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.
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.
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.
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.