The Arizona Republic

July 3, 2012 |

U.S. must boost drug-war aid to stop the cartels

by Robert Weiner and George Clingan - July 3, 2012 12:00 AM

With the Mexican presidential election concluded Sunday and the ruling party's candidate coming in third, the country finds itself at a crossroads against the drug cartels. New President Enrique Peña Nieto will choose whether to continue the fight or make the more popular decision to strike a deal.

Peña Nieto's decision will bear significant consequences for the United States. The Mexican drug cartels are not just gangs that can be easily sacked; they are sophisticated, transnational criminal organizations that threaten Mexican sovereignty and U.S. security.

The cartels control 980 local governments in Mexico and have distribution networks in 230 U.S. cities, according to the Department of Justice National Intelligence Center. There are seven Mexican supercartels that dominate supply, trafficking and distribution of most illicit drugs in the United States.

Arizona in particular is increasingly threatened. Phoenix and Tucson are major distribution centers for the United States. Half of all marijuana seized at the border goes through Arizona. Last November, in one bust, Arizona and federal border agents cracked the Sinaloa cartel's Arizona arm, which had moved nearly $2 billion of marijuana, cocaine and heroin into the United States over a five-year span.

A White House report of President Barack Obama's call to Peña Nieto on Monday cites a discussion of "common goals, including democracy, economic prosperity and security," but does not mention fighting drugs.

It is critical that we reaffirm our commitment to weaken the supercartels by sending a strong message to the new Mexican president, whose position on the drug war has been vague. Peña Nieto wants "better regulation of the military" and stated that Mexico "should not subordinate to the strategies of other countries."

Mexico receives too little credit for fighting this war. The drug kingpins have caused 55,000 deaths in Mexico since 2006. "Mexico has eradicated more drugs than any nation on Earth," former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey says.

Calder<>ón reformed government institutions that had been unreliable and corrupted by the cartels. After indicting over 20 percent of federal police (their FBI) for corruption, Calderó<>n disbanded the force in favor of a new 35,000-officer force with anti-corruption training and standards.

The United States would do well by doubling anti-drug aid to Mexico, but contingent on Peña Nieto's continued efforts to win the drug war. However, we don't even give them what we promise. Of $1.4 billion authorized since 2008 under the Merida Initiative, we shorted Mexico by a third in real dollars. The least we should do is "fully fund" our cooperation. Mexican officials assailed our "slow deliveries while the bodies kept building up in Mexico."

Mexico itself has spent $35 billion on the drug war while we've given them less than $2 billion to solve our main crime and social problem. More than two-thirds of U.S. arrestees test positive for illegal drugs.

Still, President Felipe Calderón made remarkable inroads by intercepting cartel communications, disrupting distribution networks and targeting leadership. Mexico killed or incarcerated 40 cartel leaders in the past three years.

However, Mexico's top cop, Genaro Garcia Luna, estimated that the cartels invest $100 million to bribe state and municipal police officers each month -- $1.2 billion every year. The Mexican army will need to remain on the streets until the government is actually in control.

Since 9/11, the U.S., understandably at first, has dropped the ball. We have given Mexico drones as requested by the government for drug surveillance and intelligence. But, unlike Afghanistan and Pakistan, where we target al-Qaida for kills, the drones are not taking out the mass-murdering cartel leaders.

The U.S. should give a far more realistic dollar support level to Mexico's anti-drug efforts and far more focus to the effort. It will take the combined efforts of Mexico and the United States to deal a fatal blow to these too-big-to-fail cartels who threaten us daily.

Robert Weiner was the spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Policy and the U.S. House Committee on Narcotics. George Clingan is Latin American policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates.