What’s the worst thing that could happen if drug cartel violence in Mexico is left unchecked? The collapse of the Mexican government? Increased violence in U.S. border towns?
Cameron H. Holmes, staff director of the Southwest Border Anti-Money Laundering Alliance, says cartels have the potential to disrupt the economy of the entire Western Hemisphere. And he thinks our political leaders just don’t get it.
Holmes will retire soon from his post as senior litigation counsel in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to lead the Alliance, a quasi-governmental agency formed earlier this year to provide assistance to law enforcement along the border in combatting cartel activities and stopping the flow of guns and money into Mexico. The Alliance is funded with the settlement proceeds from a lawsuit against Western Union led by Holmes’ boss Arizona Attorney General (and Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Terry Goddard, which accused the company of facilitating money transfers from the U.S. to Mexican drug cartels. (Read more about the Alliance here and the Western Union settlement here.)
Last month, I interviewed Holmes for a story on gun trafficking that will appear in the October issue of Phoenix Magazine. The conversation was among the most thoughtful I have had about the drug war, how we got to this bloody moment in time and what we should be worried about in the future. Here are highlights from that conversation* – think of it as Mexican Drug War 101, from Holmes’ perspective:
The major change in the drug war in Mexico in the last three years is the result of a change in strategy and methods by the drug cartels, Holmes says. Previously there had been an “uneasy truce”: the cartels paid off Mexican law enforcement to look the other way. But now, the cartels want absolute power. This has manifested itself in attacks on police stations and politicians, car bombs, beheadings and attacks on the general public.
The cartels have diversified their business to gain all manner of control: diverting petroleum, hijacking cargo from trains and trucks, extorting insurance companies. Essentially, they have taken on the characteristics of a classic mafia organization or warlord, not of a traditional drug trafficking organization. Many young men are attracted to the border area to work in the maquiladoras (the factories that have sprung up on the Mexican side of the border in recent years) and immigrate into the U.S. This gives the drug cartels an unlimited supply of young men to recruit as soldiers. In the past, the drug trafficking organizations were familial. Now, they see their men as expendable.
The all-out war we see in Mexico is enabled by this unlimited supply of mercenaries combined with a steady stream of weapons from the U.S. “The only way this war for regional control can continue to function is with a continuous supply of high-powered weapons,” he says. Yet U.S. politicians have done little to really clamp down on gun trafficking to Mexico by passing common sense laws such as restrictions on military grade weapon sales and sales at gun shows, instituting common sense reporting requirements (like of multiple purchases of assault rifles) or lifting gun lobby-pushed restrictions on the ATF that limit the agency’s investigative abilities.
Holmes notes that the Democrats control Congress and the White House, but they haven’t been willing to take on the gun lobby. “They haven’t got the guts, and I don’t think they understand how important it is to the future of our hemisphere,” he says. He calls the inaction on gun trafficking by Congress “disgraceful.” “Here is an opportunity to do something about the weapons fueling the Mexican criminal enterprise and they have done zero. They allowed previous restrictions on assault weapons to expire.”
Holmes says he does not think U.S. residents or political leaders fully grasp the significant threat posed by the increasing power of the Mexican cartels. “They are in a position to blockade trade between the U.S. and Mexico,” which would disrupt the economy of the entire hemisphere, he says. “I don’t think the general public of the U.S. has any idea how threatening the situation is or that Congress adequately appreciates it. I think that time is very short … that we and our contemporaries have to reverse this trend.”
Instead of focusing on gun trafficking, Holmes notes that politicians nationally and in Arizona have instead focused on immigrants and illegal immigration. “It doesn’t make the least bit of difference how many immigrants are in the United States at any given time to make the threat of Mexican criminal enterprises a clear and present danger to the United States’ hemispheric interests,” Holmes says. The cartels “don’t need to cross the border. They could stay in Mexico, throttle U.S.-Mexico trade and our hemispheric economy is dramatically disrupted . . . . What’s going to happen next is the representative government in Mexico is under question about whether it can survive.”
“We are spending our energy worrying about individuals crossing the border. We should be worried if there is going to be a Mexican economy five years from now,” he says. “It is tragic. We’re not doing nearly enough, and we are not succeeding.”
[*Author's Note: Ideally, I would have posted a verbatim transcript of my conversation with Holmes. However, my digital recorder died (and not just the batteries) right before the interview. As I always told my journalism students at Arizona State: this is why you take good notes.]