Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The border battle zone

La frontera como zona de batalla
Jorge Luis Sierra/Revista Contralinea

Gulf cartel gunman killed in a clash with Mexican Army forces yards from the Rio Grande: Matamoros, Tamaulipas. October 2010.  Mexican drug cartels have evolved into highly organized and powerfully armed paramilitary forces that can compete with the government for territorial control of drug trafficking routes and areas of criminal activity.  

The current government’s drug policy has transformed the United States-Mexico border into a war zone. The battles are bloody, the weapons are military grade, casualties number in the tens of thousands. The number of innocent victims, noncombatants, have multiplied.

The number of Mexicans involved in this armed conflict is enormous. Nearly one million people are engaged in armed hostilities. About 550,000 constitute the military and federal, state and municipal police forces, the remainder are people who work for drug traffickers.

Despite the force used to reduce or eliminate the drug cartels, the war seems to have no end or victory. Drug kingpins and important “sicarios” have been arrested or killed but these losses have been quickly replaced. The illegal drug trade is essentially undisturbed, with no major changes in supply and demand.

How do we make sense of a war which multiplies the casualties on both sides, affecting large sectors of the population and, moreover, lacks a clear sense of victory? This question does not seem to be echoed by the government, whose leaders have decided to fight the war using the armed forces against organized criminal groups. This violence affects at least 11 of the 14 sister cities located in this approximately 1,900 mile border.

Mexican Marines on patrol in the border town of Piedras Negras, Coahuila: May 2011. Sources in Piedras Negras estimate that up to 300 men, women and children, some of them innocent civilians with no links to organized crime, have been abducted and murdered in northern Coahuila in 2011. Mexico's drug war has descended into such savagery that the spouses, children and even friends of drug traffickers and government forces are no longer seen as noncombatants.

Most of the more than 34,000 people killed in this conflict have fallen in this area, disrupting the lives of a population that, paradoxically, is growing rapidly and in a few years could reach up to 24 million people on both sides of the border.

The scale of violence has led to a heightened state of alert by the U.S. government and state authorities in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas who fear the spread of this violence into their territory and the corruption of their own police agencies. The United States has deployed National Guard troops and small units of special forces have arrived in a discreet manner to the border towns most affected by violence.

National Guardsmen and Border Patrol agents in Arizona monitor the U.S.-Mexico border. 1,200 Guardsmen were deployed to the border, 560 in Arizona, in 2010 to act mainly as a deterrent against the spillover of drug violence from Mexico. The deployment is scheduled to end in June, 2011.

On the Mexican side, state and municipal police forces in Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas are severely infiltrated by the drug cartels, which prevents any rapid demilitarization of the conflict. The Mexican Army's traditional presence in the border area has been bolstered by large contingents of soldiers and sailors intermittently deployed to points where incidents of violence erupt.

The dimension of armed hostilities is also proportional to the strategic nature of the border’s economic and commercial infrastructure. There are 350 million border crossings each year from Mexico and, according to U.S. authorities, the number of trucks crossing from Mexico annually to the United States exceeds 4.5 million.

The most important point is the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo crossing. Just to give an example of the amount of commercial traffic, legal or illegal, which occurs at that specific point on the border: each day 4,800 trucks crossed the international bridges between these sister cities located in the southern part of the Texas-Tamaulipas border. This crossing accounts for 60 percent of total freight traffic between Mexico and the United States.

Heavily armed Border Patrol agent on board a Diamondback airboat patrols the Rio Grande: World Trade bridge, Laredo Tx. 2008. Border Patrol agents have come under increasing attack by drug and human traffickers as the violence escalates in Mexico. Three agents have been murdered on the U.S-Mexico border since 2008.

For organized crime the geographic and economic importance of this border crossing is very high because in spite of the modernization of U.S. and Mexican customs there is apparently not enough capacity, human or technological, to check all the cargo crossing each day.

For that reason, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo is a strategic site for the business of organized crime and an area where the big cartels that are changing the life of this border region have confronted each other: the Gulf cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, La Familia and Los Zetas. A similar situation occurs with two other principal points on the border: Tijuana-San Diego and Ciudad Juárez-El Paso.

The rest of the desert border is practically a no man's land. There is the Sonora macrodesert which covers 139,000 square miles of Sonora, California and Arizona. The harsh climate in the region has been lethal as more than 5,000 immigrants have died of dehydration while trying to cross the border illegally. To wage the battle against illegal immigration under better odds, the U.S. decided to wall off the urban areas around the border crossings and divert illegal immigration to the deserts of Arizona and the arid mountains of New Mexico. Drug traficking was not diminished, of course, but conditions for the undocumented immigrant reached its most dangerous point.

According to official sources 24 gunmen were killed in a battle between two rival groups of drug and human traffickers outside the community of Tubutama, Sonora, 12 miles from the border crossing at Sasabe, Arizona on June 30th, 2010. Unofficially, the body count was more that 40 gunmen. Among the dead were several members of the Nogales, Sonora municipal police force.

Government neglect on both sides of the border has made this a region conducive to the recruitment of hired assassins and drug traffickers. The border population on both sides is predominantly poor. Their income level is similar to the poorest regions of Latin America and parts of the border economic map show a per capita income of less than 7,800 dollars annually.

Although the common border is a priority in national security for both countries, spending on social infrastructure does not match that level of importance. The population on the U.S. side of the border receives the least federal financial aid and is the region with the highest incidence of death from tuberculosis and hepatitis.

The most disadvantaged people on the U.S. side live in about 1,200 “colonias” in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, which are unincorporated subdivisions without municipal governments in rural areas at high risk of flooding and no drainage or potable water. About 300,000 people live in these colonias, exposed to pressure from gangs and drug dealers who have established safe houses, drug warehouses and illegal immigrant staging areas there.

Prison gang members from impoverished inner city barrios and rural colonias work as enforcers, executioners and distributors in the U.S. for Mexican drug cartels. Some gangs, such as "Barrio Azteca" above, have spread south of the border and serve as executioners inside Mexico.

What has been the social and economic impact of this conflict? There is still no credible and effective evaluation. Some evidence suggests an increasing detrimental impact. In Ciudad Juarez, authorities reported the closure of 10,000 businesses in recent months and the loss of 100,000 jobs and the diversion of 450 million pesos of investment. International groups for the protection of the displaced say that about 250,000 Mexicans have been displaced by the violence. Half of them found refuge in the United States and the other half migrated to other parts of Mexico.

Do we know what the limits will be in human casualties and economic, social and material damages? The current government insists that the strategy is adequate and that military and police operations against drug traffickers is not the cause of the violence. This position will lead to even more years of armed conflict in Mexico because this is a war in all its dimensions, despite the government’s assurances to the contrary.

Unarmed Predator drones now patrol the sky over the U.S-Mexico border from California to Texas. One sign of the U.S.'s deepening involvement in Mexico's drug war is the use of these drones within Mexican airspace to provide aerial reconnaissance in support of Mexican military operations.



  1. The only people not reaping huge financial benefits from the bloody violence are the low income victims caught in the endless crossfire.

  2. Whether Mexico wants to believe it or is civil war. The drug cartels are competing with the government for control. People think the solution is to legalize drugs in Mexico. Wrong! Legalization will not quell the violence because the drug cartels will simply began to fight amongst themselves again, in an effort to gain a monopoly on the drug trade. The drug cartels are not fighting with each other because drugs are illegal rather they are fighting over territory (drug routes/plazas). People argue, President Calderon made a grave error, when he activated the military to combat this problem. What other course of action could he have taken? The civil police force has been/is infiltrated by the drug cartels. The point is Mexico is desperately trying to win back it's country from the criminal grip of the drug cartels..civil war!

  3. Personal use drugs have been legal in Mexico for 4 years," the current govt drug policy has transformed the Tex /Mex border into a war zone" Calderon BASHING, JUST what DRUG policy do the liberal journalist want?? Fully half the crime in Mexico is not drug crime,kidnapping,theft,robbery,extortion(protection) How can people in Mexico live their lives in peace IF the Govt Quits and turns the country over to CRIMINAL GANGS?? DO YOU believe life under the control of crime bosses would be better?? THIS article appears to argue,that the Fed Gov should abandonits attempts to bring Law and order to the States of Mexico!! Maby I just don't get it??

  4. I've seen the so called special forces at the border town of Ajo Arizona last week. I couldn't help but ask them who they were and apparently are a private military contractor company. They sure could've fooled me! They were driving around in armored vehicles that can probably go deep into the desert and they looked like they were armed to the teeth! Whatever their cause or mission was, I sure felt safe staying in Ajo Arizona!

  5. Obama lectures the president of Israel about their borders and does as little as possible about the US/Mexico border.

  6. History makes it very clear that drug legalization on both sides of the border is the ONLY solution to this incredible violence. During Prohibition alcohol was restricted and expensive. The US gangs shot it out with everyone but when Prohibition was lifted, their profits plummeted eliminating the motivation for violent competition. Alcohol suppliers resorted to the courts for disputes. We don't see Budweiser shooting it out with Coors, Miller, or Tecate. In fact we don't see any legal market competitors shooting it out. Create a legal marketplace for drugs in order to eliminate the insane profits and the violence.


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