Drug-related violence in Mexico is escalating at an alarming rate and threatening the government of President Felipe Calderon.
CIA and U.S. military planners now fear a worst-case scenario — that the country could implode.
The American military is quietly stepping in with more training.
It seems that every night in Mexico there are reports of drug-related violence — murders, kidnappings, armed battles with police, narco-traffickers who outgun even the Mexican army with their rocket-propelled grenades.
"Thousands [have been] murdered this year," says retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who served as U.S. drug czar under President Clinton. He visited Mexico recently and painted a desperate picture.
"I mean squad-sized units of police officers and soldiers abducted, tortured to death, decapitated. So the violence is simply shocking and we've got to help," he says.
The violence led the CIA to add Mexico to its list of crises to watch over the next year, alongside longstanding problems like al-Qaida. And U.S. military planners fear Mexico could become a failed state.
So, what would that mean for the United States?
"You have maybe unplanned or unanticipated migration of people" into the U.S. to flee the violence, says Navy Capt. Sean Buck, a strategic planner with the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command. "You have a humanitarian situation in which we may feel compelled to respond to with other nation states and partners."
The sort of humanitarian situation that the U.S. finds in places like Africa.
So, the American military, including the National Guard, would find itself providing temporary shelter, and food and water both inside Mexico and for those fleeing into the United States.
Of course, that's the worst-case scenario being played out by military and intelligence officials. Analysts like Peter DeShazo, a former State Department official with extensive experience in Central America, says to prevent that from happening the United States has to do more to help President Calderon's stated campaign to "clean up Mexico."
"It's a matter of the Mexican government strengthening its capabilities to effectively enforce the law against a very well-armed and very well-financed criminal organization," he says.
McCaffrey and others say the Mexican police just aren't up to the job of fighting the drug cartels.
"Their municipal police, in many cases, are quasi-criminal organizations. Or they're intimidated or they're outgunned," he says.
Calderon has so far mobilized some 25,000 troops to fight the drug cartels.
U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers recently started to train Mexican army commandoes. And the Marine Corps also is working on an exchange program with the Mexican Marine Corps that will include sharing experiences on urban warfare.
That's all troubling to some, who say Mexico risks more human rights abuses if it uses a powerful force like its military to fight drug gangs. Mexico's Human Rights Commission says soldiers have committed abuses, including rape.
Louise Arbour, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, recently told a Mexican television network, "The Mexican army should not be doing the job of police," calling it "frankly dangerous."
DeShazo, the former State Department official, says the Americans should focus more on helping the Mexican police.
"Law and order is the work of police under normal circumstances," he says. "So police reform and strengthening professionalization of the police in Mexico is very important."
But these are not normal circumstances, say Pentagon officials involved in the Mexican military training. Strengthening the police is needed. But in the short term, says McCaffrey, the Mexican government must rely on its military to take on the drug cartels.