In the interest of national security, the United States must aggressively police its border with Mexico. But the cause of concern is not the northward flow of migrants and drugs. Rather, our focus should be on the southward flow of arms and ammunition that is fueling an explosion of drug-related violence in Mexico and that soon could threaten U.S. interests.
Already this year, nearly 4,000 people have been killed in Mexico as warring drug cartels intensify their battle for control of drug markets and transportation routes, according to the newspaper Reforma. That's more than triple the total for 2002 and a 65 percent increase on the tally for all of 2007. Murder is now producing a death toll appropriate to a country in the throes of a civil war.
Meanwhile, raw brutality increases as well. In newspaper headlines, the once unthinkable is now commonplace: decapitations; the slaughter of entire families, including infants; massacres of two dozen individuals at a time; and recently, the targeting of innocents with hand grenades in Morelia, Michoacan.
Kidnapping and extortion also has skyrocketed, transforming Mexico into the abduction capital of the Americas and creating a palpable sense of national insecurity. Mexicans are scared, and Americans should be too.
Mexico matters to the United States not merely as our third-largest trading partner and our third-largest source of imported oil. Geography makes Mexico pivotal to U.S. national security. For decades, Mexico has been a mostly stable and friendly neighbor, creating a protective cushion on our southern border. This history has allowed the United States to pay little attention to Mexico's strategic significance. We continue to do so at our own peril. If our southern security cushion begins to fray, U.S. interests will be threatened on multiple fronts.
Border states are already feeling the effect of drug battles that regularly spill into U.S. territory. Murder, kidnapping and extortion on the U.S. side of the border will continue to increase in tandem with growing violence on the Mexican side.
Beyond the mayhem, the Mexican drug cartels should be viewed as our adversaries. No longer just middlemen for Colombian producers, they are now powerful organized crime syndicates that dominate the drug trade in the Americas. They control large swaths of Mexican territory and dozens of municipalities, and they exercise increasing influence in Mexican electoral politics. As the violence mounts, the public is losing confidence in the state's ability to provide basic security for its citizens.
A weakened Mexican government will find it more difficult to deal with the global financial crisis and to implement reforms needed to reinforce long-term political and economic stability. And a weak Mexico will be a less effective bulwark against Hugo Chavez as the Venezuelan leftist seeks to expand his influence in Latin America.
Thus, reducing the violence in Mexico must become a security concern for the United States. Despite a muscular, nearly two-year offensive against the cartels that has put thousands of soldiers into the streets, the Mexican government has not been able to turn the tide. Two reasons for this stand out: weak law enforcement and a flood of arms from the United States.
The "Merida Initiative," a multiyear U.S. assistance package recently approved by Congress, provides some of the equipment, technology and training needed to strengthen Mexican police forces and judicial authorities. This assistance must be continued and expanded, but it does little to deal with the flow of arms.
An estimated 97 percent of the arms used by the Mexican cartels - including military-grade grenade launchers and assault weapons - are purchased at sporting goods stores and gun shows on the U.S. side of the border and then smuggled south, according to the Mexican government.
To give the problem appropriate priority, President Bush should initiate, and his successor fortify, a coordinated, Cabinet-level initiative to attack the illicit gun trade. The departments of Homeland Security, Justice, State, Defense and Treasury all need to be involved.
The White House also should summon the U.S. border-state governors to join the fight. And, closer to the ground, the FBI should use the highly successful model of its Safe Streets Task Forces - partnerships that promote cooperation and coordination between the FBI and state and local law enforcement to fight violent gangs.
The United States is enabling the bloodshed in Mexico. We have a moral responsibility to stop arming the murderers and kidnappers - our national security demands it.
Pamela Starr is a senior lecturer in international relations and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, an adjunct fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy and a senior fellow at USC's Center on Public Diplomacy.