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Taking The Fight to The Cartels

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By Josh Kussman and Brian C. Goebel
Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Mexican government is in a fight to the death with powerful drug cartels, and the Obama administration's main focus appears to be preventing the violence from crossing our border. Yet allowing the cartels to win would be disastrous for the Mexican people and dangerous for the United States. U.S. strategy should be not just to bolster our borders but to help Mexico establish the rule of law and score a decisive victory against the cartels that both menace that country and threaten our own security and prosperity.

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Mexico's fight against organized crime has raged for decades, but for years it has received very little attention from U.S. media or lawmakers. In fact, Mexico received virtually no attention during the 2008 presidential campaign.

President Felipe Calderón's brave stand has cost Mexico dearly; in the past two years, more than 10,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence, including Mexico City's top federal police chief, Cancun's top drug enforcement officer and more than 900 other law enforcement officials. Cartels kill innocent civilians, kidnap and kill children to blackmail or punish their parents, and gruesomely murder journalists, police officers, soldiers and civilians to intimidate the government into not taking action. In its own right, this is a fight worth joining. But the United States has additional incentives: The cartels are bankrolled by the proceeds from drug sales in this country -- the same place they get most of the guns they use to kill Mexican civilians and police officers.

There are also strategic reasons for greater U.S. involvement: The war between the Calderón administration and the cartels has generated waves of crime along the U.S.-Mexico border. If the Mexican government falters, we can expect even more violence and a severely hobbled Mexican economy, which will fuel more illegal immigration to the United States. And potential interaction among the cartels and terrorist organizations seeking sanctuary and access to the United States is a threat we must take seriously. Our government is implementing some measures to stem cross-border violence and begin disrupting some of the flow of money and guns back into Mexico, but more can and should be done. The Obama administration should take four additional steps to help combat the cartels.

First, increase aid to the Mexican government. Last year's Merida initiative -- $400 million in aid for equipment and training -- was a good start. But Mexico needs more aid and U.S. assistance to implement a comprehensive strategy to defeat the cartels. This must include deploying new security technologies and building a better law enforcement and criminal-justice system.

Second, the U.S. military and Coast Guard should do more to help Mexico patrol its coasts and stop drugs from Central and South America from arriving by boat. Because these drugs are destined for the United States, helping to control Mexico's borders would relieve pressure on ours.

Third, we should do far more to prevent cash and guns -- the lifeblood of the cartels -- from moving into Mexico from this country. Although the Department of Homeland Security has taken some initial steps to increase outbound enforcement efforts in some areas, it does not have a comprehensive or continuous outbound enforcement strategy. We need a sustained outbound enforcement effort that leverages cooperation with Mexico, detection technology, and new temporary or permanent infrastructure to stop drug proceeds and guns from moving from the United States into the hands of Mexican criminals.

Fourth, we should mount a comprehensive effort against the cartels here, including more criminal investigations focused on dismantling them and their interests inside our borders. The recent arrest of 52 people associated with the Sinaloa cartel, announced by Attorney General Eric Holder as part of "Operation Xcellerator," is an excellent start. We should aggressively prosecute all drug and alien smugglers caught at our borders, taking them off the street for long periods rather than returning them to Mexico to commit more crimes. Additionally, we should implement more aggressive education and media campaigns, and treatment measures, to reduce the demand for cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine in the United States. A gradually expanded guest-worker program would deprive the cartels of significant revenue associated with smuggling hundreds of thousands of people into the United States each year.

Helping Mexico defeat the cartels is as important as success in Iraq or Afghanistan. We cannot allow the cartels to destabilize Mexico, commit crimes in the United States, or align themselves with other transnational criminal or terrorist organizations. And after pressing Mexico for years to confront corruption and organized crime, the United States should do everything in its power to help those honest and courageous Mexican officials who are finally taking the fight to the cartels.

Josh Kussman was director of policy for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security from October 2003 to December 2005. He is senior vice president of the strategic consulting firm Sentinel HS Group LLC. Brian C. Goebel, a counselor and senior policy adviser to the commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection from September 2001 to July 2004, is president and chief executive of Sentinel HS Group. Sentinel HS Group has done subcontracting work funded by the Mexican government on a project relating to Mexican seaports.




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