Although the number of reports about the drug war south of the border has increased in the last few years, it’s still miniscule compared to the volume of news about Afghanistan, the economy, and the 2012 US presidential election. As such, the bits of information the American public gets exposed to can often be skewed, and present a haphazard impression of the drug war and the impact it has on US national security.
To help clarify some of the major issues surrounding the drug war and border security, here is a “Top Ten” list of myths associated with those issues:
1. The drug war is Mexico’s problem, and we shouldn’t get involved. Unfortunately, it’s very much our problem. The American demand for illegal drugs is higher than ever, and because of that demand (and the fact that certain drugs are illegal), our two countries are inextricably entwined in this mess. The very nature of the drug trafficking business has resulted in people either working directly for or on behalf of Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) having a presence in over 1,000 US cities. Essentially, anywhere in the United States where there’s a demand for illegal drugs, you’re going to find a connection to Mexican TCOs.
2. It’s just criminals attacking other criminals; let them kill each other off. Perhaps several years ago, that used to be the case. But TCOs like Los Zetas are increasingly targeting innocent civilians for kidnapping and ransom operations, executing Mexican and Central American migrants if they don’t agree to work for them, or just not really caring if bystanders die in one of their attacks. The age, professionalism, and level of expertise of TCO hitmen have decreased dramatically, meaning the likelihood of non-criminals being injured or killed in a TCO shootout or grenade attack has increased significantly.
3. We know where most of the guns being used illegally in Mexico are coming from. This is easily the most polarized argument related to the drug war. One side claims that anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of firearms being used by the TCOs come from US points of sale, based on ATF trace data. The other side claims that only a small number of TCO guns comes from the United States, and the vast majority come from either Central America, Asia, former Eastern Bloc countries, or Mexican military and law enforcement stock. The hard truth is that no one knows exactly how many guns the TCOs have, how many of those guns come from what sources, and what proportion of their weapons are military-grade and what proportion are handguns and rifles.
4. Our borders are being overrun with gun-toting criminals, and the entire southwest border is a war zone. There are several major cities along the southwest border that have extremely low violent crime rates. In fact, the city of El Paso, Texas was ranked by CQ Press as the safest city in the United States in 2010, and it’s directly across the border from Ciudad Juárez, the deadliest city in the Western Hemisphere. There are no shootouts going on in downtown Nogales, or San Diego, or Houston. People on the US side of the border can still safely go to work, go to the supermarket, take their children to school, etc. However, it's also untrue to say that...
5. Our southwest border is as safe as it’s ever been. This statement has been uttered repeatedly by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and has been viewed skeptically by many (with good reason). She cites FBI crime statistics to validate this statement, but those statistics don’t take into account violent incidents that occur in more rural areas of the border. Also, many drug war-related incidents on the US side of the border are never reported because they’re committed against illegal immigrants or other criminals, who either don’t want to get deported or go to jail. Moreover, Mexican nationals who are arrested and whose crimes are entered into these police databases rarely self-identify as members of a TCO, so capturing that data is next to impossible. The first beheading related to the drug war occurred in Chandler, Arizona last year, and cross-border kidnappings continue in San Diego, Phoenix, and several other smaller US border towns and cities. Only a few days ago, there was a shootout on a McAllen, Texas expressway between associates of the Gulf cartel. Ranchers' homes in rural parts of Texas and Arizona are routinely being burglarized and their lands trespassed on by migrants and armed smugglers. Portions of US national parks along the border are closed to the public directly because of violent smuggling activity in those areas. And drug smugglers are more willing to engage US law enforcement in the process of getting their drug loads across the border.
6. I live in a state pretty far away from the southwest border, so I don’t really need to be concerned about drug-related violence happening so far away. As mentioned above, Mexican TCOs have a presence in over 1,000 US cities. Take St. Louis, for example—a typical Midwest city roughly 1,000 miles northeast of the border. The city’s use of black tar heroin—and subsequently heroin overdoses by young people—has exploded in the last two years, and that heroin is coming from Mexico. Seattle has a huge crystal methamphetamine problem, and again, that meth is being supplied by Mexican TCOs. Denver, Detroit, Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and other major US cities not along the border serve as hub cities for TCO drug distribution within the United States. And of the top ten US states with marijuana plantations being run by armed men working for the TCOs, only one (California) is located on the southwest border.
7. We should just send in a few thousand troops or some Special Forces guys to get rid of those drug lords for good. A US military presence in Mexico is the last thing the Mexican government or the Mexican people want. The United States has a negative history of intervention in Latin America going back over 150 years, and as bad as things are in Mexico right now, they’re not bad enough to even put that option on the table for consideration. US Northern Command is taking great pains to ensure that both the American public and the Mexican people understand that any US military assistance provided to the Mexican government is by request only, and with their full consent.
8. Sealing (or fencing off) the entire border will take care of the problem. The border fence is one of the more controversial subjects related to border security these days. Our southwest border with Mexico is about 2,000 miles long, and current US law mandates the construction and maintenance of only about 735 miles of fence. Many Americans advocate a fence running the entire length of the border to keep everybody out. That is both unnecessary and impractical. There are many parts of the border where lack of foot traffic and harsh environment don’t require the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars to build a fence. Also, experience has taught border agencies that smugglers and migrants will always find a way over, under, or through. Finally, the sheer volume of cross-border traffic and business that occurs on a daily basis between the United States and Mexico makes shutting down the border an impossible task.
9. Kicking out all illegal immigrants will take care of the problem. People who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the drug war and border security issues sometimes have a tendency to confuse border violence with immigration problems. It’s true that both drug smugglers and illegal immigrants often cross the southwest border in similar ways. More TCOs are becoming involved in the human smuggling business, and migrants are increasingly being targeted by some TCOs for kidnapping, or are being forced to transport illegal drugs in exchange for their safety. However, the main difference is that there are hundreds of thousands of migrants who just want to come here to make better lives for themselves, and have no criminal history. There are thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of drug smugglers and criminals who come here to smuggle illegal drugs and engage in other criminal behavior. Current border policy of border crosser interdiction does not differentiate between the two, or prioritize one over the other. This can lead to a misallocation of limited resources; i.e. Border Patrol agents spending many hours going after non-criminal migrants when that time could be better spent going after violent drug smugglers.
10. Legalizing marijuana will take out a huge chunk of TCO profits and hit them hard in their wallets. Perhaps a few years ago, this would have been more true. However, most TCOs have expanded their operations well beyond drug trafficking to make up for any shortfalls in drug income. Some experts believe drug income accounts for only 50 percent of TCO profits, with the other 50 percent coming from kidnapping for ransom, extortion, fuel theft, media piracy, and other illegal activities. Of their drug income, it used to be that the US government thought 60 percent of TCO drug income came from marijuana sales in the United States. New studies show that marijuana actually may only account for as low as 15-26 percent of drug income, with the rest coming from methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. TCOs are very smart, flexible, and adaptable organizations. The legalization of marijuana may hit them financially in the short term, but they’d manage to get around it and keep going. This isn't to say marijuana shouldn't be legalized; I firmly believe it should for several logical reasons, and any little bit we can do to hurt the TCOs' profits is better than nothing; I just don't think it's the silver-bullet solution some people think it is.
While there are several other myths and misconceptions about the drug war, I feel these are the most common—at least in the United States. Feel free to insert your own in the comments section. And if you want to read more about the basics of the drug war and what it all really means, pick up a copy of my new book, Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars, at your nearest bookstore or on Amazon.com!