By Col. Robert Killebrew, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense criminal cartels correspondent
The media has picked up on the Mexican cartel wars, and Hillary Clinton's high-level trip down there is an indication of official concern. From where I sit, the danger now is that we'll overreact, in the grand old American tradition, and do more harm than good. The danger of doing so is particularly acute in regard to Mexico, which has a key presidential election coming up in 2012 and whose continued fight against the cartels is by no means assured. Here are some thoughts.
First, Mexico is only one part, though probably the most important one, of a theater of operations that stretches from the Venezuelan-Cuban-Iranian alliance and the Andean Ridge, through Columbia and the FARC, up the cartel-controlled drug routes through Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico, and into the United States, where the cartels control most of the wholesale drug distribution in the US and "subcontract" to the Latino gangs (and others) for retail sales. The same outfits that slit throats in Mexico are also operating in Atlanta.
Second, it's not just about drugs. The Venezuelan alliance is almost a classic geopolitical attempt to deny the US access to Latin America -- probably including Mexico -- and to gain access to our southern border. FARC is not only the world's largest producer of cocaine, but continues to be a murderous terrorist insurgency. The cartels, which are fast becoming a worldwide concern, are not only about drugs, but also about control of territory and other criminal activities -- murder, kidnapping, extortion, counterfeiting, money laundering, among others. This is emphatically not the old, "comfortable" Mafia, and legalizing drugs, even if it were possible, would not make these trans-national criminal organizations go away, particularly when they have the support of narco-states like Venezuela has become. They will just shift to other sources of income.
Third, this issue can be understood through strategic analysis, just like any other strategic problem. But I don't see that happening now. This theater, from the Andean Ridge to Minneapolis and Vancouver, has geography, population and resources, just like any other theater. The two sides have decisive points, a center of gravity apiece, vulnerabilities. It's past time to build a comprehensive theater strategy -- that's what my current work at CNAS is about. The interesting thing is that at the very basic level, this "war" isn't about drugs, really, but about the things that war has always been about -- that is, control of territory and populations. Politics, in other words. Drugs are just the venue.
So, reporters reading this, remember: It's not just about Mexico, and it is something that Clausewitz, the great Prussian philosopher of war, would understand.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.