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Worse Than Colombia

That's how Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw described the violence raging in Mexico’s drug war at a House hearing on Tuesday.

Steve McCraw

The violence raging in Mexico’s drug war is worse now than the terror that enveloped Colombia during the 1980s and 1990s ever was, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told state lawmakers Tuesday.

"Colombia was never threatened like the government of Mexico is with the level of violence," McCraw told the House Select Committee on Emergency Preparedness at a Capitol hearing.

The committee and its chairman, state Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, focused many of their questions about the state's emergency preparedness on the current violence just across the border in northern Mexico, particularly in Juárez. "Each and every day we hear about killings, shootings, assassinations, kidnappings," said Peña, whose hometown is about 10 miles from the Mexican city of Reynosa. While McCraw said the violence will get worse before it gets better and has already outpaced the scariness of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel in Colombia, at least one border expert disagreed, saying that the United States would never let the situation in its neighboring country devolve into the lawlessness that plagued Colombia. “I think maybe he’s exaggerating,” said University of Texas at El Paso professor Howard Campbell.

Peña asked McCraw to compare the violence in Mexico to that during the drug war in Colombia. McCraw said the situation in Mexico is worse. The United States eventually intervened to help the Colombian government quell the violence and take down Pablo Escobar in 1993. “That hasn’t happened in Mexico,” McCraw said. Though Mexican President Felipe Calderón is trying to control the violence, McCraw said those efforts so far have not worked. “There has never been a more significant threat as it relates to cartels and drug and human smuggling on the border today,” he said. Juarez alone has seen more than 4,800 drug war deaths since 2008, according to recent reports in the El Paso Times, including at least 600 killings this year.

Lawmakers on Tuesday said their primary concern is preventing the violence from spilling over into Texas — or at least stopping more of it from spilling over. "Do you see this getting worse before it gets better, and what can we do as state to make it better?" Peña asked. McCraw said the war is likely to worsen before it improves and that state legislators need to continue doling out dollars for state border security initiatives. Since 2005, lawmakers have spent at least $200 million for state-led border security efforts. "We can never be too good," McCraw said. 

Alex Posey, tactical analyst for Latin America at Stratfor global intelligence company, agreed with McCraw that Mexico is now worse off than Colombia was at the height of its drug war. Calderón’s plans so far have mostly amplified the violence, Posey said. What makes the situation in Mexico worse is the deep corruption. “From the federal security forces all the way down to the local mayor, corruption is completely pervasive throughout the whole spectrum,” he said. In Colombia, Posey said, the government was able to weed out some of the corruption that powered the cartels.

Another problem in Mexico, Posey said, is that the regions the federal government and cartels are warring over — primarily northern border areas — have never been truly controlled by the government. “This is the land of Pancho Villa,” he said. “People just go out there and run around and do whatever they want.” The Colombian government, on the other hand, never lost complete control over metropolitan areas where cartels once held sway, Posey said. With U.S. help, they were able to retake power.

And that’s the last big factor, Posey said: American help. The Colombian government was open to military help from the United States to bring down  Escobar and the Medellín cartel. In Mexico, the government would face severe political blowback if it were to allow U.S. intervention. “As of now, U.S. military boots on the ground in Mexico is just not going to happen,” Posey said. “It’s a very culturally sensitive issue.” Until that intervention takes place or the Mexican drug cartels come to some internal agreement and then make peace with the federal government, Posey said he expects the bloodletting to escalate for the foreseeable future. “Definitely years,” he said, “decades maybe.”

But UTEP's Campbell — an anthropology professor and border crime expert — said Mexico has not seen the mass civilian casualties like those the Medellín caused with car bombs and airplane attacks. Colombia still has more than 2 million internal refugees displaced by drug-related violence, he said. Flight from the Mexican violence is increasing, he said, but nowhere near that level. And in Mexico, the cartels have not taken to murdering high-profile politicians and businessmen on the scale the Medellín did in Colombia, Campell said. While the violence in Mexico is certainly frightening and growing, and comparisons to Colombia are not unwarranted, he said, it’s not worse. Mexico is larger, more resilient and closer to the United States. “The U.S. is not going to let Mexico fall as hard as Colombia,” he said.

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