U.S.-Mexico Relations Back on Track -- In the Wrong Direction

Nearly all of that cooperation centers on the severely flawed approach to confront transnational drug-trafficking. The new relationship forged in war rooms is bad news for the Mexican people.
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Mexico's Felipe Calderon and Barack Obama met this week to do damage control following a series of blows to the binational relationship. But while most analysts emphasized the tensions between the neighboring countries going into the meeting, the real crisis behind the visit was the failure of what the two leaders most strongly agree on: the war on drugs south of the border.

Following a closed meeting, the presidents stood before the cameras to reaffirm their mutual commitment to a war that has cost 35,000 Mexican lives since 2007, with the death toll rising by some 50 homicides a day. Obama affirmed the U.S. strategy of increased engagement in the Mexican drug war, stating "We are very mindful that the battle President Calderon is fighting inside of Mexico is not just his battle, it's also ours."

He promised to deliver $900 million this year of funds appropriated under the Merida Initiative, a security agreement launched in 2007 by the George W. Bush administration and extended indefinitely under Obama.

Several incidents had rattled relations in the weeks preceding Calderon's Washington visit. The release of thousands of WikiLeaks cables between the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and the State Department revealed U.S. officials' concerns regarding the Mexican government's capacity to carry out its high-risk war on drug cartels and wavering public opinion. Cable 10MEXICO83, for example, states that "the GOM's (Government of Mexico's) inability to halt the escalating numbers of narco-related homicides in places like Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere... has become one of Calderon's principal political liabilities as the general public has grown more concerned about citizen security." The cable cites "official corruption," inter-agency rivalries, "dismal" prosecution rates and a "slow and risk averse" Mexican army.

In an interview with El Universal, Calderon responded angrily, calling the statements exaggerated, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual "ignorant" and citing a lack of inter-agency coordination within the United States. The Mexican president even told the Washington Post he might talk to Obama about removing the ambassador, although the issue did not come up in the official statements and Obama is not likely to replace Pascual.

Continued releases of the cables by the Mexican daily La Jornada promise more embarrassments for both governments in attempting to portray a confident and united front in the drug war.

Tensions also followed the assassination of Jaime Zapata, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in San Luis Potosí on Feb. 15. The Mexican government rapidly arrested the alleged attackers-members of the Zetas drug cartel-but the incident highlighted the risks of the drug war cooperation and the power of the cartels.

The Mexican government's contradictory statements on what happened and the army's absurd claim that the assassins didn't know they were attacking U.S. agents (the agents' car bore U.S. diplomatic plates) only deepened perceptions of a lack of transparency. Within Mexico, the incident heightened fears that the U.S. government would demand more direct involvement, in particular a lifting of the ban on foreign agents bearing arms within Mexican territory.

A recent spate of comments from high-ranking U.S. officials served to fan the flame of distrust of the U.S. government. Sec. of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's speculated out loud of possible links between Mexican drug cartels and Al Qaeda, and Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal characterized organized crime in Mexico as an "insurgency," while openly raising the specter of US troops being sent in. Mexican columnists and anti-militarization activists have intensified criticism of U.S. growing involvement in the country's national security.

It's always politically convenient for a Mexican president to mark distance from the U.S. government. But the tensions really arise from the shared commitment of both governments to deepen and reinforce a military a drug war that is rapidly losing popular support. The central concern of the presidential summit wasn't the relatively superficial frictions between the countries, but the mutual desire to bolster the beleaguered drug war.

Despite talk of a deteriorating relationship, in fact the Calderon and Obama administrations are overseeing the birth of historically unprecedented cooperation between the two nations. Never before has the Northern Command or the Pentagon enjoyed such nearly unrestricted access to Mexican national security decisions and operations.

The problem is that nearly all of that cooperation centers on the severely flawed approach to confront transnational drug-trafficking. The Mexico City US Embassy has expanded into a massive web of Washington-led programs and infrastructure. The controversial Merida Initiative, up for another round of funding in Congress, has allocated more than $1.5 billion to help fight Mexico's drug war with devastatingly negative effects.

In addition to the rise in violence under the drug war, the binational relationship, which should be multi-faceted and focused on peaceful co-existence, has been hijacked by proponents of a war model to reduce illicit drug flows to the U.S. market and confront organized crime where it is most powerful -- in brutal battle. The Pentagon is thrilled with Calderon's openness to what Obama called the U.S. "advisory capacity" in Mexican defense, and the Calderon government -- entering election mode -- needs U.S. political and economic support for its politically costly crusade against organized crime.

But the new relationship forged in war rooms is bad news for the Mexican people. Polls now show that a majority of the population thinks the government is losing the war on drugs. The rising "collateral damage" in human rights violations, death and chaos in Mexico has led to protest movements that call for a new model.

It's also bad news for the U.S. public. Opening up a war front in Mexico has not only destabilized our closest neighbor, but also drains resources needed in U.S. communities. The government-funded contracts granted to Blackwater and Blackhawk to fight Mexico's war could be used for schools in crisis. With an on-going economic crisis and hot wars across the ocean, the prospect of long-term involvement south of the border hurts all but the flourishing war economy.

Mexico's drug war has generated death, an erosion of rule of law, increased gender-based violence and mayhem in many parts of the county. This crisis should have elicited a modicum of self-criticism and willingness to consider reforms from the leaders who developed the strategy. A wide range of alternative policies exist to supplant the endless drug war. Human rights concerns, along with longterm effectiveness, should dominate in considering which of these to adopt.

Presidents Obama and Calderon could have used this meeting to rethink the strategy. Both have at times indicated a need to defuse the drug war by turning to health-oriented approaches to drug consumption and backing off the cops-and-robbers persecutions by adopting more sophisticated methods of dismantling financial structures and carrying out more focused intelligence operations.

Instead, the presidential summit made a show of putting the binational relationship back on track -- in precisely the wrong direction.

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