With federal police and military units forced to secure the border town of Nuevo Laredo, U.S.-trained anti-drug commandos now protecting the drug cartels and Mexican narcotics pouring into the America, some experts are suggesting Mexico’s instability is a direct result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the economic pact meant to be create a border boom.

NAFTA has driven many legitimate Mexican farmers out of business, and many have turned to drug cultivation, charges Charles Bowden, author of “Down By The River,” and other acclaimed books about the drug business.

“It’s one of the unintended consequences of NAFTA,” he says.

He is not alone. Ask many Mexican illegal aliens why they make the trek north and they will tell you about their inability to make it in their own country as small farmers – since NAFTA and the increase of duty-free U.S. products into the country.

In effect, some economists see the cheap labor flooding into America helping the U.S. agribusiness concerns squeeze out Mexican family farmers. The more that smaller farms collapse, the more migrant workers trek north and the more cheap labor is available to big U.S. farmers. It’s a vicious cycle, they say.

In addition, with the drug crisis raging in Mexico and even threatening its national security, some are pointing to the “protections” NAFTA has provided to the drug runners.

Up to three-quarters of cocaine entering the U.S. now comes via Mexico – as well as most of its marijuana. In 1996, the U.S. and Mexican governments agreed to start training Mexican soldiers in the U.S. for the “war on drugs.” These elite commandos were called “Los Zetas.” They have now switched sides and are working as a paramilitary security detail for the drug cartels.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, over the past decade, Colombia-based drug groups have allowed Mexico-based trafficking organizations to play an increasing role in the U.S. cocaine trade. In the 1980s, Colombia’s drug dealers used the drug smugglers in Mexico to transport cocaine shipments across the Southwest border into the U.S., but retook possession of the narcotics once the transporters arrived in the U.S. After the seizure of nearly 21 metric tons of cocaine in 1989, the Colombians changed the way they did business and allowed Mexico-based transportation groups to receive up to half the cocaine shipment they smuggled in exchange for their services.

According to the DEA, “virtually all heroin produced in Mexico and South America is destined for the U.S. market.” This reflects a big increase since NAFTA.

Analysts estimate that Mexican drug gangs make $3 billion to $30 billion annually by smuggling cocaine to the U.S. and have police, politicians and judges from both sides on their payrolls.

Don Henry Ford, author of “Contrabando: Confessions of a Drug-Smuggling Texas Cowboy,” told the Dallas Morning News Mexico’s drug economy has multiplied since the 1980s, when he smuggled marijuana.

“The money is just too big now,” he said. “There’s no way the government’s going to stop it. And they can’t afford to. If all that money were to dry up, it would literally cause a wave of people trying to get out of there. It would break the nation.”

Complicating matters: Many of those in law enforcement are corrupt, he said.

Phil Jordan, the former director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, jointly run by the DEA and other federal agencies, applauds the Mexican government’s latest crackdown in Nuevo Laredo – a move that involved rounding up dozens of members of the local police force a few days after the new police chief was gunned down in cold blood.

“The traffickers basically have a stranglehold on Mexico,” he said, “and a rapid response like this one is necessary.”

The new drug industry in Mexico is becoming quite sophisticated, say law-enforcement authorities.

“They’re very well-organized,” said Celerino “Cele” Castillo, a former 12-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and author of the book “Powderburns: Cocaine, Contras and the Drug War.” “All their kilos of coke are bar-coded, just like the UPS.”

The Zetas, meanwhile, are a brutally efficient, says Bowden.

“The Zetas don’t waste bullets,” he said. “There’s a certain elegance to what they do.”

At least 60 people have been killed in Nuevo Laredo this year – and more than 500 others around the border area – all connected to a turf war between the drug dealers and the Mexican government of President Vicente Fox. The border town is directly south of Laredo, Texas.

The U.S. State Department has singled out Nuevo Laredo in a recent advisory, warning travelers to use common sense when visiting Mexican border cities.

In addition to being blamed for the exploding drug crisis, NAFTA is also being blamed in some quarters for the rise in illegal immigration from Mexico into the U.S.

Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda made some candid assessments recently at a border symposium on the expansion of NAFTA-style agreements in the Americas and Europe.

According to Castaneda, who is running for the Mexican presidency as an independent, “NAFTA was oversold.” There were divided views as to whether it accelerated moves toward human rights in Mexico, a country that has only recently emerged from one-party rule. On the economic level, productivity in Mexico remained “flat.”

“NAFTA has not been a factor of significant economic growth.” And while it was supposed to reduce illegal immigration, quite the opposite happened, he said. “There’s more immigration from Mexico to the U.S. today than ever before in history.”

With rising immigration came increased security risks, he acknowledged.

“The first al-Qaida guy that they catch coming in from Mexico, and we have a major problem in Mexico,” he said.

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Mexican commandos seek control of border

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