The United States shares a nearly 2,000-mile long border with a country that has witnessed over 100,000 drug-related murders in the last six years alone. Mexican drug cartels are making tens of billions of dollars every year from the trafficking of illegal drugs across our southwest border, along with kidnapping, extortion, fuel theft and piracy.
American demand for illegal drugs has not wavered, and the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 90 percent of marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine consumed in the U.S. is supplied by Mexican cartels. Most disturbing of all is the fact they have a presence in almost 1,300 U.S. cities.
As if the butchery happening in Mexico every day weren’t ugly enough, airing opinions on drug war policy this close to Election Day seems to be an even uglier proposition.
Neither the drug war in Mexico, nor border security challenges, nor America’s failed drug policies were mentioned once during the three presidential debates. The silence on these critical issues says one thing very loud and clear: none of them will be a top priority for either President Obama or Governor Romney in 2013.
Sadly, this omission from public political discourse has been typical in the last few years. On January 24th, 2012, President Obama delivered his fourth State of the Union address. The flailing American economy was the centerpiece of the speech, and for good reason.
However, when discussing foreign policy and external threats, the southwest border merited one sentence, Mexico’s drug war was never mentioned, and the subject of immigration reform took up one tiny paragraph of space: “I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That's why my Administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That's why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office…We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now.”
These omissions from President Obama’s annual address weren’t a first. There is no mention of Mexico, immigration or border security in the 2009 State of the Union address, and the drug war was in full swing —particularly in Tijuana, where the murder rate was reaching record numbers in a turf battle between the Arellano Félix Organization and the Sinaloa Federation. The same goes for the 2010 speech.
In the 2011 State of the Union address, immigration and border security warranted a two-sentence mention: “Now, I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.” However, there was no reference to unprecedented cross-border cooperation, the increasing threat of transnational criminal organizations (better known as drug cartels), or the challenge of stopping southbound weapons trafficking.
There was a similar pattern in the rare mentions of border security during the GOP debates. On November 22, 2011, CNN hosted the National Security Debate between the seven Republican candidates at the time. They all discussed their views on how best to secure the border, but all the proposed solutions were vague—probably because there is no standard idea for what a secure border means or would look like.
Texas Governor Rick Perry’s strategy consisted of “strategic fencing, with the boots on the ground, with the aviation assets, and then working with Mexico in particular.” Congressman Ron Paul said, “What I'm sort of tired of is all the money spent and lives lost worrying about the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan and forgetting about our borders between the United States and Mexico. We should think more about, you know, what we do at home.”
However, he moved straight into a discussion about illegal immigration without offering a specific border security strategy. Later on, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich mentioned “controlling the border,” and Governor Romney said, “Certainly we have to secure the border.” But neither offered a detailed explanation of what that might entail.
There is no doubt that America needs to be concerned about the threat of a nuclear Iran, a weakening Pakistan, and a job- and dollar-sucking China. But how can the two presidential candidates completely ignore during three debates the unprecedented levels of horrific violence happening right next door? How is a criminal insurgency fueled by insatiable American demand for illegal drugs not near the top of a national security concerns list for the next Administration?
Fortunately, the issue hasn’t been completely ignored. In July 2011, the White House published its Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, in which it clearly stated: “…the Administration has concluded that, in the intervening years, international —or transnational— organized crime has expanded dramatically in size, scope, and influence and that it poses a significant threat to national and international security.” In 2009, the Justice Department called them “the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.” But if both the White House and the Justice Department have issued reports about the threat cartels pose to US security, why isn’t a discussion about it debate-worthy?
For politicians, addressing Mexico’s drug war head-on usually involves talking about three very messy subjects: immigration, gun control, and drug policy. Forget the annoying fact that neither candidate could adequately explain what a secure border looks like or how they would achieve it. No elected official wants to touch on the specifics of a strategy for immigration reform or a revision of gun or drug laws in an election year. As if the butchery happening in Mexico every day—and increasingly to innocent people—weren’t ugly enough, airing opinions on drug war policy this close to Election Day seems to be an even uglier proposition.
Tragically, the real losers from the omission of this debate mention are the Mexican and American people. Imagine how outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderón views this repeated snub after years of sacrifice and criticism, and how incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto sees where his most important international relationship ranks on the totem pole of US security issues. Many Americans who don’t live near the southwest border are already under the impression that Mexico’s drug war isn’t their problem, hearing the repeated mantra that our borders are safer than ever and not knowing that cartel tentacles extend into virtually every American community.
At this point, voters can only hope that the winner on November 6th gets the message that immediately and publicly addressing the criminal insurgency happening right now in Mexico is just as important as helping Americans understand the threat emanating from Iran, China, and Pakistan. Otherwise, the continued silence will keep sending the message to Americans, Mexico, and the world that were more concerned about a nebulous threat 8,000 miles away than we are about the carnage right next door that we help inspire.