Only miles from major cities in the southwestern United States, armed gangs in Mexico are killing Mexicans and Americans alike in a bloody war fueled by drugs. It is a war with disastrous consequences for both countries, and it claims more casualties each year than the war in Iraq.
Despite car bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, and the frequent assassinations of journalists and high-level politicians on their border -- all the hallmarks of a war zone -- officials in Washington have turned a blind eye to the killing.
The Mexican government would have us believe that the breakdown of the main cartel in Michoacan, 680 miles away, signals a change in the situation. In exchange for ceasing their drug activities, the Michoacan gangsters seek protection from their rivals, the Zetas. In other words, Mexico is painting the victory of one brutal cartel over another as a triumph of counternarcotics policy.
Last month, the war turned personal for me. At approximately 10 p.m. on December 6, at a traffic intersection in the northern Mexican city of Chihuahua, unknown assailants gunned down my cousin, Jose Antonio Ramos, and his girlfriend, Araceli Cano Moreno.
Two SUVs with tinted windows followed them for blocks until one rammed into the side of their Chrysler, driving it into a lamppost. Unarmed and unsuspecting, they were caught as attackers with Kalashnikov assault rifles emptied no less than 35 bullets into their bodies.
Photographs from the crime scene in El Heraldo, a local paper with undoubtedly hundreds of such images collected in recent years from such gruesome murders, show my cousin’s arm disintegrated from gunfire.
A couple months earlier, my aunt had called my parents in Virginia, begging them to help Antonio come to the United States -- illegally, if necessary. If he didn’t leave Chihuahua, she told my mother, he would undoubtedly die.
It is well known in Chihuahua that the drug gangs maintain a list with the names of those in line to be executed. “A Woman Executed” is the headline on all the Chihuahua newspapers as reporters allude to the fact that the killings are more than random acts of violence– they are punishment for getting in the way of the gangsters.
We’ll never know what my cousin did to anger the narcos, but it’s safe to assume it was not worth his life.
In the past few years, Mexico has taken an undeniable turn for the worse. Paramilitary groups and gangsters, including the well-known Zetas and the Gulf cartel, demand protection money from businesses -- driving many to bankruptcy -- while authorities impose mandatory curfews and even martial law. In this already impoverished country, unemployed young men are fair game, and the narcos easily recruit them to participate in the blood sport.
“Why should we care what the Mexicans do to themselves?” goes the logic in Washington. “It’s their problem, not ours.”And yet many of the guns the gangs employ are purchased in the U.S., which has done little to stop the flow of weapons across the border.
The Washington Post recently reported that more than 60,000 U.S. guns have been recovered in Mexico in the past four years.
For a country on the U.S. border, Mexico receives curiously little security assistance -- annual aid totaling only $88 million. Colombia, a country with a comparable though diminishing amount of drug violence, currently receives $500 million a year in U.S. aid, while Israel enjoys $2.5 billion, Egypt receives $1.9 billion, and Iraq’s reconstruction alone costs $8.5 billion annually.
In 2007, President Bush signed the three-year Merida Initiative, which promised $1.5 billion to fight the narcotics trade, with most of the budget allocated to Mexico. But when Congress finally got around to appropriating the money in December 2009, it bought top-shelf equipment like speedboats and helicopters, which are of little utility when cartels can buy off or kill top officials and police with impunity.
Congressional Republicans would have us put our faith in an expensive wall to keep narcos and illegal aliens out at the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet if the Israelis and Egyptians can’t successfully destroy smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza -- a border shorter than seven miles -- no serious person thinks the U.S. can close a border almost 2,000 miles long.
The ugly truth is that as long as Americans demand drugs, and those drugs produce enormous profits, unscrupulous entrepreneurs will always find ways to bring drugs to market. According to a 2009 U.S. State Department report, 90 percent of the cocaine and much of the marijuana that enters the U.S. comes through Mexico.
Mexican authorities are quick to insist that the killings are largely limited to the drug community and that they are taking steps to control the situation.
I heard the same lines when I served as an election observer in Sinaloa -- one of the three states in Mexico that constitutes the drug triangle -- in 2004. Nonetheless, the governor’s personal body guards escorted me around in vehicles with bulletproof glass.
Amid an indifferent government, incompetent police forces, and general corruption, Mexican citizens have increasingly taken the law into their own hands, launching waves of vigilante violence across the country. In a recent case in the Chihuahua village of Ascencion, a mob murdered two teenagers attempting to kidnap a young woman. Elsewhere in the state and Mexico’s most violent city, Ciudad Juarez, 96 percent of the crimes go unsolved.
In the days following Jose’s murder, his younger sister poured her thoughts out on Facebook. She says the worst has already happened and now she has nothing left to fear.
How much worse does Washington plan on letting things get?
As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq drag on, there’s real terror right at our doorstep, and we’ve turned a deaf ear to the gunfire.
Crystal Ramos is a writer in Washington, D.C.