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December 7, 2008 -- Arizona Republic (AZ)

OpEd: Arrests Can't Win Nation's Drug War

By David P. Gonzales, U.S. Marshal District of Arizona

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Mexico has had many revolutions, but the 10-year Revolution of 1910 had the most impact on that country. Under the rule of Gen. Porfirio Diaz, a small minority controlled the country's wealth and the majority of Mexicans worked and lived in poverty. The country was divided into factions, and rebels roamed freely, killing citizens and government officials who were not aligned with their cause.

During the Revolution of 1910, tens of thousands of Mexicans fled into the United States to avoid the violence and to find a better life. The lives of Americans living along the border towns of Nogales, Naco and Douglas were endangered by the constant violence that spilled over the border.

In January 1916, Pancho Villa's army killed 16 American engineers at Santa Ysabel, Mexico. In March of that year, Villa led an attack on Columbus, N.M., that left 17 Americans dead. President Wilson sent Gen. John Pershing to the border to stop the violence and capture Villa, dead or alive. Joining the military team dispatched to secure the Arizona border was the 1st Arizona Infantry Regiment of the Arizona National Guard.

Almost 100 years later, not much has changed.

Instead of Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata, the players are the Mexican cartels: Sinaloa, Los Zetas, Gulf, Juarez and Tijuana. All the cartels are drug-trafficking organizations whose members are engaged in a war against the Mexican government for control of land. This time, it is not for the people of Mexico but for control of smuggling routes for drugs, guns and human-trafficking dollars.

Police officers, soldiers, judges, prosecutors and innocent bystanders are dying by the thousands in this new revolution. Mexican citizens are once again fleeing across the border for a better life in the United States. Now, as in 1916, law enforcement and the National Guard have been sent to the border to stem the tide.

This drug war between the drug cartels and government forces began on Dec. 11, 2006, when President Felipe Calderon mobilized federal troops to put an end to the gang violence that had been in full swing since the late 1980s. During this period, Colombian cocaine traffickers formed alliances with Mexican marijuana and heroin traffickers for alternative U.S. distribution routes because of the intense law-enforcement pressure in Florida.

When the Colombian cartels fell apart after the arrest of the cartel leaders by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Mexico became the primary distributor of cocaine into the U.S. and the Mexican drug lords started to fight for control of the lucrative drug routes. President Calderon's crackdown on the cartels and government corruption triggered the carnage we see and read about in Mexico. This year, more than 4,000 people have been killed as a direct result of the cartel war with the Mexican government.

Just last week, funeral wreaths were placed at the homes of several state police officers in Nogales, Sonora. Attached to the wreaths were handwritten messages that said, "This is a message for the State Police. If you get in our way we are going to kill you with your family and all your descendants. (signed) Gulf Cartel."

These are not threats but promises. The Mexican drug cartels are committed to bringing the Mexican government to its knees by dismantling the fragile criminal-justice and military components.

Arizona has always experienced border violence, but now, the spillover from the drug wars is festering and is threatening us. In the past, drug smugglers and other border traffickers were reluctant to engage with U.S. law enforcement. Not anymore. As the cartels continue to grow more powerful in Mexico, they are becoming ever more violent. It is just a matter of time before the violence reaches across the border.

Maricopa County has the distinction of being the kidnapping capital of the country because of the number cases involving illegal aliens who are held for ransom by human-smuggling groups. Much of the money obtained from these crimes goes to the cartels to finance drug purchases. The drophouse-ransom cases, assaults on American peace officers working along the border and the increase in border bandits are barometers of things to come.

The solution to this and the related immigration problem is both complex and simple. I think almost everybody agrees that we must secure our borders and that every migrant who enters the United States must do so legally. The more than 300,000 illegal aliens entering the U.S. annually from our southern border is virtually impossible to stop. We cannot arrest our way out of this.

There are not enough jail beds, prosecutors, public defenders, judges and deputy U.S. marshals now to handle the small percentage that are arrested and prosecuted.

The long-term solution is not in state capitols or Washington, D.C., but in Mexico City. Until the Mexican people can prosper at home, nothing will change.

A high-ranking Mexican police official told me recently that the thirst for drugs in America and the availability of guns play a major part in the thousands of deaths in Mexico. A little oversimplified, but he had a good point.

We need to reduce the consumption of drugs in the U.S. When the majority of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and meth is sold in the U.S. and comes here via Mexico, you can understand why the cartels will stop at nothing to get their drugs here.

Federal, state, and local police agencies need to do a better job of coordinating and sharing information and intelligence to take out the cartels and other organized-crime leaders.

We also need to stem the tide of guns, purchased primarily through straw buyers, that is flooding into Mexico from border states. Our efforts in this area are dismal.

As Albert Einstein said, "We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

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