Rethinking the ‘Spillover’ Effect of Mexican Violence

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U.S. border-state politicians have been saying for years that Mexico’s drug violence is on the verge of spreading like wildfire through the American southwest. Although the facts fail to match up with this rhetoric, some recent developments add weight to the “spillover” theory.

It was a story that swept the nation. On 30 September 2010, David Hartley was jet skiing with his wife on a lake in southern Texas when he was shot dead by Mexican drug traffickers, apparently for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The seemingly arbitrary nature of Hartley’s death, combined with the fact that it occurred on U.S. soil, sparked a nationwide debate about the so-called “spillover” effect.

In the aftermath of the killing, Texas Governor Rick Perry criticized President Obama for not reacting strongly enough, urging him to send 1,000 extra National Guard troops to the border. In a letter sent to the president, the governor said that the federal government was ignoring a “dire threat amassing on our southern border.”

Such language stands in stark contrast to statements made by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano. At a speaking panel in El Paso on April 1, Napolitano said claims about violence from Mexico spilling over into the U.S. are inaccurate, and dismissed them as cheap attempts to gain political points. In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Napolitano urged borderland politicians to “call for an end to this type of misinformation.”

Although Napolitano may be correct in dismissing the apocalyptic tone of statements such as Perry’s, the security situation along the U.S. border is in fact heating up. As a recent analysis of official murder statistics by Excelsior shows, nearly one third of Mexico’s crime-related homicides last year occurred in just 37 municipalities along the country’s northern border.

U.S. citizens in Mexico are not immune from the violence. On April 8, an alert from the United States Consulates General in Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, and Monterrey warned U.S. citizens of a possible plan by Mexican drug gangs to “attack U.S. law enforcement officers or U.S. citizens in the near future in Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and San Luis Potosi.” Reuters reported in November that almost as many U.S. citizens were murdered in Ciudad Juarez in the first eleven months of 2010 as in the previous two years combined.

Now, an internal Department of Justice report leaked by the Mexico City-based El Universal details growing concern within U.S. law enforcement bodies over drug cartels’ level of activity on American soil.

According to the newspaper, the report says Mexican drug trafficking organizations have affiliates in at least 1,286 cities in the U.S., of which 143 are directly report to cartel leaders. At the top of the list is Sinaloa Cartel, which operates in 75 cities, followed by the Gulf Cartel (37), the Zetas (37), the Juarez Cartel (33), the Beltran Leyva Organization (30), the Familia (27), and the Tijuana Cartel (21).

In another piece of evidence backing the spillover effect, Roberta Jacobson, deputy assistant secretary for Canada, Mexico and NAFTA issues, confirmed that Mexican drug trafficking organizations have influence not only in the U.S. southwest, but in the country’s interior as well. Jacobson also painted a lacklustre picture of Mexican counternarcotics efforts, saying that progress made in the fight against cartels there, although important, has been “mixed.”

Despite this grim news, there is no evidence to support claims that the U.S. is on the verge of experiencing anything close to the level of brutal violence that has hit Mexico. For one thing, if Mexican drug trafficking organizations were to conduct major acts of violence on U.S. soil, it would likely provoke thorough federal investigations. In addition to endangering the organization’s use of its trafficking routes, it would provide local lawmakers with the domestic excuse they need for a crackdown on the Mexican groups. Because the U.S. court system has proven itself to be more effective at incarceration than its Mexican counterpart, such violence would almost certainly be bad for business.

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