Gang violence that plagues Mexico is worsening and could spill over into the United States, according to a new report by a consultant on Gov. Rick Perry's Texas Border Security Council.
While Mexican President Felipe Calderón has deployed as many as 20,000 troops and federal police to battle the country's powerful drug cartels, gangsters are fighting among themselves for 0dominance as the flow of drugs continues into America.
The 17-page document to be released Wednesday said that more than 2,100 people were killed in drug-related violence since Jan. 1, making 2007 the deadliest year yet.
The U.S. side of the border is vulnerable because, the report asserted, law enforcement is poorly coordinated, undersupplied and sometimes corrupt.
But drug violence, which has become a part of daily life in many Mexican border communities, has not materialized to a significant extent in American sister cities.
The document's chief author is Fred Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism agent, now of the Austin-based Stratfor consulting firm. It comes as U.S. and Mexican officials are putting the finishing touches on an anti-narcotics aid package worth at least $1 billion.
Praising Calderón's resolve to take on the drug traffickers in the first 11 months of his six-year term, U.S. officials said the aid for Mexico is essential for both countries.
"We can't afford to screw up this opportunity," U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said last week as he left for a meeting in Mexico City to discuss the aid package with senior Calderón administration officials. "We've not seen this kind of opportunity to impact the gangs."
Although Calderón's offensive against the cartels appeared to have little effect in its early months, gangland killings steadily declined through the spring and summer after peaking at 319 in March, according to the Mexican government. Some 195 gangland-style killings were reported in August.
The bloodletting has slackened in Nuevo Laredo - across the border from Laredo - in Acapulco and in the towns of Michoacan state where many of last year's killings took place.
"There is a lessened expression of violence," Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora told foreign reporters recently. "We think the criminal organizations have changed their strategy as a reaction to the forceful response by the Mexican government."
But Burton's report asserted that despite Calderón's efforts, the security situation in Mexico is deteriorating, even if the cartels have generally been careful about who they kill.
"Cartel hitmen use a variety of techniques to kill and intimidate rival drug traffickers, as well as uncooperative or corrupt police and civil officials," it said. "The level of brutality involved rivals that of tactics used by death squads in Iraq, but Mexican cartel violence is noteworthy in that it is usually more precise and carefully targeted."
Few systems are in place to keep the violence from spreading across the border, Burton's report said. "The majority of this vulnerability comes from Mexico, where an institutionalized system of corruption and intimidation exists."
It continues: "On the U.S. side, however, the under-reporting of crimes ... and corruption among low- and mid-level U.S. law enforcement officials facilitate the northward spread of cartel activity."
The Associated Press reported in August that at least seven killings in Laredo in the last two years were linked to the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels; arrests have been made in most cases. Rosalio "Bart" Reta, a 17-year-old U.S. citizen and alleged soldier for the Gulf cartel, pleaded guilty this summer to a Laredo killing and still faces charges on others.
Webb County Sheriff Rick Flores told the Associated Press that Wednesday's report points out what he and his officers already know firsthand in the Laredo area.
"We know that the warring cartels have the resources, and we know that they have a lot of control over the border communities and we know that the threat is imminent," Flores said. "Yes, we do have spillover violence on this side."
Traffickers are fighting for control of smuggling routes from ports and to northern border cities they use as trampolines into the United States.
Despite the report's criticism, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Steve Robertson said the United States and its Latin American partners have landed major punches in the past year.
He pointed to more than $205 million in cash found in an upscale home in Mexico City in March, believed to be the largest cash seizure in law-enforcement history, and the seizure that same month of about 21 tons of cocaine aboard a ship believed to be headed for Mexico.
Also, as U.S. and Mexican officials negotiated the aid package, Mexico's successes stacked up. Its soldiers captured 3.2 tons of cocaine from a private jet forced to crash land in the Yucatan Peninsula in September, and they recovered nearly 12 tons of the drug after a raid on a warehouse in Tampico earlier this month.
This week, Mexican customs agents seized 15 tons of precursor chemicals used to make crystal methamphetamine.
"Actually, 2007 has been very successful for DEA and our Mexican counterparts ... ," Robertson said. "We are optimistic we are making a difference. To the naysayers - the apologists who say we are not making progress - we will continue to fight the good fight."
Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Perry, said the state is trying to fortify the border but needs more federal help. She pointed to a recent program in which state funds have been used to pay overtime to keep more police and other officers on guard along the Rio Grande.
"There are people who seek to do us harm," she said. "This report underscores why we must remain vigilant."
(Associated Press Staff Writer Kelly Shannon contributed to this report. To reach Dane Schiller, e-mail [email protected])
©Laredo Morning Times 2007