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Bad Assumptions Guide US Policy on Day of Obama Visit to Mexico

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Barack Obama travels to Mexico this week to discuss the politically charged topics of drug policy, border security and immigration with President Felipe Calderón. We hope he has been briefed on some of the erroneous assumptions that have guided recent U.S. policy toward Mexico. Correcting these errors is essential because continuing on the flawed path of his predecessors could have disastrous consequences. Three of the worst mistakes he could make are:

•believing that Felipe Calderón is a legitimate counterpart capable of successfully pursuing a military style "war" on drug trafficking;

•relying on the idea of having the Mexican Army lead the fight against drug cartels is a good or practical idea; and

•thinking that broad, genuine immigration reforms can be both won and sustained in the U.S. while Mexico's capacity to produce employment in agricultural and other key productive sectors continues to atrophy.

The recent high profile visit to Mexico by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided a glimpse of what lies ahead.

Compared to the malign neglect of Mexico during the Bush years, Clinton's trip and a series of cabinet level visits prior to Obama's trip already signal deeper U.S. diplomacy and engagement with Mexico. But promises of more military assistance--above and beyond what was already in the pipeline under Bush's Plan Mexico ("Merida Initiative")--also suggest that Obama will not tamper with the essence of the security policies he has inherited. Nor will he really tamper with the 15-year-old NAFTA treaty that was originally developed and signed by George H.W. Bush and later embraced by his opponent and successor, Bill Clinton. Obama's team may bring refreshing changes in style, but they are not harbingers of the transformational changes needed to heal a sick bi-national relationship.

For example, during her late March trip to Mexico, Secretary Clinton declared that the "insatiable" appetite of American drug consumers drives the extraordinary profits and the vicious lethal capacity of narco-business. She also conceded that high caliber guns legally purchased in the U.S. are killing people in Mexico. While she admitted the obvious, don't hold your breath waiting for her or anyone else in the Obama administration to call for a thorough reconsideration of our failing drug control policies that looks beyond prohibition to harm reduction, decriminalization of users, and treatment on demand as frontline strategies for drying up illegal demand.

The problem with Calderón:

Felipe Calderón's failure to win a clean and undisputed electoral victory in the July 2006 presidential election was a major factor in his subsequent intemperate decision to attack Mexico's illicit drug traffickers. Eager to expunge doubts about his own legitimacy and to affirm his grip on power, Calderón ordered tens of thousands of troops to begin multi-state sweeps against narco-traffickers. The mobilization came just days after Calderón's own militarized inauguration in December 2006. He took his oath of office from behind multiple rings of high metal barricades manned by thousands of troops reinforced with armored crowd control vehicles.

As planned, Calderón's declaration of war on the murderous cartels was a great public relations coup. It immediately boosted his standing in polls of Mexicans who had grown alarmed at the drumbeat of brazen and sadistic narco-motivated attacks throughout the 2006 electoral season and its disputed aftermath. The military campaign also provided frequent opportunities for the George Bush Administration to praise Calderón's courage and extend pledges of solidarity with its new conservative, free-trade-loving ally in the global war on terror.

Early media reports suggested that Calderón had put the traffickers on the ropes, although complaints and ample evidence of Army human rights abuses quickly surfaced. As the months went by and the body count inexorably rose, the idea that Felipe Calderón might be losing control of the war he had started began to take hold. By the end of 2008 the death toll was skyrocketing. The killing of high government and police officials as well as innocent and random civilians--such as those killed in a grenade attack on the Independence Day crowd in Morelia, Michoacán--had created a pervasive and undeniable sense of crisis.

The atmosphere of crisis was amplified in the U.S. by Pentagon reports and statements from exiting Bush administration officials. An Armed Forces Joint Command Study painted a dire picture of the Mexican state as a candidate for "catastrophic failure." Exiting Homeland Security boss Michael Chertoff floated the idea that, in response to the immediate threat of violence allegedly "spilling" over the U.S. border, we should consider mounting a police and security "surge" on the U.S. side of our 2000-mile border.

The idea that the Mexican state is on the verge of collapse or that narco-violence is relentlessly sweeping north echo the kind of hyperbolized threat of Africanized bees or Sandinista convoys swarming our southern border during the Reagan era. Nevertheless, because Mexico faces real crises on many fronts, the idea of a Mexican implosion struck a nerve and rumbled across the media landscape, crowding the frame of debate and narrowing Obama's options even before he took office last January.

The weakness of Calderón's government is magnified as the world economic collapse hits hard in Mexico and the production of oil--Mexico's most important export and top source of government revenue--heads into terminal decline. Add the fact that rising unemployment in the U.S. has reversed the growth of Mexican out-migration to the U.S. for the first time in 25 years. The jamming of this perennial "escape valve" for Mexican discontent creates yet another potentially explosive element.

Calderón is hardly an ideal partner for Obama. Their likely dynamic resembles that between Obama and the bankers who shipwrecked the American economy. Just like the titans of casino capital who write the rules and control the gaming tables of world financial markets, Calderón created a mess of his own making. He recklessly launched a "war" that has now gone bad.

Calderón, like the bankers, has protected his own position without regard for the interests of the nation or its people. Both deserve repudiation, not help. But like the top tier elites of the U.S. financial industry who now live off state welfare, Calderón is running the only game in town. So, despite the fact that the Mexican president's political star is dimming, Obama is unlikely to risk distancing Calderón. He is obliged to maintain the charade and that means playing footsy with Felipe.

The twilight of Calderón's six-year presidency is coming early. The troubles that have overtaken Mexico have lead to a resurgence of the PRI, the old--formerly corrupt and discredited--party of the "perfect" seventy-year, one-party dictatorship. Recent polls, analysts, and street wisdom all point to PRI revival in the July 5th mid-term elections (that will replace the entire Lower House and one third of the Mexican Senate). The PRI is poised to take congressional seats from Calderón's ruling PAN on the right as well as from the increasingly fractured PRD coalition on the left.

Among the several factors fueling the PRI's revival, two stand out: Widespread economic discontent is finding voice in the born-again, anti neo-liberal populism that many Priístas have adopted during their exile from power. Another factor is the quiet understanding that the PRI knows how to work with the drug cartels. Yes, they were on the take and channeled untold millions of dollars into Swiss banks and their own political campaigns, but at least they knew how to make deals and keep order. The PRI is playing on strong currents of discontent. Their likely electoral revival does not bode well for Calderón's ability to remain even minimally effective during his three remaining years in office.

Why Obama Should Not Trust the Mexican Army:

Especially because Calderón is a tenuous and temporary counterpart, understanding the expanding role of the Mexican Army as America's true drug "war" partner is critically important.

During the mid 1990's, Bill Clinton's "Drug Czar" General Barry McCaffrey made repeated trips to Mexico during which he pushed the idea that while Mexican institutions all suffered from varying degrees of corruption, the Army was generally above the fray and merited American support to take the lead in combating traffickers who delivered transshipped Colombian and other drugs to U.S. markets. The logic was that relative to the stem-to-stern corruption and narco-infiltration of local, state, and federal police, the Army was clean, honest, and most importantly was the only institution with the national reach and strategic capacity to coordinate raids and takedowns of cartel leaders, as well as their finances and infrastructure.

The problem is that it wasn't true then, and it isn't true now.

Back in 2000--as some longtime readers of this list may remember--Global Exchange and two Mexican partners published a book called, Always Near, Always Far: The Armed Forces in Mexico. The book, a collective effort by eleven Mexican experts--including three dissident Mexican Generals--focused on the "loss of prestige" suffered by the Armed forces in the context of "large scale counterinsurgency missions that...generated a huge wave of human rights abuses." Echoing today's concerns the book warns that the Army "has been infiltrated by narcotics traffickers at the highest ranks, and is increasingly dependent on U.S. weapons, training, and ideology."

Retired Brigadier General Samuel Lara Villa, a 32-year veteran of the Mexican Army, cut to the bone. He said that the Mexican Armed Forces had become the enforcers for "a corrupt and inept regime linked to narco-traffic and with a propensity to guarantee impunity to its own lawbreaking functionaries," causing them to "lose sight of their historical mission."

Those declarations about the Mexican Armed forces and the urgent need for reform were made back in 2000, but most went unheeded. The sad truth is that while the Army's most visible mission has switched from counter-insurgency to counter-narcotics, genuine institutional reform has been minimal. In fact, the situation may have become far worse. As the military has moved to center stage in the drug war, their ranks have become prime recruiting grounds for the cartel's hitmen.

In a recent New York Times article, "In Drug War, Mexico Fights Cartel and Itself" (3/29/09), reporter Marc Lacey asserts (without attribution) that, "Mexico's military is regarded as significantly less corrupt than the country's police forces." But then, in the same sentence, he drops this shocker: "Defense officials estimate that 100,000 soldiers have quit to join the cartels over the past seven years."

The Mexican Armed Forces not only continue to be infiltrated, but they are also being preyed on by the cartels. In effect, the Army trains an average of more than 14,000 soldiers for the cartel's paramilitaries every year. Some of these ex-Army mercenaries come with specialized training and recent knowledge of Army tactics, personnel structures, and procedures that are of great value to the drug trade managers and cartel CEOs who hire them.

President Obama faces a dilemma in dealing with Mexico's Army. For more than a decade the Army has been unreliable and yet central to U.S. counter narcotics strategy in Mexico. It would be difficult and politically costly for Obama to tinker much with this unhappy formula, but he should. As long as the artificially high profits of the illegal drug trade exist, the Army will remain vulnerable to paid infiltration and to losing valuable personnel to the traffickers. Sensible drug policy needs to look beyond prohibition and put all options--including selective decriminalization and other proposals for rapidly reducing illegal demand--on the table.

The Promise and Perils of Immigration Reform

While in Mexico, it will be impossible for President Obama to entirely avoid the topic of immigration reform. This reality helps explain why on April 8th Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House, went public with news that had been circulating as a rumor for months: The Obama Administration will support the introduction of a broad immigration bill late in 2009. The aim is to have signed legislation sometime in 2010.

In principle, of course, this sounds like a good idea. Millions of honest and hardworking immigrants need a way out of the perpetual limbo of their undocumented status. Meanwhile, leading reform advocates are promising to avoid the mistakes that poisoned the effort to secure Bush Administration backed "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" in 2007.

Nevertheless, while renewed discussion of immigration reform is welcome, there is reason for caution. A bill that provides some relief for currently undocumented immigrants but that leaves current border barrier policies and massive detention programs in place while failing to address the root economic causes of Mexican immigration will not be a genuine gain.

The Global Exchange report, The Right to Stay Home, takes an in-depth look at the toxic mixture of structural inequality, economic misery, and elite designed "Free Trade" policies that fuel Mexico's massive out-migration to the United States.

When NAFTA comes up this week, Obama could shine. He could show that he understands that trade policies designed and implemented while he was still in law school have failed, causing great misery. He could say that as we seek economic recovery and face down an ecological emergency that yes, we need improved economic integration that strengthens worker rights, puts people and the environment ahead of corporate profits, and ends discrimination against undocumented workers.

Calderón has been an iron defender of NAFTA since the treaty was approved several years before he started a Masters degree program in public policy at Harvard. He may bring up the long running trade-policy telenovela based on U.S. refusal to honor an agreement to permit Mexican trucks on U.S. roads. But in truth he is a died-in-the-wool neo-liberal, who would be ill at ease with any attempt by Obama to start a genuine dialogue about the fundaments of North American labor and trade policies. Nevertheless, if Obama truly pushed things, Calderón would have to listen and respond.

Sadly, this conversation will almost certainly not happen. To the extent Obama has shown his hand, those cards are not in it. Nevertheless, it is what we should be pushing for. The Obama Administration needs to make real his campaign promises to renegotiate NAFTA. And we need an approach that decriminalizes undocumented workers and prioritizes stabilizing Mexican communities as part of a broader program of economic recovery and hemispheric response to common threats and opportunities.