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Mexico Drug War Threatens Civil Rule

A recent Pentagon document suggested that Mexico could become a failed state as drug trafficking cartels continue to challenge government authority with widespread violence. Authorities in towns on the U.S. side of the 3,000 kilometer border are expressing concern that the Mexican war could spill over into their communities.

Texas state officials are developing contingency plans for the border region in case Mexico's violent drug war surges over the border. Local police in many Texas border towns say they need more state and federal help. What is happening in Mexico is a three-way war, carried out between two competing drug cartels and between them and the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who took on the cartels after he took office in December, 2006.

The Austin-based Stratfor company, which provides government and private sector clients with analysis on a wide variety of international issues, has been keeping close watch on Mexico. Stratfor analyst Marco Papic says there is a chance the Mexican government may pull back from the war on drugs in order to address the overall breakdown in law and order in the border region.

"We are watching for signs that the Mexican government decides, 'It is much more important to solve the violence, so let us negotiate with the cartels to have some sort of truce so that we can clean up all this other ancillary crime that is going on, especially the spike in kidnapping and so on,' " Papic said.

Marco Papic says Mexican government forces may have had little luck in curbing cartel murders, but they have had some impact on smuggling operations.

"We are seeing the drug flow actually divert from the border and into the Caribbean again," Papic said. "We are even seeing strange drug flows from the Galapagos Islands up to the United States, trying to avoid Mexico because the Mexican government efforts have, at times, been actually effective."

So far very little of the violence in Mexico has spilled over into the United States and Papic says he does not expect that to change, since it would not be in the drug traffickers' interest to provoke a U.S. clampdown on the border.

"Drug cartels need commercial traffic to continue," Papic said. "Any sort of disruption of commercial traffic across the border, any sort of large scale stoppage of the flow of goods and people would actually make it a lot more difficult for the Mexican cartels to ship drugs."

For similar reasons, Papic does not believe the drug cartels want to see a failed state or a total collapse of government authority in Mexico.

"For the cartels, the real issue here is not to topple the Mexican government," Papic said. "For them, the Mexican government is a great conduit for doing business because Mexican government officials are corruptible."

Observers close to the border say Mexico may yet be able to gain control of the situation. Professor Howard Campbell at the University of Texas in El Paso, says Mexican society is far more resilient than some critics might think.

"I don't think the Mexican state is going to fail, I don't think Mexican society is going to fail in some total collapse way. What we have are serious threats to public security," Campbell said. "But these are things that can be minimized and lessened if Mexico and the United States work together, identify the most serious and real problems and try to fight them in very focused ways."

Campbell says one of the things the United States can do is make a greater effort to stop gun smugglers. Most of the guns used in shootings in Mexico can be traced to the United States, where private citizens have much broader rights to buy and sell firearms than do average citizens in Mexico.

"It seems to me the United States should bear the brunt of responsibility for trying to stop the flow of weapons from the U.S. to Mexican drug cartels because we are the source of those guns," Campbell said. "I know many people do not like this, but it seems to me the most effective measure would be control of the sale of weapons."

But enacting stricter controls on gun sales in the United States is politically difficult because gun owners see such measures as a violation of the right to bear arms guaranteed by the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many guns are bought and sold privately or at gun shows with little or no documentation. U.S. Authorities have concentrated their efforts on arresting and prosecuting people who have conspired to smuggle large quantities of weapons into Mexico in violation of both U.S. and Mexican law.