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U.S. Steps up Military Involvement in Mexico's Drug War

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When the top brass of U.S. and Mexican security met in Mexico City March 24, they took historic steps to ratchet up U.S. involvement in Mexico's failed drug war. At the same time, Mexicans are demanding an end to the disastrous strategy.

The "High-Level Consultative Group" met amid an onslaught of bad news.

Commandos gunned down 15 teenagers partying in a working class neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez on Feb. 2. Just 11 days before Sec. of State Hillary Clinton's visit, three people linked to the U.S. Consulate were murdered by hit men in the city's streets.

Since the meeting, the Mexican army shot and killed two children riding the family car at a checkpoint as the daily register of drug war-related assassinations continues.

President Felipe Calderon has a political crisis of confidence on his hands. The mothers of the murdered teenagers interrupted his public apologies, after he had said their children were involved in illegal activities--insinuating they somehow got what they deserved. At Calderon's hastily prepared damage-control meetings in the beleaguered city, they stood with their backs turned during his speech and later shouted angry protests over his militarized security strategy.

Across the country, citizen groups are calling for an end to the armed forces' involvement in the fight against drug cartels. A majority of Mexicans believe the drug war is failing, according to recent polls.

U.S. Shores up the Drug War
The backdrop of blood and protest should have been the opportunity for the kind of strategic rethinking that the people directly affected demand. Instead, the Obama administration sent in diplomatic reinforcements to support Calderon's drug war in its hour of need. The planned meeting was beefed up to include Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates; Secretary of Homeland Security Janet A. Napolitano; Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair; Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael G. Mullen; Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security John Morton; Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary G. Grindler; Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Director Adam Szubin; Office of National Drug Control Policy Acting Deputy Director of the Office of Supply Reduction Patrick Ward; and Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart.

Clinton announced a new commitment to the Merida Initiative, which provided Mexico with $1.3 billion dollars in aid between 2008 and 2010, much of it military-to-military. The Initiative ended with the 2010 appropriations passed by Congress. Even the war-hungry George W. Bush designed the initiative as a three-year cycle, not an indefinite intervention.

Someone should have put the nails in the coffin of this ill-begotten Bush plan before congressional hawks and defense company lobbyists could summon forces to resurrect it.

President Obama should have remembered his own words at the April 2009 Summit of the Americas, when he underlined the need to "...recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power, and that we have to use our diplomatic and development aid in more intelligent ways so that people can see very practical, concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary persons as a consequence of U.S. foreign policy."

In Ciudad Juarez hundreds of families have had to abandon their homes and businesses as their city has been turned into a battlefield. This is anything but intelligent.

The Obama administration should have announced a halt to the Merida Initiative and a commitment to a new aid package to Mexico based on building strong communities and rule of law.

But, alas, the opposite happened. Clinton eagerly announced its indefinite extension, with no exit strategy or--one could plausibly argue in light of the results--any effective strategy at all.

The Obama administration has gone back to Congress with a request for $310 million dollars for FY2011 to pour mostly into outsourced U.S. defense, private security, training and IT contracts.

This "Merida 2" initiative, discussed at the March meeting, on close inspection looks suspiciously like Bush's Merida 1.

The Joint Statement of the Merida Initiative High-Level Consultative Group on Bilateral Cooperation Against Transnational Organized Crime announced "four strategic areas" for the new Merida Initiative:

A. Disruption of the capacity of criminal organizations that act in both countries

B. Mutual support for the continuous improvement of the framework for security and justice and the strengthening of public institutions of both countries

C. Development of a secure and competitive border for the 21st century

D. Building strong and resilient communities

The areas could be a partial basis for a new approach. But that's not likely. The commitments from Mexico to accept U.S. agents and training are written into the agreement while U.S. commitments are not. The non-security pillars are not backed up by changes in the focus of aid. The meeting was attended by high-level security and defense officials, without the presence of a single USAID official or of drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who presumably would be charged with carrying out U.S. commitments to reduce demand for illegal drugs. There is no mention of serious, funded efforts to reduce corruption and trafficking in the United States, and statements on reducing demand and increasing aid to anti-poverty programs in Mexico remains vague and unsubstantiated.

The military focus continues despite reduced military spending. For those who believe that the new strategy will be a kinder and gentler approach, Napolitano dropped a political bombshell when she told NPR that the Mexican government has requested U.S. military presence in Mexico's drug war. Here is the NPR exchange:

Interviewer: Are you saying that (Mexican President Felipe) Calderon has expressed an openness toward a uniformed, U.S. military presence within Mexico?

Napolitano: Yes. Let me be very, very clear (because) this is a very delicate subject. ... Our military in certain limited ways has been working with the Mexican military in their efforts against the drug cartels. But, it is at the request of the Mexican government, in consultation with the Mexican government. And it is only one part of our overall efforts with Mexico, which are primarily civilian in nature.

As expected, voices in the Mexican press have reacted with alarm at the prospect of U.S. Army presence in Mexico. For Mexico, serious issues of national sovereignty hang in the balance. Meanwhile, U.S. taxpayers should be concerned about another quagmire engineered to enrich the war industry.

A far better strategy would be for the U.S. government to provide Mexico with non-defense aid to offer alternatives to youth recruitment by cartels and create horizons of hope for crisis-stricken communities. This would also free up funds for Mexico to continue to finance its own national security measures without outside intervention.

It's also time to open debate on regulating marijuana out of the hands of organized crime. The U.S. and Mexican governments discarded this option even for research and exploration, despite the fact that statistics show that marijuana is the main income for cartels that purchase U.S. arms on the black market and shoot people in the streets of Juarez. The debate can longer be blocked in the U.S., where California is poised to vote on a referendum to regulate cannabis in November.

Most importantly, although mechanisms to exchange information and carry out transnational operations to clean up financial institutions that launder money should be expanded, the key to transnational cooperation isn't foreign intervention--it's a dedicated effort by each country along the chain to fight corruption within it's own borders. The image being pushed that the drug war is a strictly Mexican plague just serves to divert attention from the impunity that organized crime enjoys within U.S. communities and government institutions.

When you follow the money trail of transnational drug trafficking, that's where the buck stops--and is neatly pocketed by some of the world's most brutal and powerful criminals.