Obama's Mexico Mistake

The White House has been distracted by a sweet-talking Mexican foreign policy team. If Obama wants to help reduce violence south of the border, it is time for him to stop playing Calderón's game and to exercise real leadership.
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Wednesday's White House dinner with Mexico's president Felipe Calderón may serve as the culmination of President Obama's failed strategy of appeasement. Obama has not demanded concrete results in the "drug war" or asked hard questions about human rights, corruption and judicial reform. The administration has been distracted by a sweet-talking Mexican foreign policy team. If Obama wants to help reduce violence south of the border, it is time for him to stop playing Calderón's game and to exercise real leadership in North America.

The Calderón administration has gained U.S acquiescence by periodically extraditing drug lords, responding to U.S. intelligence with round-ups, and welcoming American military and law enforcement into Mexican territory. On the surface, Calderón's right wing Party of National Action (PAN) appears to be more pro-American than its predecessor, the old guard Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI). Fearing that the PRI may soon return to power, Washington has adopted Calderón as its favorite son.

But the truth is that Calderón is directly responsible for the violence which has taken 22,000 plus lives over the past three years in Mexico. This violence today threatens to spill over to the U.S. After three years of Calderón's administration, there is no sign of improvement.

The number of killings has increased and fear has taken hold of the Mexican population. Recently, a single gunshot fired into the air created a panic at a fairgrounds in Monterrey, crushing five people to death and injuring dozens more. In the popular vacation spot of Cuernavaca, a threatening email attributed to a notorious drug lord completely emptied the streets on a beautiful Friday evening.

In the state of Tamaulipas, which shares a border with Texas, respectable people are increasingly unwilling to run for public office out of fear of the drug cartels. This past Thursday, one of the mayoral candidates in an important town in the state was assassinated in broad daylight. This Saturday, a powerful politician from the ruling PAN party mysteriously disappeared from his ranch in the state of Querétaro. Blood stains were found in his abandoned vehicle.

The violence goes far beyond drug related crimes. Two weeks ago, an international humanitarian caravan was gunned down on its way to an indigenous village in Oaxaca. Both a Mexican and a Finnish human rights activist were killed, and two journalists were injured, by an armed group apparently linked to government authorities.

A recent independent study documented 244 assaults against journalists in 2009. This includes the assassination of a dozen reporters as well as the use of physical violence, death threats and court cases to intimidate independent media organizations. Contrary to popular belief, in the vast majority of these incidents, government officials -- not drug cartels -- are the principal suspects.

Calderón has done little or nothing to combat corruption in law enforcement. He has scaled down existing anti-corruption agencies, entrusted their work to political loyalists and insisted on superficial "confidence reviews". The periodic discovery of lists of public officials in the pocket of organized crime is therefore hardly surprising.

But the most worrisome concern is that Calderón and his public security chief Genaro García Luna, may in fact favor one of the most powerful drug cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel. The Associated Press and NPR have pointed out that recent arrests have hit top leaders in every Mexican drug cartel except this one. Joaquín Guzmán, the cartel´s leader, is on the Forbes list of the wealthiest people in the world. He is clearly the dominant figure in the Mexican drug business. His right hand man, "el Mayo" Zambada, recently even felt confident enough to give an exclusive interview to Mexico´s foremost news magazine, Proceso.

Nevertheless, Obama regularly celebrates Calderón's "bravery" and "unwavering commitment" in combating the drug cartels. In taking this approach, Obama is privileging short term political support over long term solutions.

This is unfortunately a long-standing feature of American policy. Richard Nixon supported Augusto Pinochet's coup d'etat in Chile in 1973. Ronald Reagan defended the dictators of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua during the 1980s. And Obama today is supporting Calderon as supposedly the best of bad options: better an ineffective but pro-American Mexican president than the return of the PRI, or the rise of the "populist" left.

But the real American interest is peace and sustainable development south of the border, not the political success of Calderón. Obama and Congress should take advantage of Calderón´s visit to Washington this week to send a clear signal that the Mexican president needs to clean up his act at home if he wants to continue to receive U.S. support in the future.

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist for La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine. Contact: www.johnackerman.blogspot.com

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