Monday, January 24, 2005

Border Badlands

This from the Counter-Terrorism Blog
by Bill West

Since the Old West, the US-Mexican border has been a place of intrigue and controversy, with its share of rogues, bandits and smugglers chased by a variety of good-guys with badges on both sides of the border. Now, however, there is an upsurge of violent crime in Mexican border cities fueled by the illegal drug trade and kidnappings for ransom that should cause US policy makers to think twice about immigration reform and give immediate focus to border security issues as they relate to terrorism.

The Washington Post ran an article on January 22 about crime in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico that should be disturbing to all Americans. For many years now, in Latin American countries like Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, many people, including Americans, have been kidnapped and held for ransom. Some of those victims have been murdered. In recent years, those kidnappings have been occurring with increasing frequency in the Mexican interior, particularly Mexico City, often attributed to the drug trade and other organized crime. The trend has been that this violent criminal activity is heading north.

As the Washington Post article notes, the kidnapping of Americans in Mexico has now reached the Mexican-US border in a big way. According to the US Consul in Nuevo Laredo, since August of last year, 27 Americans have either been kidnapped or disappeared in that Mexican border city, and 15 are still missing. At least one victim was reported murdered.

What information is available indicates some of the kidnappings may be related to the flourishing illegal drug trade. US citizens headed south who are engaged in the drug business find themselves being kidnapped by their supposed “partners” in crime. Others are innocent victims of organized criminals and are held for ransom, though the details of individual cases are sketchy since families are reluctant to speak publicly and Mexican law enforcement is too often hampered by corruption or intimidated by the criminals they are supposed to be fighting.

Reports indicate one of the kidnapping gangs is comprised of deserters from elite Mexican military commando units. This gang, called the Zetas, is alleged to be involved in drug trafficking as well as kidnapping for ransom. It should be no surprise that gangs are armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers when their members are ex-army commandos.

And given the porous nature of the border, is it a surprise when the violence spills over to the US side? As reported by the Washington Post, in December 2003, grenades were thrown into a house in Laredo, Texas and US authorities believe the Zetas gang was involved. Grenades tossed into a home. Not Iraq or Afghanistan, but in Laredo, Texas.

Nuevo Laredo is not alone in this increase in border town violence. As noted in this posting from a US Consular information sheet for Mexico, US visitors to Mexico should be very mindful of violent crime on the border.

“CRIME IN BORDER CITIES : Visitors to border cities such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Nogales, and to a lesser extent Reynosa and Matamoros, should remain alert and be aware of their surroundings at all times. Visitors are very vulnerable when visiting the local "red light districts," particularly if they are departing alone in the early hours of the morning. In Ciudad Juarez, there has also been a rise in automobile accidents in which municipal police extort money from U.S. citizen victims. In Reynosa, police have stopped U.S. citizens for questionable reasons and then forced them to withdraw money from ATM machines to pay “fines.”

Innocent bystanders are at risk from the increase in drug-related violence in the streets of border cities. In Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, shootings have taken place at busy intersections and at popular restaurants during daylight hours. Mexican authorities have failed to prosecute numerous crimes committed against American citizens, including murder and kidnapping.

In other instances in border cities, U.S. citizens have been kidnapped and scores imprisoned after getting involved in the sale or purchase of illegal drugs. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid any involvement with controlled substances or those who deal in them.”

The US-Mexican border is becoming an increasingly violent and dangerous place. The ability of the Mexican government to deal effectively with this crime and violence has yet to be demonstrated. US law enforcement and Intelligence agencies are very limited in what they can do inside Mexico and are nearly fully dependent on Mexican officials for operational effectiveness, something often perilous.

At a time the Administration and Congress will be considering immigration reform, a great deal of which will affect Mexico and Mexicans, this border crime situation should not be taken lightly in those considerations. Assume for a moment, a new guest worker program is implemented in our immigration system. Just how will our already overburdened immigration authorities weed out during the visa processing a legitimate “guest worker” from a Zeta gang lord seeking a legitimate entry document into the US, especially when Mexican officials can hardly be relied upon for providing accurate and timely background information?

And from the perspective of the war on terror, it is clear that terrorists thrive in lawless environments. Terrorists are able to move and operate more freely when effective law enforcement and security forces are kept at bay. We are seeing that situation develop in certain locations along our southern border. We already have reports of al-Qaeda seeking operational alliances with Latin American criminal gangs. Can it be long before our radical Islamic terrorist enemies take advantage of the border town criminal chaos in Mexico, or has it already happened?

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