As gunbattles raged across western Mexico this week, a new U.S. Senate report warns the United States must do more to bolster the south-of-the-border war on drug-trafficking cartels.
"Violence in Mexico continues unhindered without any signs of slowing," states an accompanying letter signed by the seven members of the U.S. Senate's Caucus on International Narcotics Control, including Texas' Sen. John Cornyn.
Skirmishes more akin to guerrilla warfare than underworld score-settling killed dozens of people and drove several thousand more from their homes this week as gunmen battled both criminal rivals and security forces.
The Senate report praises Mexico's efforts and partially echoes Mexican officials' complaints that the United States isn't doing enough to stop the southward flow of narcotics proceeds. And it concurs in part with the official Mexican position that escalating violence reflects the desperation of drug gangs battered by the government offensive.
Organized crime mayhem has killed about 40,000 people in Mexico since in little more than four years.
The Mexican government's efforts have resulted in the capture of dozens of the country's most wanted traffickers. But those arrests actually have spawned more criminal organizations, notes the report, prepared in part with assistance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The report declares that United States needs to work with Mexico to take on everything from how the cartels tunnel under the U.S.-Mexico border; to the way they move billions in narcotics profits home. The cartels exploit weaknesses of police in both countries, the report notes.
Mexico has about 450,000 law enforcement personnel, notes the report, which contends police remain under trained, under equipped and that corruption runs rampant.
Among the glaring shortcomings pointed out is the need by both governments to learn more about how the cartels sneak home between $18 billion and $39 billion in cash proceeds each year: "Trucks filled with bulk cash literally are being driven across the U.S.-Mexico border," notes the report. "Far too little is known about the financial structures and procedures of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations," it continues.
"On both sides of the border, U.S. and Mexican authorities' efforts to understand drug trafficking organizations' finances are severely lacking."
One of the ways in which gangsters launder money is with prepaid gift and credit cards, which allow them to hide cash and avoid bank reporting requirements.
The senators' call for a redoubled U.S. effort comes in a week when bloody battles, among gang rivals and between them and security forces, rampaged through much of Western Mexico, claiming dozens of lives.
At least 30 men were killed in Nayarit state, on the Pacific Coast north of the tourist mecca of Puerto Vallarta, when gunmen ambushed a rival convoy making its way down a major commercial and drug trafficking route that ends at the Arizona-Mexico border.
Feuding factions of the La Familia narcotics organization fought it out in rural areas of Michoacan state, down the coast from Nayarit, forcing as many as 2,500 villagers to flee for their lives. Hundreds of Mexican troops and federal police were dispatched to the conflict zone Friday to restore order.
"What we are witnessing is the power and the firepower of these criminal bands," Oscar Herrera, Nayarit's attorney general, told a news conference. "Of course, these aren't ordinary criminals."
Thomas Harrigan, the DEA's chief of operations, told senators this week the lessons learned from the rise in violence from fighting Mexico's drug cartels should be used to shape new efforts to fight the cartels' spread to Central America.
"We must manage expectations, and accept that as (counternarcotics) efforts increased in Mexico, so too did violence," he said.
"We will work with our foreign partners to explore means of lessening the degree of any similar outcome in Central America," he continued. "We must recognize that, in such violence, we are witnessing acts of true desperation — the actions of wounded, vulnerable, and dangerous criminal organizations."