The U.S. Defense Department thinks Mexico's two most deadly drug cartels together have fielded more than 100,000 foot soldiers - an army that rivals Mexico's armed forces and threatens to turn the country into a narco-state.
"It's moving to crisis proportions," a senior U.S. defense official told The Washington Times. The official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitive nature of his work, said the cartels' "foot soldiers" are on a par with Mexico's army of about 130,000.
The disclosure underlines the enormity of the challenge Mexico and the United States face as they struggle to contain what is increasingly looking like a civil war or an insurgency along the U.S.-Mexico border. In the past year, about 7,000 people have died - more than 1,000 in January alone. The conflict has become increasingly brutal, with victims beheaded and bodies dissolved in vats of acid.
The death toll dwarfs that in Afghanistan, where about 200 fatalities, including 29 U.S. troops, were reported in the first two months of 2009. About 400 people, including 31 U.S. military personnel, died in Iraq during the same period.
The biggest and most violent combatants are the Sinaloa cartel, known by U.S. and Mexican federal law enforcement officials as the "Federation" or "Golden Triangle," and its main rival, "Los Zetas" or the Gulf Cartel, whose territory runs along the Laredo,Texas, borderlands.
The two cartels appear to be negotiating a truce or merger to defeat rivals and better withstand government pressure. U.S. officials say the consequences of such a pact would be grave.
"I think if they merge or decide to cooperate in a greater way, Mexico could potentially have a national security crisis," the defense official said. He said the two have amassed so many people and weapons that Mexican President Felipe Calderon is "fighting for his life" and "for the life of Mexico right now."
As a result, Mexico is behind only Pakistan and Iran as a top U.S. national security concern, ranking above Afghanistan and Iraq, the defense official added.
Other U.S. officials and Mexico specialists agreed with this assessment.
Michael V. Hayden, who left as CIA director in January, put Mexico second to Iran as a top national security threat to the United States. His successor, Leon E. Panetta, told reporters at his first news conference that the agency is "paying ... a lot of attention to" Mexico.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday that "the stakes are high for the safety of many, many citizens of Mexico and the stakes are high for the United States no doubt."
In a December interview with The Times, President Bush said his successor would need to deal "with these drug cartels in our own neighborhood. And the front line of the fight will be Mexico."
A State Department travel advisory last month seemed timed to caution U.S. students contemplating spring breaks south of the border.
"Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades," the advisory said.
Independent analysts warn that narco-terrorists have infiltrated the Mexican government, creating a shadow regime that further complicates efforts to contain and destroy the cartels.
"My greatest fear is that the tentacles of the shadow government grow stronger, that the cartels have penetrated the government and that they will be able to act with impunity and that this ever stronger shadow government will effectively evolve into a narco-state," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.
The Mexican Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the drug war.
Mr. Calderon, however, has adamantly denied assertions that Mexico is becoming a failed state.