Mexico Drug Violence Spurs Worry In U.S.

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Mexico doesn't usually top the agenda of a new U.S. administration. But with drug violence on the rise, calls have been growing for the United States to do more to help its neighbor to the south.

Denise Dresser, a columnist and professor at Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico in Mexico City, offered scholars at the Woodrow Wilson Center a personal view of the security troubles in Mexico.

She recently got word that her daughter was kidnapped. It was a false alarm, but it took 10 minutes to reach her daughter, who was at a sleepover party.

"In those 10 minutes, I died," Dresser said, "because I didn't know what to do. I didn't know who to call. I didn't know if I called the police, or whether the police were involved."

Dresser said the incident was deeply reflective of the incapacity of the government to provide basic security for Mexicans, adding that Mexican President Felipe Calderon needs more help in the war on the drug cartels.

"He's saddled with an ill-trained, corrupt police force, an army that is stretched too thin, an ineffectual judiciary, a penal system in which jails have become command-and-control centers for organized crime activities, including the instance of alleged kidnapping of my daughter," Dresser said.

She says that the Merida Initiative — a $1.5 billion, multiyear U.S. aid program started under the Bush administration — is not enough. President Barack Obama has said he supports the program, which is just beginning to help train and equip Mexican authorities.

Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, says Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton understand that the fight the Mexicans face is one that is "crucial both to Mexico, but also crucial to the United States, and that we need to be engaged immediately."

In an interview with NPR, Shannon says the U.S. is trying to cut through red tape and to get needed assistance to Mexican authorities quickly, including airlift capabilities for Mexican troops and police.

U.S. intelligence officials say a collapse in Mexico is one of their nightmare scenarios, and several new studies have been raising anxiety levels further in the United States.

Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, brushed off some of the more dire warnings, which he said are promoted by people seeking "juicy deals" with contractors in Mexico.

Shannon, with the U.S. State Department, says he does not believe that Mexico will become a failed state, as some have warned. However, he says "the struggle is real" and the ability of the Mexican state to continue political and economic reforms is "at risk."

"Organized crime and trafficking cartels are trying to hobble the state and weaken it so that it can't interfere with their activities," he says.

A former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow, says the U.S. shouldn't fool itself into thinking it can solve all of Mexico's problems.

"We cannot deny the responsibility of the United States in terms of a market for drugs and a sales point for guns," Davidow says. "But the fact of the matter is not much of what the United States is going to do, in the short term, is going to have an impact on this horrendous growth of insecurity."

Davidow worries that U.S. relations with Mexico tend to focus on just one issue — and these days, that issue is security.

But Shannon says the U.S. is trying to focus on security, without losing sight of the broader issues it faces with a major trading partner and neighbor.

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