes” to help smuggle them across the border, but cartels have since gotten into the human trafficking business themselves. They charge illegal immigrants huge sums of money for a journey many immigrants don’t survive — often because the cartel members rape and murder them along the way.

All of these factors sustain demand for the cartels, and keep them economically strong: heightening demand for drugs and trafficking services, as well as producing a steady supply of weaponry. Stronger cartels keep Mexico mired in a state of corruption, violence and dysfunction that contributes to lower economic growth, which further contributes to higher levels of illegal immigration. It should be noted that Mexico has huge potential for growth, as a result of free trade agreements (NAFTA), and attracting foreign investment. But violence caused by the cartels creates a volatile atmosphere that is not attractive to investors or conducive to business.


So far, the United States has taken some steps to address this issue. President Obama has expanded the U.S. border patrol and provided more funding for Mexican law enforcement, but these address mostly consequences, not causes. The administration did, in 2009, launch an initiative (“Operation Fast and Furious“) to track guns purchased in the United States back to the cartels. But it ended up losing track of many of these weapons, leaving them still in the hands of gangsters.

The Economist also notes several steps the Obama Administration has taken:

The administration has stepped up security co-operation with Mexico, deploying drones and American agents south of the border and allowing Mexican police to use American territory as a launch pad for surprise raids southward. It helped to organise a donor conference in June aimed at improving security in Central America. It is paying Colombia to provide training for helicopter pilots and police from Mexico and Central America.

The United States and Mexico are also working more closely together to speed legal trade across the border. Earlier this year Mr Obama at last allowed Mexican trucks to operate north of the border. And the two countries work together on many world issues at the United Nations, says Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador in Washington, who says the relationship is closer than at any time in the past 15 years.

Admittedly, addressing the sources of this problem does not seem politically viable in today’s partisan atmosphere — especially considering the issues at stake (guns, immigration and drugs). Nevertheless, I will present several brief policy options I think could help in the war against the cartels.

  • Gun Control.
  • Immigration Reform.
  • Reassessing Drug Policies


Let me preface this section by saying that I support the right to bear arms — but that I do believe that it is within the government’s purview to regulate gun ownership. In the same way, government regulates automobile travel for the purposes of public safety. Especially when discussing spillover violence from Mexico, there is a direct correlation between firearm availability in the United States and the arming of cartels.

Several gun control measures might help on this front:

  • Strong background checks, to prevent guns from being sold to people who will funnel them to the cartels. Of course, I should note that this is not without its own limitations — one of which being the simple fact that cartels will try to enlist people who will pass such checks. Background checks may make it more difficult (or costly, if they are forced to pay more for agents who can pass such checks) for cartels to acquire weapons, but it will by no means make it impossible or implausible.
  • Requiring gun permits or licenses, and registering transactions at gun shows. Again, these measures would make it more difficult for cartels to acquire guns, and will provide law enforcement with more information with which to track guns that do find their way to the cartels, and gun traffickers. But they will not stop such purchases fully, either.
  • Assault weapons ban. This is a measure for which President Obama has voiced support. As a 2009 State Department travel advisory noted: “Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades.” [emphasis mine]

Such measures seem to have had an effect in California, which accounts for only 3 percent of guns smuggled to Mexico (and later recovered).


As noted earlier, cartels thrive on the demand for human traffickers from illegal immigrants. Immigrants that, it should be noted, are willing to face potential raping and death at the hands of their cartel traffickers in order to find employment opportunities and a better life in America. Comprehensive immigration could, among other things:

  • Streamline the immigration process
  • Strengthen border patrol and law enforcement to crack down on cartels
  • Provide guest worker program

The guiding principle of immigration reform, as it relates to the cartel problem, should be to make the immigration system in America more responsive to changes in supply and demand for immigrant workers, as well making it more streamlined and efficient. This should lower the incentive for illegal entry to the United States.

And lowering incentives for illegal immigration could help focus law enforcement on fighting cartels, instead of draining precious time and resources to track and deport illegal immigrants — immigrants who, as workers, are adding to economic activity.

Also, reform can help lower illegal immigration by including immigration policies that promote Mexican economic development. (It should be noted that the number of illegal immigrations has decline recently, for various reasons including the recession, fallen Mexican birth rates, and economic development in Mexico). An Economist blog post advocates

…an EU-like common North American labour market, as well as expanded Mexican access to American colleges and universities. But I would happily settle for a large guest-worker programme that would make it much easier for Mexicans to legally live and work in America, as well as taking the risk out of cycling back home.

With incentives for illegal immigration lowered, a strengthened border patrol could focus their energies on violent criminals smuggling drugs into and guns out of the United States.


U.S. demand for cartel-provided drugs obviously helps keeps the cartels in business. The main policy options I would advocate here are drug prevention and rehabilitation programs.

They would relieve our overburdened court systems and overcrowded prisons. Such measures would approach drug use as the non-violent, or “victimless crime” that it is, rather than focusing on jail time and harsh punishments. For drug users, prison is not a huge deterrent anyway. A March 2009 report by the Berkley Foundation Drug Policy Programme in London notes that:

For problematic drug users, it is perhaps not surprising that the threat of
punishment will have a limited effect. Many suffer from other serious
problems and it can be argued that being punished is not an over-riding
concern for them. For example, according to the US government’s
Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 53% of drug
users have a diagnosable mental disorder. Many hard-core users in
inner cities already lead such high-risk lives on the streets that prison
is not perceived as a much riskier or more threatening alternative.

Shifting focus from punishment to treatment would not disrupt deterrence, because current prison sentences do not do much in the way of solving drug issues anyway. The report also says that “many users have been led to control or give up their drug use because the toll on personal relationships and home and work lives was too high and the rewards for quitting were attractive.” Supporting these factors with better treatment programs would help address drug issues and, in turn, decrease the demand for cartels’ services.


The Mexican government’s war with drug cartels should concern all Americans. Violence from the drug wars spills over the border into the United States, while U.S. drug and gun policy figure prominently into the supply and demand of cartels. Smart policy options work to decrease the supply of guns to the cartels while simultaneously working to decrease demand for the drugs and illegal immigration services cartels provide.

A stable and successful Mexico is in America’s best interests — both from a security perspective, and an economic one. And working to systematically weaken its drug cartels should be a priority for the United States going forward.