The faces of frightened young children huddling together just inside our border are heartrending. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has the right attitude. Enough talk. Let’s act.
Merely deploying National Guard units underscores the pressing need for a national dialogue that places immigration into a more sensible context. Too many politicians miss the real issues and exploit the topic for partisan gain.
Immigration is a symptom. Immigrants have different motives for coming here, but a core problem stems from the Mexican drug war that has claimed more than 105,000 civilian lives on our doorstep and threatens our families and children in perhaps a thousand U.S. cities.
Cartel activity is a key factor that propels the immigration. If our politicians want to complain, they need to address the real problem with a realistic strategy to win the drug war.
What actions are plausible?
First, recognize that the drug war is a hemispheric challenge, not one just for the U.S. or Mexico. No nation has forged a coherent, strategy. Yet the challenge threatens U.S. security and our children as illegal drugs flood into cities, neighborhoods, and schools.
Second, while illegal drugs challenge law enforcement, recognize the true nature of the Mexican drug war and deal with it on that basis. It is a low-intensity conflict conducted by criminals who also qualify as terrorists and insurgents.
Too many think terrorism is about ideology and seizing power while crime is about greed and illegal profits. Actually, they often overlap.
Mexican cartels have an ideology that gives meaning to the everyday lives of impoverished people, offering social mobility, money and a definable culture that is far more concrete and meaningful than anything al-Qaida, the Tamil Tigers, Shining Path or other violent extremists have offered.
The cartels seek and have seized much power, in both Mexico and Central America. Indeed, some have estimated that the cartels already control between 40 percent and 60 percent of Guatemala’s territory.
Its neighbors face similar challenges. Sadly, only the likes of Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, have had the fortitude to speak the truth, although Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel seems to concur with him.
The U.S. should designate cartels and their leaders as terrorists, and devote the resources to defeat them using a holistic approach that leverages the capabilities and authorities across the whole of the U.S. government and foreign partners. We won’t send in the Marines. We can pressure Mexico to forge a force like Italy’s carabinieri that can take on heavily-armed cartels like Los Zetas, which recruits from former Mexican special operations personnel.
Normal law enforcement cannot win this war. It needs help. We can train, equip, and support a Mexican force that provides it and deal with the cartels as terrorist organizations.
Third, get Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on board. His predecessor, Felix Calderon, tried to defeat the cartels. Nieto’s public posture is less clear. His priorities are to stop kidnapping and violence and get his economy moving. Ours is to defeat cartels and stop illegal drug trafficking. We need to get him serious.
We must also provide concrete support for Central American partners who feel that while we'll spend and spend in the Middle East to help people who basically dislike us, we treat allies to the south like second-class friends.
Why does anyone believe that makes sense?
Fourth, get serious about counterterrorist finance and money-laundering. One government agency, according to The Washington Post, urged emptying cartel bank accounts. The White House and Treasury Department balked at this savvy approach. Let’s revisit the idea. The approach warrants consideration. Terrorism and cartel activity are businesses. Starve them of cash and they cannot function.
Fifth, as anti-drug expert Sylvia Longmire has observed, dispel the illusion that the border “wall” is a viable alternative – it is fiction more than fact – and provide more border patrol agents and equip them better – and do so now. Too often, she notes, DHS funding fills the coffers of contractors, buying technology that does not secure our border.
Most important, political leaders need to engage U.S. voters in a transparent, in-depth dialogue about how much immigration this nation will accept, from where, and on what terms. Part of that dialogue must include actions around illegal immigrants already embedded in our society and as well as recent arrivals. They need to integrate that dialogue with one about how we’re going to protect our families and children against the flow of drugs into our city and winning the drug war. The topics are entwined.
Polarizing voters is easy. Finding real solutions is tough. We need leaders who show the moral courage and strength of mind to move beyond what to do about the children who have arrived and address the issue in a context that enables us to gain control over our borders and protect our future.
James P. Farwell is a defense consultant who advises the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Special Operations Command on global initiatives and actions, communication strategy and cyber war. Darby Arakelian is a senior associate with Command Strategies Group in Washington, D.C.