The War Closer to Home
At tonight’s presidential debate on foreign policy, we can expect questions related to the civil war in Syria, the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, and the broader war on terrorism, including the September 11 Benghazi attack. But I hope that debate moderator Bob Schieffer also asks President Obama and Governor Romney about another war—the one that is currently raging in Mexico and Central America.
This war isn’t between nations. There are no “insurgents,” and no ideologically motivated guerrillas trying to gain formal political power. Instead, it is a war driven by violent criminal organizations fighting to maintain or expand their control of illegal enterprises, most notably the drug trade.
In Mexico, tens of thousands of people have died since President Felipe Calderón began cracking down on the drug cartels in December 2006. There is some evidence that the violence may be starting to decline: Addressing the National Public Security Council on August 2, President Calderón reported that murders linked to organized crime fell by almost 15 percent in the first six months of 2012 compared with the first half of 2011. During that same period, the total number of killings in Ciudad Juárez, once the “murder capital of the world,” dropped by nearly 60 percent (again, compared with the first half of 2011).
Yet the gang warfare is still rampant, and rivalries within the most notoriously violent cartel, Los Zetas, could produce a new series of massacres. The Zetas “are splitting,” Mexican security expert Javier Oliva told Reuters last month, adding that “every time [Mexican security forces] capture a major crime boss, his organization fragments, so the violence increases, and this atomization makes the government’s fight harder.”
Oliva made those remarks shortly after Mexican marines captured a senior Zetas commander named Iván Velázquez. Less than two weeks later, the marines killed the Zetas’ supreme leader, Heriberto Lazcano. Overall, Mexico has now killed or captured 25 of the 37 most-wanted drug kingpins that Calderón identified in March 2009. “Despite it all,” laments the Economist, “the murder rate is nearly twice as high as it was when Mr. Calderón took office six years ago.” Indeed, even with two-thirds of the most-wanted narco bosses now dead or behind bars, drug violence remains a terrible problem.
The United States has an obvious national-security interest in preventing murders and gang-related warfare along the U.S.-Mexican border, and it has an obvious moral interest in reducing violence throughout Mexico. But what many Americans may not appreciate is that their country also has an increasingly large economic interest in Mexican prosperity.
Not only is Mexico the third-biggest U.S. trading partner, it is also the second-biggest importer of U.S. goods. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, Mexico imported $197.5 billion worth of American goods last year. This represented a 20.8 percent increase from 2010, a 76.8 percent increased from 2000, and a 375 percent increased from 1993, when NAFTA was signed into law. Only Canada imports more U.S. goods than Mexico, which in 2011 imported more than China and Japan combined. For that matter, Mexico also imported more American goods than the United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea, and Brazil combined.