All Along the Watchtower
The War on Terror has arrived in Latin America, and is headed our way.



In the Caribbean Sea, the trade winds now bring drugs and weapons — and Islamist terrorists. The seaborne and airborne smuggling from South America to Central America and the Caribbean islands is out of control. The governments of Central America are undermined by drug cartels with easy access to corrupt officials, and subverted by the electoral wins of radical Chávez allies such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and the FMLN just this week in El Salvador — another ally gone. The region’s tiny, impoverished governments can hardly refuse Hugo Chávez’s offers of life-sustaining petroleum, and squirm at the “favors” he asks in return.

On top of this problem, the region’s large Muslim-immigrant communities — as well as local converts to Islam — have proven tragically susceptible to extremist proselytizing and recruitment. In 1990, an Islamist group in Trinidad and Tobago, Jammat al Muslimeen, staged an abortive coup against the U.S.-friendly government there, killing 24 people. In 2007, responding to complaints of apparent terrorist training activities, authorities raided the group’s five-acre compound, seizing weapons and grenades.

In June 2007, a plot to bomb the fuel-depot system of JFK International Airport was foiled, preventing another mass-casualty attack in New York City. Of the four terror suspects arrested, one was from Trinidad and the others from nearby Guyana. “Although Caribbean societies remain mostly a harmonious mosaic of ethnicities and faiths,” writes Amanda Farfel of the American Jewish Committee, “the JFK plotters, late converts to Islam, demonstrate the susceptibility of some local Muslims to the messages of international radical Islamic organizations.” One of the JFK-plot suspects was arrested in Trinidad on a plane bound for Caracas. His wife told authorities that his intended final destination was Iran.


The Mexican elections of 2007 should have been a wake-up call for the United States. Current president Felipe Calderón only narrowly defeated the left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a Chávez sympathizer. The election of López Obrador would have brought the tentacles of the Bolivarian revolution and its Iranian allies right up to America’s border with Mexico. Allies of Venezuela and Iran may yet come to power in Mexico — borne aloft by support from drug cartels. The U.S. shows little sign of preparing for such a perfect storm.

Even with a staunch U.S. ally as the president of Mexico, the situation in that country already poses an unacceptable threat to U.S. security. Americans have learned to live with embarrassingly high levels of violence in places like Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles — but cartel violence is different. It is paramilitary. It involves tactically sophisticated assassinations and kidnappings, conducted by well-trained former military and police, often in the open, sometimes on a large scale, and usually with a lot of firepower.

Cartels don’t run from the police. They target the police. Indeed, in many parts of Latin America right up to the Rio Grande, they control the police. Some 7,000 troops are being sent to Ciudad Juárez, right across the border from El Paso, Texas, because the local police have lost control of the city. After narco-terrorists warned that they would kill one policeman every 48 hours, the police chief of Juárez resigned.

According to the Washington Times, the Pentagon estimates that Mexico’s drug cartels have as many as 100,000 foot soldiers, “an army that rivals Mexico’s armed forces,” and they “threaten to turn the country into a narco-state.” A thousand people were killed in Mexican violence in January of this year alone. Even the beheadings and unspeakable torture practices that became signatures of al-Qaeda in Iraq have arrived on our southern front; the cartels have taken to dissolving the bodies of many victims in vats of acid.

According to U.S. officials, Mexico now ranks with Iran and Pakistan as among the top threats to U.S. national security — but there are few indications that U.S. policy actually gives Mexico anything like the high priority it deserves. The U.S. has lavished about $10 billion on Pakistan’s military since 2001. We are about to send some $900 million to Gaza for reconstruction assistance, and Congress recently refused to require that the money doesn’t wind up enriching Hamas. But to help our friends in Mexico fight narco-terrorism in their own country so that we don’t have to face it here at home, we can manage only a pittance of barely $500 million over several years — a pittance sweetened with insults.

When the Bush Administration’s Merida Initiative — a baby step in the annals of security cooperation — came before Congress last year, some Democrats insisted that money needed for sophisticated helicopters, communications equipment, and intelligence gathering in Mexico be shifted to human-rights training for Mexican security forces. On the other side of the aisle, some Republicans wondered why we should help Mexico when its effort to stem immigration remains so ineffective. One answer is that both the money and the weapons that make the cartels so powerful come from America. The Mexicans were so offended by the tenor of the congressional debate surrounding Merida that they nearly rejected the initiative.


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