Since 2006, approximately 47,515 Mexicans have been killed by the cartels that control large swathes of the country. The four major cartels are the Federation, Gulf, Juarez, and Tijuana, but the Zetas are probably more recognizable due to their propensity for horrific attacks. In their more gruesome attacks, cartels have been known to display severed heads on pikes and even roll them onto the dance floors of nightclubs. Authorities are largely incapable of preventing this violence, falling victim to it when they try to intervene. It is estimated that over four thousand police officers have been killed since 2007. Soldiers and government officials are also killed on occasion. Mexico is out of control.

Now let’s go half way around the world to Afghanistan. Since the Taliban counterinsurgency began in 2001, there have been 1,916 U.S. casualties and 1,031 non-U.S. friendly casualties. Civilian deaths have numbered 11,864 since 2007, when the UN first began to record the statistic. Assuming that civilian deaths are significantly higher when pre-2007 casualties are taken into account, the death toll in the War in Afghanistan should be in the ballpark of 24,000 over ten years. This is half the size of the death toll seen in Mexico over a six year period of cartel rule. Apparently the cartel insurgents are tougher than the Taliban insurgents. And yes, I would label the cartels insurgents because they employ violence in order to undermine the state’s legitimate authority so that they may reign over the country, at least insofar as they are able to run their businesses unimpeded.

Spillover into the United States
On March 30, 2011, Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano declared that the border region is “better now than it ever has been.” A little over a month later, our beloved President Obama denounced critics of his border patrol policies, saying that they wouldn’t be happy until he built “a moat with alligators in it.” The reality of the situation is a lot more serious than the President’s lame joke, though. Drug traffickers act with impunity and cross into America whenever they desire, killing Americans who try to impede their drug trade, but the Obama Administration has apparently chosen to ignore this. Below is a breakdown of the crimes committed against American citizens by the cartels.

Violent Crime
Ranchers and farmers along the borders of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona encounter traffickers more frequently than most Americans and so many police reports are filed by these outstanding citizens. These reports oftentimes include incidents where drug-smugglers shoot at ranchers or warn farmhands to leave certain bushes alone (because drugs are hidden in them). Intimidation, kidnapping, and physical violence are all things these Americans have to worry about due to the porous Mexican-American border, which has been overrun by the cartels.

Arizona has also been presented with a small dose of the extremely violent crimes perpetrated primarily in Mexico. There was the gruesome case of a man who was stabbed and beheaded in a suburban Phoenix apartment back in October 2010. Then, on June 4, 2012, five people were found dead in a torched vehicle in southern Arizona. Investigators speculated that they were hostages killed by a drug cartel. To make things worse, in 2008 alone, there were more than 200 home invasions in Tucson. The people of Arizona have the right to be afraid of the ever-expanding cartels.

For those of you who have seen Savages or Traffic, this paragraph is merely a recap of the cartels’ actions in Southern California, which include kidnapping and torture, usually linked to marijuana trade. In October 2010, the San Diego police department responded to a call concerning a car trunk that was leaking fluids from a decomposing body. The smugglers had left dismembered Mexican police in a SUV earlier that year. Just north of San Diego, Anel Violeta Noriega Rios, aka “La Bonita,” was captured in Los Angeles in July of this year. Her 64-page criminal warrant outlines work she did for the now defunct La Familia cartel, including some crimes committed in America. The sad truth is that the border has not been able to keep people like her out of our cities.

The Flow of Narcotics
Clearly drug cartels bring a problem other than violence wherever they go – they bring their product, which breeds more crime. Mexican cartels have opened up branches in North Carolina, Ohio, and even South Dakota. Most of the drugs are smuggled in along the U.S.-Mexican border, though. Cartels began smuggling marijuana, but quickly expanded to heroin and cocaine. In recent years, however, methamphetamines have become a popular export. The Federation cartel alone trafficked tons of methamphetamines into Southern California over the past few years. In February of this year, Gen. Gilberto Hernandez Andrew reported that the Mexican Army had recovered 15 tons of methamphetamines in a raid at a ranch in Jalisco. Besides selling the drugs to American consumers, the cartels also affect us by hiring our teenage girls to smuggle methamphetamines across the border.

In order to vanquish the cartels from U.S. soil we will have to sufficiently weakening them in Mexico. So, despite Obama’s assertions, I do not want a “moat with alligators,” I want the United States military to wage a swift counterinsurgency against the cartels. Whatever we do, we shouldn’t finance a Mexican counterinsurgency campaign, because if El Salvador taught us anything, it is that if you want something done right you must do it yourself. The budget wouldn’t have to be unbearable, either. El Salvador cost Washington $16.68 billion in today’s currency ($6 billion back then) and took 10 years to complete. If we set our goal for a nine month counterinsurgency in Mexico and estimate the budget for one year of fighting, then $1.67 billion would be very reasonable. We spend $1.4 billion on border patrol, $2 billion on the DEA, and $1.14 billion on the ATF each year. So if we can spend less on those programs each year following our counterinsurgency effort, than additional military funding for that action would be justified. But how exactly would this military campaign work?

Eradicating the Cartels – Fish Out of Water

Unlike the multifaceted population-centric approach used in Afghanistan, a simple enemy-centric approach would suffice in Mexico. Nation building and hearts-and-minds are not necessary, because Mexicans do not revere the cartels, nor do they despise the current administration. In fact, the only reason why Mexicans put up with the cartels are because they are afraid of them, which is understandable after seeing severed heads in the street, corpses hanging from bridges, and videos of beheadings. This campaign would be much easier than the one in El Salvador because the government isn’t seen as a group of brutal oppressors, so as long as the cartels can be significantly weakened, people will be glad to see things return to normal.

“Insurgent movements can properly be considered as operating systems” if Charles Wolf’s cost-benefit approach is applied. Under this approach, “economic, social, and political programs, as well as military efforts, are needed to impede the supply of inputs into a system.” Since the cartels are looked upon in disdain by the majority of the population, a hearts-and-minds approach is not required. Economic, social, and political programs would take a backseat to military operations in Mexico. Hard fighting and superior firepower would be the main ingredients needed in this counterinsurgency effort. Helicopter-borne assaults and artillery could be used in order for the United States to not have “to limit [its] use of force,” while remaining precise in its assaults. Conventional forces and special operations forces, and Mexico already has a military and police force in place to restore order once the cartels are decimated.

Corruption within armed forces and government is the other fight the United States would need to wage if it wanted to eradicate the cartels. In El Salvador, soldiers would sell their guns to insurgents, officers would assassinate rivals, and commanders would request funds for soldiers that had already died or didn’t exist. The corruption in Mexico is different, though. The police and army have been known to work directly with the insurgents.

The Zetas formed in the late 1990s when 40 Mexican Army Special Forces soldiers agreed to work as hitmen for the Gulf Cartel. More recently, sixteen policemen were arrested for helping a cartel perpetrate a mass killing in northeastern Mexico that left 145 dead. Moreover, authorities have uncovered direct links between Mexican police and officials and the violent Fernando Sanchez Organization. This is just the tip of iceberg, too.

However, having to rely on the host nation to police its own forces and bring about reform is a risk that we will have to take if we take on the cartels. Unless of course we want to try to weed out the corruption and train new soldiers, which I wouldn’t recommend doing. We don’t want this to be another fiasco like in Afghanistan, after all.

The situation in Mexico is deteriorating and if the United States does not act now, more Americans will die. Clearly we would seek cooperation from Mexico and offer our military services, but if President Pena Nieto refuses, there are always other ways to protect U.S. citizens. The United States could place an embargo on Mexico, cut off any aid that the United States was providing, and refuse to cooperate on any other issue until he accepts American help and allows the military to eliminate this threat. There are additional benefits to waging this counterinsurgency, as well, like saving costs on drug enforcement and border patrol. In other words, ending it now provides long term gains, which could outweigh the short term costs. Furthermore, it would be good practice for U.S. military, since Al-Shabaab is another unpopular insurgency that Washington might decide to challenge in the future. It is a tragedy that so many of our neighbors have been murdered in this war being waged by the cartels, but it hasn’t been our problem until recently. Due to the spillover, I believe that the only option we have is to eliminate the cartels on our own.

Adam Ondo | University of Rochester | @JoplinMaverick