Washington, D.C. – It's a war the so-called mainstream media has apparently decided to ignore. Though the death toll is higher than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, it evidently isn't worth covering; and unless you're reading this in the American Southwest, you probably haven't even heard about it.
The conflict, a full-blown narco-insurgency, has claimed the lives of more than 17,000 combatants and innocents, threatens to undo several democratically elected governments and poses a real and present danger to the United States. It's not the one being fought in Afghanistan. It's the war being waged from the Andean basin all the way north to the Rio Grande.
Last week, while our Fox News team was in Texas and New Mexico on a completely unrelated matter, "the war next door" was the principal topic of conversation among the "locals" we encountered. Just days before we arrived, 16 teenagers celebrating a birthday party were machine-gunned in Ciudad Juarez, less than a mile from the U.S. border. In the last 12 months, nearly 2,700 people have been murdered in this border city — a thousand more than the previous year — making it the deadliest place to live on the planet.
The Mexican drug cartels perpetrating the violence next door are competing for "distribution rights" in the lucrative marijuana, hashish and cocaine market on this side of the porous U.S.-Mexican border. According to current and former officials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Mexican cartels — most of them "family organizations" — have become the "delivery service" for cocaine that originates in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela. These "distributors" are now exporting their violence as well. According to the Department of Justice, cartel "hit teams" have carried out murders and kidnappings in more than 230 American cities. Phoenix, Arizona, seems headed for becoming the kidnapping capital of the U.S.
Though overall violent crime has declined in Arizona generally and Phoenix in particular, kidnapping has spiked from fewer than 50 cases in 2005 to more than 350 last year. Local and state law enforcement authorities say nearly all of this increased crime is directly connected to the illicit drug trade coming across the state's 375-mile border with Mexico.
When our Fox News team accompanied DEA and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents on patrols along the border, they described "routine ambushes and shootouts" that occur when heavily-armed cartel members are moving narcotics north. The most recent report by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) predicts increasing violence as the Mexican cartels engage in "ruthless targeting of rivals." The U.S. Department of Justice describes Mexican drug cartels as the "largest threat to both citizens and law enforcement agencies."
The Obama administration seems to be of two minds about what needs to be done about the problem. To their credit, they have continued to fund and even expand the Bush administration's Mérida Initiative, aimed at improving Mexico's internal police and security services with $1.6 billion in training and equipment. Unfortunately, Obama administration officials also speak routinely about "reforming U.S. drug laws," suggesting that "user amounts" of illicit narcotics would no longer be a criminal offense. How this will reduce the demand for drugs in America is hard to fathom.
There are other challenges the administration has failed to address as well. Everyone involved – from the Andean basin to the streets of Chicago knows that the flow drugs north won't stop until the flow of money south is interdicted. Arizona's Attorney General, Terry Goddard, recently won a major settlement with Western Union about illicit financial transactions. The Departments of Justice and Treasury lauded the outcome of this contentious issue, because Western Union has agreed to turn over money transfer data on suspicious transactions.
Arrests and prosecutions from this information are likely. Equally certain is that the cartels will look for new ways to move money. According to those engaged in this fight, cartel bosses are always looking for new ways to move drugs and money. Unfortunately, our ability to detect cash transfers through European banking institutions suffered a crippling setback last month when the European Commission shut down U.S. law enforcement and intelligence access to the Terrorist Financial Tracking System (SWIFT) that had been so carefully created in the aftermath of 9/11.
If the Obama administration is serious about stopping the violence threatening Americans from our southern border, they need to initiate some urgent diplomacy to reinvigorate SWIFT and stop talking about "legalization."
— Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of "War Stories" on Fox News Channel and the author of "American Heroes."