Mexico's war on the drug cartels has become a national security issue for Canada, say Ottawa officials, as the violent backlash from the syndicates spills across the border into Canada and the U.S.
Security agencies, including the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the Integrated Threat Assessment Centre, are concerned an organized-crime problem could turn into a full-fledged national security threat.
One official, who asked to speak anonymously, explained that "it's all part of this river of drugs - and we're one of the subsidiary streams.
"It's going to impact on us," he said, adding the issue "does receive national attention."
This week, the RCMP publicly described a series of B.C. gang murders as a Canadian echo of the bloody feuds among the Mexican drug cartels, notorious for beheading their enemies and bribing corrupt local officials.
President Felipe Calderon's aggressive offensive against these criminal syndicates has unleashed the worst violence the country has ever seen as the cartels battle one another for turf and power. More than 6,000 people were killed in drug-related violence last year.
Canada's interest in the drug war also reflects, in part, intensifying U.S. concern, as the Drug Enforcement Administration steps up to assist Mexican authorities, and Washington acknowledges for the first time the U.S.'s role in the illicit transnational trade.
"Drug trafficking and related violence is a North American problem and we all - Canada, the U.S., and Mexico - need to work together to solve it," said Keith Mines, the narcotics affairs director at the U.S. embassy in Mexico. "Mexico is the supplier and North America is the market for most of the drugs."
The $400-million (U.S.) Merida anti-narcotics assistance program will help train Mexican police and fund the installation of more sophisticated surveillance systems at the border.
In Canada and the U.S., local distributors are already feeling the impact, as a dramatically reduced supply of drugs is getting through the Mexico-U.S. border, sending prices soaring.
Mexico is the major transit country for drugs reaching Canada and the U.S. and a large source of heroin, marijuana, methamphetamines and cocaine. But gangs in the North also play a key role in distribution and sales.
"These are transnational organizations that make billions of dollars and not everyone is a Mexican," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a Mexico specialist and the president of a consulting group. "There are biker gangs, the Russian mafia, inner-city gangs in the U.S., Asian mafia in Vancouver and Central Americans."
Last year, Mexican authorities arrested 26,947 people, including several key members of the Arellano Felix cartel, and 264 foreigners. Officials seized 19 tonnes of cocaine, 192 kg. of heroin, 341 kg. of methamphetamines, according to the 2009 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Mexico's criminal gangs are fighting amongst themselves for diminishing profits, and erratic subordinates are taking over, employing gruesome methods.
The Mexican government has sent the army into border cities such as Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana and seized nearly 40,000 illegal firearms, most of which came into Mexico from the U.S.
The drug war is destabilizing the three partners in the North American free-trade agreement in other ways. Mexico has been Canada's number one source country for asylum seekers for the past three years, with some applicants now claiming their country can no longer keep them safe from drug traffickers. During the past two years alone, 15,000 Mexican refugee claimants have arrived in Canada - though the acceptance rate is only 11 per cent.
Canadian officials also worry that as Washington reinforces its southern flank, it may feel obliged to increase security on the northern frontier - if only to convince U.S. Latinos of evenhandedness - which could have an adverse affect on trade.
Where the violence happens
Drug wars between rival gangs have killed thousands in Mexico, and border officials say the "river of drugs" is a serious national-security risk for the United States and Canada.
*Metric tonnes ** kilogram
THE GLOBE AND MAIL // SOURCE: ASSOCIATED PRESS, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT, INTERNATIONAL NARCOTICS CONTROL AND STRATEGY REPORT 2008