The bloodshed has spread to American cities, even to the heartland, and U.S. officials are realizing that their fight against powerful drug cartels responsible for the carnage has come down to this: Either walk away or support Mexican President Felipe Calderon's strategy, even with the risk that counter-narcotics intelligence, equipment and training could end up in the hands of cartel bosses.
Both nations agree that the cartels have morphed into transnational crime syndicates that pose an urgent threat to their security and that of the region. Law enforcement agencies from the border to Maine acknowledge that the traffickers have brought a war once dismissed as a foreign affair to the doorstep of local communities. The trail of slayings, kidnappings and other crimes stretches through at least 195 U.S. cities.
The rapidly escalating problem will probably present the Obama administration with hard choices on how to work with Mexico to combat the cartels and the gun-running, money-laundering and other illicit businesses that nourish them.
So far, the fight has largely been waged by the Calderon administration, which deployed thousands of federal troops and police to 18 states to take on the cartels, some of which have paramilitary forces protecting them and many police officers and politicians in their pockets.
"They know they have a monumental undertaking, but you have to start somewhere," Michael A. Braun, former assistant director and chief of operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration, said of the Mexican government. "If you don't, in another five years the cartels will be running Mexico."
The U.S. answer for fighting the cartels is contained in a package known as the Merida Initiative, named for the Mexican city where it was unveiled by Presidents Calderon and Bush in October 2007. When Congress passed the first installment of the three-year aid package in June, it contained at least 33 programs, giving about $400 million to Mexico for this fiscal year and $65 million for drug-fighting efforts in various Central American and Caribbean countries.
The first tranche of money was delayed until this month, and squabbling and other problems have held up delivery of most direct assistance. A senior State Department official confirmed that Mexico would have to wait more than a year for at least two U.S. transport helicopters and a reconnaissance plane that it says it desperately needs.
Starting from scratch
Some senior U.S. counter-narcotics officials and lawmakers say the U.S.-Mexico relationship has been so polluted for decades by mistrust, neglect and failure to collaborate that the countries must build much of their anti-drug strategy from scratch, even at a time when beheadings and other brutal slayings have become commonplace in Mexico.
They fear the cartels are so strong and well-funded that Mexican government forces will continue to be undertrained, under-equipped and outgunned for years, even with U.S. aid. And they say it could take decades and billions of dollars more to establish the corruption-resistant criminal justice institutions needed to eliminate the cartels and their government benefactors.
"You need a robust internal capacity to identify the cancer, cut it out and move on while checking the margins to make sure it hasn't spread," said Braun, who is now managing partner at Spectre Group International, a security consulting firm. "And they have never done that. They never institutionalized law enforcement at any level."
U.S. authorities remain deeply troubled that corruption in the top echelons of Calderon's administration could undermine the Merida effort. Some said the recent arrest of Mexico's former drug czar, Noe Ramirez Mandujano, on suspicion of taking a $450,000 bribe from the cartels showed that Calderon's effort to root out corruption was working.
Some U.S. officials say they share more information than ever with Mexico. Others are conducting damage assessments after Ramirez's arrest, and after Mexico revealed that cartel operatives had infiltrated Interpol, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and even DEA operations.
Calderon will probably discover more corruption within his government and his administration, but he deserves credit for requesting assistance and battling the cartels since his election two years ago, Braun and other current and former U.S. officials said.
Since it was first unveiled in Merida, the drug plan has been criticized as a confusing patchwork of questionable programs, including military and law enforcement training, high-tech drug-detection scanners and gang-prevention programs.
Then Congress set about making it even more complicated.
Some lawmakers got more money for U.S. counter-narcotics efforts, and others focused on more funding for Central American regional security programs. Many have complained that no one is coordinating the initiative, and that turf battles and confusion reign among the many agencies that have a piece of it.
"You've got so many different agencies involved -- who would you even put in charge of it?" said an official with the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, who spoke on condition of anonymity.