IPS Blog

Fighting Drug Cartels Exposes Mexican Military to Corruption

Gen. Manuel Moreno Avina, charged with drug trafficking.

Gen. Manuel Moreno Avina, charged with drug trafficking.

As has been discussed numerous times, on this blog and elsewhere, a chief consequence of the Mexican military’s involvement in fighting drugs has been a dramatic surge in violence and death throughout the country. Since President Felipe Calderon took power and reoriented the military towards combatting the problems of domestic security, anywhere between 45,000 and 67,000 people have died and claims of human rights abuses have increased, while the “failed state” label has been repeatedly slapped on the country by pundits, politicians, and even some otherwise sober-minded analysts.

Defenders of the Mexican government’s policy point to the fact that because the military hasn’t been actively involved in fighting the drug wars, its foot soldiers and brass have been buffered from the corrupting influence of the cartel’s bottomless pockets. Traffickers have successfully hollowed out local and state security institutions by preying on the poor pay and even poorer training police officers receive in Mexico. The military, slightly better cared for and immensely more well-regarded in society, is seen by many as incorruptibly above the fray due to its limited exposure to trafficking networks.

Logically, then, the more exposure the military has to the drug war, the greater the risk that it will succumb to corruption. Evidence of this problem has been apparent since the start. Shortly after Calderon ordered the armed forces to roll back the power of drug trafficking networks, the cartels began openly advertising a better life for soldiers and their families. As USA Today reported in 2008, “One of Mexico’s biggest drug cartels has launched a brazen recruiting campaign, putting up fliers and banners promising good pay, free cars and better food to army soldiers who join the cartel’s elite band of hit men.” Their tactics were direct and to the point:

“The Zetas operations group wants you, soldier or ex-soldier…We offer you a good salary, food and attention for your family. Don’t suffer hunger and abuse anymore.” A competing cartel also put soldiers on notice. “Join the ranks of the Gulf Cartel. We offer benefits, life insurance, a house for your family and children. Stop living in the slums and riding the bus. A new car or truck, your choice.”

At the time, authorities pooh-poohed the offers as PR antics even as the threat of corruption seemed increasingly real.

So it shouldn’t be all too surprising to learn that the government has taken action against two high-ranking military officers with alleged links to drug-running cartels:

Soldiers detained retired Gen. Tomas Angeles Dauahare and Gen. Roberto Dawe Gonzalez, the Attorney General’s Office said in a brief statement released late Tuesday. The office gave no other details. An official at the Attorney General’s Office said the officers are being investigated for alleged links to a Mexican drug cartel, but he would not say which cartel. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to discuss the case.

Angeles Dauahare’s detainment is especially disturbing given the fact that he was President Calderon’s personal pick as number two man in Mexico’s department of defense. Even more troubling, while this week’s arrests were the most high-profile moves against corrupt military personnel, they are not the first.

A few senior military officers have been arrested for alleged links to drug traffickers during Mexico’s long struggle to control the cartels. Retired Gen. Juan Manuel Barragan Espinosa was detained in February for alleged links to organized crime and Gen. Manuel Moreno Avina and 29 soldiers who were under his command in the border town of Ojinaga, across the border from Presidio, Texas, are being tried on charges of torture, homicide, drug trafficking and other crimes.

The most immediate effect of this scandal is likely to be political. Polling suggests diminishing public opinion returns for Calderon and his conservative party’s reliance on the cartel crackdown—numbers that, at least for the moment, point to a return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party which ruled the country for decades during Mexico’s authoritarian period. But while the upcoming elections offer a momentary distraction from the brutal slaughter playing out across the country’s borderlands, the fact remains that competing cartels have evidently made inroads into the heart of the state national (and international) defense. A change of the political guard won’t suffice to fix that. So the question remains—what will?

Free-Trade Deal May Prove Greater Obstacle to Colombian Peace Than FARC

May 15 marked the inauguration of a highly controversial and recently-ratified free trade deal between the United States and Colombia. In Miami, shipments of Colombian flowers arrived to the docks while motorcycles manufactured in Kansas City were rolled out of their containers in the capital city Bogota. The exchange was the first under a newly-minted pact and was the subject of fierce battles between human rights activists and conservative free marketeers after it was first drafted some six years ago. While the latter camp contends that trade will bring great benefit to both sides, others argue that it rewards Colombia for bad behavior, will promote more violence and will adversely affect the livelihoods of poor farmers in the Colombian countryside. After voting against the deal on these grounds while in the Senate, President Barack Obama changed course last year, expressing unequivocal support for the agreement. “This represents a potential $1 billion of exports and it could mean thousands of jobs for workers here in the United States,” Obama said. And so I believe that we can structure a trade agreement that is a “win-win’ for both our countries.” The president signed it into law shortly thereafter following heated debates in the Congress.

What was supposed to be a moment of celebration in Colombia quickly turned bloody when a car bomb detonated in downtown Bogota, killing three people and injuring many more. The Associated Press describes the attack as “targeting a hardline former interior minister kill[ing] two of his bodyguards and injur[ing] at least thirty-nine people in Bogota’s uptown commercial district…the former minister and morning radio host, Fernando Londono, suffered minor wounds and was out of danger after being operated on to remove glass shards from his chest, authorities said.” Time magazine reports that “Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro said a pedestrian attached an explosive to a door of Londono’s armored SUV and set it off remotely. He said authorities had video of the attack.”

The bomb blast arrives as a huge shock to the capital which, despite a bloody past, has enjoyed nearly a decade of tranquility. It’s true, as Reuters reminds us, that “The last bomb attack attributed to the FARC in Bogota occurred in August 2010, shortly after President Juan Manuel Santos took office,” and that “there have been several small bombings since then, for which no particular group was blamed.” Yet it hasn’t been since 2003 that the group has pulled off a high-profile assault on the capital that has been received with such terror.

Despite the hideous carnage, though, the explosion revealed a number of things that hold out the possibility for hope. For one, while all eyes have been on the FARC as the most likely perpetrators of the violence, the rebel group-cum-criminal gang has yet to “take responsibility for the attack on websites or the Twitter account where they sometimes issue statements. If the bombing is attributed to the group,” notes the Miami Herald, “it would be the first time in almost ten years that the rebels have been behind a fatal bombing in the capital.” This, in turn, might suggest that the attack “was not ordered by the ruling Secretariat but rather came from further down the FARC’s hierarchy,” as Fox rightly suggests. While this would certainly put a strain on the recent efforts at establishing some sort of peace between the guerillas and the Colombian state, the fact that FARC’s highest leadership did endorse the action would still leave enough breathing room for talks to continue despite this most recent bump in the road.

Something else to keep in mind during all this is the discipline Santos has exhibited throughout the ordeal. While many commentators, and even government representatives, have been quick to assign blame to the FARC, the Colombian president has been careful not to point fingers before investigators have a clear sense of who was responsible. This is a refreshing change of pace from the presidency of Alvaro Uribe—who embraced any pretext for hammering the guerillas with the iron fist of military action while mobilizing popular fear for the consolidation of political support—and a signal that Santos will not be easily rattled or distracted from his commitment to seeking a negotiated settlement with the FARC while at the same time steering the country to some semblance of economic prosperity.

At the same time, there’s no getting around the fact that the FARC hasn’t exactly been a good-faith partner in establishing paths to peace. One need look no further than their recent kidnapping of a French journalist Romeo Lanlois just weeks after declaring their intention to cease the long-standing practice, nor their justification that “Langlois, was captured in the middle of a battle wearing a military uniform, is in our hands,” and therefore “a prisoner of war”—a claim rejected by just about everyone, including Human Rights Watch. And if it indeed emerges that yesterday’s bombing was the work of low-level FARC operatives, serious questions about the leadership’s ability to keep control over wildcat operations could undermine the government’s faith in FARC to honor any negotiated settlement.

But the biggest threat to peace, paradoxically, could be the free trade agreement. The FARC’s continued relevance is due in large degree to their ability to recruit desperate rurally-based Colombians who have been shut out of the formal economy, and feed off the proceeds of Colombia’s comparative advantage in narcotics production. If critics of the free trade pact with the United States are correct, “1.8 million small-scale farmers would see their net agricultural income fall by over 16 percent on average, but 400,000 farmers dependent on crops that would compete with US products would lose 48 to 70 percent of their farm income…Undercutting their livelihoods would push farmers back into coca production, the raw material for cocaine” and flood FARC coffers (as well as those of their paramilitary counterparts to the north) with the profits from trafficked drugs to the United States and Europe. Flush with cash, and capitalizing on the sympathies of alienated farmers angered by the deleterious effects of free trade with Washington, the FARC could decide that power (and profit) lay in confronting the government, not working with it. At that point, all bets are off.

U.S. and E.U. Chase Pirates on to Somali Soil

Just days after a Greek-owned oil tanker carrying a quarter-million tons of crude was hijacked by Somali pirates, the European Union opened a new front in its war against the buccaneers by attacking them on land. The Associated Press reports that European forces struck a pirate base “in Handulle village, about 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of Haradhere town.” While no deaths were reported in the attack—carried out by helicopters and support ships along the coast, the strike did considerable damage. Bile Hussein, a pirate commander, told the AP that “the attack along Somalia’s central coastline destroyed speed boats, fuel depots and an arms store. ‘They destroyed our equipment to ashes. It was a key supplies center for us…The fuel contributed to the flames and destruction. Nothing was spared.’” According to the Telegraph, “The attack involved troops from several of the European navies including seven frigates…from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal.”

The action is the first of its kind since the EU expanded the scope and scale of its mission in March. Citing the EU’s “commitment to fighting piracy off the Horn of Africa” and the “misery” piracy has caused the Somali people, the European Council moved to extend its presence in the Arabian Sea until the end of 2014, and broadened its area of operations to the Somali mainland and the country’s territorial waters. The EU’s decision came shortly after news that President Barack Obama ordered Navy Seals into the country on a rescue mission to free an American aid worker and her colleague from capture by warlords.

The Christian Science Monitor has some good analysis on the situation, noting that the EU’s actions today suggest that Brussels has joined the United States—which has been carrying out missions against the pirates for some time using drones—in “pursuing a policy of diplomacy by airstrike.”

The good news from all this is that we can’t expect a full-scale land invasion of Somalia at any point in the near future. For one, the ghosts of Black Hawk Down still haunt Washington policymakers and their EU counterparts. But perhaps more pertinently, as the Institute for Security Studies’ Andrews Atta-Asamaoh points out, invasion would likely lead to moral hazard. Any full-scale action could “very easily play into the hands of the Islamists,” says Atta-Asamoah, “and allow them to whip up nationalism that would turn all progress towards a peace process around completely.”

The bad news, then, is that we can expect to see more of the same half-way house approach to managing the situation with increasing forays onto the territory of Somalia itself. As the Financial Times reports, “Tuesday’s attack is expected to be the first of many along the thousands of miles of Somali coastline.” From the point of view of militaries patrolling the area, air strikes minimize possibilities for casualties on all sides while disrupting the operations of pirates and robbing them of safe haven. This preference was echoed by a spokesperson for the EU itself. “The pirates have felt in the past that once they are on dry land, we have to back off. Following the extension to our mandate, we are now able to deny them that impunity on land, and this morning’s mission is a clear demonstration that we intend to make life as difficult as we can for them on land, as well as at sea.” But it is far from clear that a growing reliance on airstrikes—and violence more generally—no matter how inconvenient for the pirates, opens up breathing room for a peace process to develop, and for Somalia to reclaim its sovereign independence.

Foreign Policy Magazine Analyst Stokes Fears About Mexican-style Drug War in Venezuela

ForeignPolicy.com has done a remarkably poor job covering Latin American politics since the magazine overhauled its site, brought in a new crop of editors, and built up an otherwise impressive stable of regular columnists. Its chief weakness in this regard has been in neglecting the region more than anything else, so when garbage analysis like Francisco Toro’s recent piece on Venezuela’s “narco state” gets run, it really stands out.

Toro writes about the two federal magistrates— Eladio Aponte and Luis Velásquez Alvaray—who have captured headlines in the past couple of weeks by revealing (or threatening to reveal) information that exposes the corruption plaguing Venezuelan government. “To paraphrase Oscar Wilde,” he quips, “To lose one Supreme Tribunal magistrate may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.” I’m not sure what this means, to be frank, or what Toro intends to insinuate by it, but his breakdown of the situation only deteriorates from there.

He notes that the information beginning to trickle out “paint[s] a picture of a criminal justice system deep in bed with the Colombian Rebel Armed Forces (FARC) guerrillas, where political interference, crooked rulings, collusion with drug traffickers, and occasional contract killings, are entirely routine. The cocaine route out of Colombia, through Venezuela, and on to the U.S. and Western Europe is simply too profitable—and the tentacles of the trade’s millions have seeped into every corner of the system.”

What Toro fails to mention is that the tentacles have allegedly also put some of that money into the pockets of Aponte and Alvaray, who were each driven out of the country under clouds of suspicion questioning their own crooked ways. Both face corruption charges at home, giving each a very good reason to raise questions about Hugo Chavez’s leadership during an election year (also not mentioned in Toro’s article).

Instead of taking the time to offer a measured, properly contextualized analysis of what’s going in Venezuela, Toro is clearly more interested in fear mongering—a quality that either throws into question his journalistic integrity or his personal political preferences, or both. “The mounting revelations paint Venezuela as a budding narcostate,” he offers, “a country where big-time drug trafficking money has not just bought this and that judge, or this and that prosecutor, but has taken control of the state as a whole. Large-scale drug trafficking is a business that invariably leaves a trail of blood on its wake, and a spate of recent contract killings of army officers alleged to be deep in the business raises the possibility of a Mexican-style drug war to come.”

Actually, it doesn’t, but it hardly matters since Toro believes that the possibilities for bedlam are even worse in Chavez’s Venezuela! “Alas, the analogy [to Mexico] isn’t really accurate. In Mexico, the drug war pits the armed forces against the drug cartels. In Venezuela, if the former magistrates are to be believed, the drug cartels operate from within the Armed Forces. And what do you call it when one part of a country’s armed forces goes to war against another? That’s right: a civil war.”

To suggest that Mexico’s drug war pits the military against drug traffickers is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation there. Indeed, the military has been forced to take up arms because the country’s police have systemically failed to combat the country’s gangsters. So bad is the situation that on more than one occasion the military has battled police themselves. The military in shootouts with state police units? That sounds more like a civil war than anything going on in Venezuela (though it is assuredly not). And what evidence is there to suggest that Venezuela’s military (apparently split into corrupt and non-corrupt factions) would begin operations against itself? Not much, aside from the predictions of opposition candidates and chavista loyalists in the run-up to the national elections in October.

It’s true that the political climate in Venezuela is tense with uncertainty—and has been for some time—under Chavez’s erratic and largely unsuccessful tenure as president. And, as usual during election season, anxieties are being intentionally ratcheted-up by various operatives seeking political gain (especially given the uncertainty produced by Chavez’s declining health). This is precisely why journalists have a responsibility to offer level-headed explanations of what’s going on in Venezuela. Toro has done the opposite by recklessly forecasting doom. We deserve, and should demand, better.

Are Islamists Role Models to Christian Fundamentalists?

Crusade 2.0The Obama administration, writes Foreign Policy in Focus co-director John Feffer in his valuable new book Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War on Islam (City Lights Books), “continues to misunderstand the nature of political life in the Middle East. In his 1985 survey of the Arab world called The Arabs, journalist Peter Mansfield concluded in his final chapter that ‘no one can tell what social and political institutions the Arab people will have developed by the end of this momentous century. All that can be said with certainty is that, however much they derive from foreign movements and ideas, they will have a specifically Arab of Islamic character.’ Nearly thirty years later, policy makers and pundits have yet to learn that Islam is an essential part of Arab life, and that includes politics.” [Emphasis added.]

That would scarcely be feasible in a country as heterogeneous as the United States. Besides, despite conservative claims that the Founding Fathers were inspired by their Christian faith, it’s all too easily demonstrated that they were motivated by fear of the tyranny of not only secular, but sacred authorities. Still, one can’t help but wonder if conservatives are jealous of the widespread belief in Islam — among the rank and file as well as Islamists (political Islam) — that, as the faith of the majority of a state’s citizens, Islam should be nationalized (as it were). It’s ironic to think that Islamists serve as role models to Christian fundamentalists who seek a Christian state.

The District Has a Youth Unemployment Crisis

DC youth between the ages of 16 to 19 are in crisis. They are experiencing unemployment levels 2.3 times the national average, reports the Justice Policy Institute in their latest research brief Working for a Better Future.

The brief takes a look at the collateral effects on youth who do not have access to jobs, such as higher rates of juvenile justice involvement, negative self-image and disconnection from their community. It also provides compelling evidence for the District to invest substantially more into dynamic long-term job training and placement assistance programs that incorporate job skills development, mentoring, job placement, and innovative program completion incentives like a GED and adjudication expungement. There is a generation of young people who are growing up without the skills and experiences to prepare them to contribute in meaningful ways to their lives, families and communities once they reach adulthood.

Often, I find myself in conversations with people about local DC youth and the popular perception is that these kids don’t want to try and take advantage of what’s here. It’s true that, on the surface, the District has a wealth of programs set up to “engage, train, and employ young people. Too often, however, this work is fragmented, uncoordinated, and focuses on the quantity of youth served over the quality of intervention.” And once through these programs, young people have little to show for it and run the risk of having more encounters with the justice system, becoming a victim of crime, and limited and low-paid work opportunities. The District has a responsibility to make sure its youth in the juvenile are equipped to succeed by offering quality programming that promotes public safety and opportunities for self-development.

The following are examples of successful programs operating in DC offering comprehensive programming that results in positive changes in the lives of DC youth:

  • Youth Build U.S.A – serves low-income young people ages 16-24.
  • YearUp – focuses on IT skills training and has a mission focused on helping young people overcome barriers to success due to criminal convictions.
  • STRIVE – seeks to “transform the lives of at-risk populations by providing support and training that lead to livable wage employment and societal reintegration.”
  • JobCorps – a residential education and training program for youth ages 16-24

The report offers the following policy recommendations:

  1. Invest more in quality employment programs for youth that includes efforts to link youth with work that interests them, has potential for advancement and development, and connects them to their community.
  2. Dedicate more resources in the wards with the most need to access the job market.
  3. Use evidence-based models that have been shown to positively impact youth.
  4. Ensure that employer partners accept youth who have successfully completed job preparedness programs regardless of justice system contact.
  5. Consider innovative incentives for increasing youth participation in programs.

Honduras: Sovereignty for Sale

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo

It’s been nearly three years since Honduran president Manual Zelaya was forcefully removed from office by the military in the country’s first coup since 1972. Pushed from power with little more than the pajamas on his back, Zelaya was ferried to Costa Rica in an operation orchestrated by Roberto Micheletti before sneaking back into Honduras and holing up in the Brazilian embassy, sparking a standoff which lasted weeks. In the end, the United States—which had initially spoken forcefully against Zelaya’s ouster and demanded his return to power—lost interest in defending democracy when the going got tough, effectively ending the region’s efforts to send the golpistas packing.

While the rest of the world has since carried on as if nothing had ever happened, the Honduran economy still bears painful reminders of the coup and its consequences. The Economist sums things up succinctly. “It is the third-poorest country in mainland Latin America in terms of GDP per head, and is heavily reliant on foreign help. In the six months between the coup and the election of Porfirio Lobo…the aid tap was turned off. In 2009 the country lost out on $320m in grants and credit, says Humberto López of the World Bank. Its public debt rose from 19.8 percent of GDP in 2008 to 26.3 percent in 2010… Even after two voluntary bond conversions this year, extending maturities to between three and seven years, repaying the principal of the domestic debt alone will cost Honduras 1-2 percent of GDP each year until 2015.”

A suffocated economy, though, could be the least of the country’s concerns. Since taking office, the administration of Pepe Lobo has opened the door to expanded American military presence in Honduras and has quite literally auctioned off his country’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.

Last week, the New York Times reported that the United States has established three new military bases—“each in a crucial location to interdict smugglers moving cocaine”—as part of its increased efforts in a revamped “war on drugs” in Latin America. While the US mission has been ordered “to maintain a discreet footprint,” the six hundred American troops are now “responsible for the military’s efforts across all of Central America,” and offer Hondurans another reminder of Washington’s grim record of military involvement in the country. Even hard-right conservatives are spooked, though for reasons that have more to do with American security than they do Honduran interests. According to the Times, these efforts will “draw on hard lessons from a decade of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq,” a plan that leads Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter to remark, “That anyone would regard the Iraq debacle as a template for future military operations is more than a little worrisome. The principal lesson of the Iraq war should be to avoid murky counterinsurgency/nation-building crusades, not to try to pursue such missions more effectively.”

As the US military sets up shop in remote jungle areas, the Lobo administration has been looking to radically refashion the country’s urban centers through a privatization scheme that would make Milton Friedman blush. Planet Money’s Adam Davidson reports that “in late 2010, [presidential aide Octavio Rubén] Sánchez met with [economist Paul] Romer, and the two hurriedly persuaded President Lobo to make Honduras the site of an economic experiment. The country quickly passed a constitutional amendment that allowed for the creation of a separately ruled Special Development Region.” The so-called “charter city” will reportedly “assure investors that they’ve created a secure place to do business…If a multinational company commits to building new factories, real estate developers will follow and build apartments, which then provide the capital for electricity, sewers, telecom, and a police force.” If this sounds like the colonial Mandate System on crack, that’s because in many respects it is, though potential nation-state partners are wary. “Romer hasn’t yet been able to persuade any nations to take on the role of custodian, so Honduras has named a board of overseers until there are enough people to form a democracy.” A democracy of whom, one might ask? It’s not clear, though in yet another twist of irony, the first of Romer’s Honduran charter cities is slated to be built around the harbor of Trujillo, site of Christopher Columbus’ first forays onto the American continent and the inspiration for O Henry’s “Cabbages and Kings”—from which famously comes the term “banana republic.”

Not surprisingly, supporters of each initiative highlight the potential positives. Davidson points out that “Even though he expects most initial opportunities will be fairly low-paying basic industrial jobs, the local government [of the charter city] will mandate policies that ensure retirement savings, health care and education. According to Romer’s plan, the immigrants who arrive will not get rich, but their children will eventually be ready to climb the economic-development ladder.” Meanwhile, containing the operations of drug traffickers is of direct important to US security because, according to Admiral Joseph Kernan, the number two man at US Southern Command, “There are ‘insidious’ parallels between regional criminal organization and terror networks.”

But when we consider that violence and foreign control have been at the heart of Honduras’ problems for the better part of a century, these latest developments are of great concern. And not only that, they’re also interconnected. Carpenter correctly notes that “Because of the black-market risk premium, profit margins are far wider than normal, filling the coffers of illicit traffickers and giving them ample financial resources to challenge competitors and either corrupt or neutralize government institutions…Unfortunately, the Obama administration stubbornly refuses to recognize that reality.” This has direct effects on the dismal levels of physical security countries like Honduras suffer, which in turn scares off potential investors from putting their money behind the country’s economic development. Jettisoning failed and flawed prohibition policies would likely reduce levels of violence as profits—and therefore market monopoly incentives—shrink, and return the economy to a semblance of stability. The result would leave both Romer and the United States military without reason to be in Honduras which, if they are both committed to the region’s future prosperity as they have led us to believe, should be not only a policy preference but a matter of highest priority.

Lip Service Is All the Bahraini Opposition Will Ever Get From Washington*

Cross-posted from Other Words.

The popular uprising in Bahrain shows no signs of going away.

The royal family tried crushing the revolt, importing shock troops from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It tried jailing important figures in the opposition, such as human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who as of early May had been on hunger strike for 90 days. The island’s rulers tried quieting the opposition by promising to investigate the abuses and making minor cessions of power from the king to the parliament.

None of these strategies has worked. The opposition rejects them as cosmetic changes. The Bahraini majority is angry. It wants authoritarian rule to end, and many Bahrainis would like to see the monarchy disappear. The regime’s answers to this public outrage are birdshot and tear gas. They haven’t produced the terrible death tolls of Libya or Syria, but at least 32 people have died since February 2011.

The United States, which anchors its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, is right in the middle of this simmering crisis. For the most part, Washington is content to look the other way.

*Apologies to Elvis Costello.

To read this piece in its entirety, visit Other Words.

Mexican President Calderon: Kingpin of the Kingpin Strategy

Mexican President Felipe Calderón

Mexican President Felipe Calderón

Cross-posted from the Dissent blog Arguing the World.

With Mexico’s presidential elections just around the corner, questions about the country’s future—and its bloody war on drugs—hang heavy in the air. The new issue of Foreign Affairs features a brief argument from Robert Bonner addressing this uncertainty, and offers a spirited defense of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against the country’s narcotraffickers. Bonner, former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency and commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is hardly a stranger to the drug-fueled violence and corruption ravaging Mexico. The effects have been devastating: anywhere between 45,000 and 67,000 people have been murdered since Calderón’s efforts began; the country’s alphabet soup of local, state, and federal security and judicial organs have been largely crippled by graft; and the power of the so-called “Mexican cartels” seems to have metastasized within and beyond Mexico’s borders. Yet, “despite all the negative headlines,” Bonner argues, “the next president will find that the government has made huge gains in the last five years…By using force and launching large-scale reforms of Mexico’s law enforcement institutions, [Calderón] has already destroyed some of the cartels and weakened several others.”

Calderón has made security the central focus of his presidency. As Bonner writes, “Calderón set about reforming Mexico’s law enforcement institutions using a three-part strategy: creating a new, professional federal police force; rebuilding each of the thirty-two state forces and giving them the responsibilities of the discredited municipal police; and overhauling the judicial and penal systems.” These efforts have not been lost on the Mexican public. “As a result of Calderón’s determination and success against the cartels,” notes Bonner, “his approval rating now stands at 52 percent.”

Mexico under Calderón has pursued a far more heavy-handed approach to destroying the cartel networks than the anemic administration of Vincente Fox. Calderón’s government has relied on the military as the primary tool to fight the cartels. To a degree this makes sense: trafficking networks have penetrated Mexico’s various law enforcement bodies so thoroughly that the government can’t depend on the police to keep basic order, much less to go after organized crime. The military, by contrast, has been largely buffered from organized crime’s corrupting influence. But the results have been grim: violence has spiraled out of control as the military takes control of state and local law enforcement bodies, assuming responsibilities for which it is not properly trained or funded. According to government statistics, the first nine months of 2011 left over 12,000 dead, and the violence shows no sign of abating. The first quarter of 2012 witnessed steady fighting between traffickers and the military, as well as attacks on the civilian population. In a particularly chilling incident, four teens in the northern city of Cuernavaca were abducted, cut to pieces, and dumped in the street with a warning note from a local gang. Just this week, nine people were found hanging from a bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, while another fourteen heads without bodies were discovered near its town hall.

On top of the staggering body counts, many human rights protections have become casualties of Mexico’s militarization. As Alejandro Anaya Muñoz has shown, judicial reforms pursued by Calderón have reduced due-process guarantees in the name of fighting the war on drugs. The number of charges of human rights violations against the ministry of defense has risen precipitously during the Calderón era, especially in those areas of the country where military action has been focused. According to Human Rights Watch, “An important reason [military] abuses continue is that they go unpunished. And they go unpunished in significant part because most cases end up being investigated by the military itself.” International calls for reform on this front have been consistently rebuffed by the Calderón administration.

Worse still, there’s little evidence to suggest that Calderón’s “kingpin” strategy—modeled after the Colombian anti-cartel operations a decade earlier—will even succeed. Bonner, pointing to the alleged successes in Colombia, argues, “In the last three years alone, the Mexican government has captured or killed over forty major cartel members…dismantled the Tijuana cartel and severely weakened the Gulf, the Juarez and La Familia Michoacana cartels.” But there are several reasons to be wary of analogies to the Colombian case. There, the government’s victories over insurgent groups came at the cost of increasing authoritarianism, and through political pacts with conservative paramilitary groups—themselves responsible for a significant amount of Colombia’s drug trade—which have now consolidated considerable political power in northern Colombia. Moreover, it is hardly clear that killing kingpins leads to a reduction in violence, as Calderón has claimed. Indeed, it may be quite the reverse, as recent episodes in Tijuana and Cuernavaca suggest.

Bonner is certainly correct to point out that Mexico’s next president will meet with unrelenting, brutal opposition from the country’s drug traffickers. And whoever wins this summer’s electoral contest should continue to make security a priority, as Bonner argues. But to claim that Mexico faces a stark choice between acquiescence, on the one hand, and a continuation of Calderón’s mano dura (“tough hand”) militarism, on the other, is wrong.

The next president should make efforts to temper, if not outright reject, Calderón’s profligate use of the military, and should make protection of human rights a cornerstone of any policy aimed at rolling back the power of traffickers. Calderón’s successor ought, too, to push back harder against American pressure that privileges supply-side answers to the drug problem (which has the effect of flooding Mexico with weapons) while doing comparatively little to address demand for drugs in the United States. Doing so will demand tremendous creativity and the courage to weather possible public disapproval from citizens exhausted by fear and insecurity.

Still, there’s reason for hope, as the 2008 constitutional reform fight makes clear. Faced with a bill from the president, the Mexican congress—including members of the Calderón’s own party—forcefully argued that Calderón’s proposals violated human rights protections guaranteed by the constitution and forced the president to back off some of the more severe elements of his original proposal. Military brass would also certainly welcome relief from the rising casualties and overstretch that Calderón’s policies have engendered.

Any solution, finally, must revitalize and hold accountable Mexico’s institutions of criminal justice, however great the challenge. The alternative is more years of bloodshed and further backsliding into the legacy of authoritarianism the country has so desperately fought to escape.

The Lineup: Week of May 14-20, 2012

In this week’s OtherWords editorial package, Sam Pizzigati puts Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s discarded U.S. citizenship into context and Booth Gunter discusses the grim conditions young inmates endured at a for-profit prison in Mississippi. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. No Country for Rich Men / Sam Pizzigati
    From Manhattan to Monaco, the world’s wealthiest people are disconnecting into a class of stateless transients.
  2. Operation Lip Service / Chris Toensing
    A year after President Obama promised that Washington would stop buttressing autocratic regimes, Bahrain’s popular revolt is still being crushed.
  3. Bank of America’s Healthier Roots / Scott Klinger and Chuck Collins
    Founder Amadeo P. Giannini built a booming business while helping others improve their lot and their communities.
  4. Meting out Injustice in Mississippi / Booth Gunter
    Prisoners, some as young as 13, are being brutalized in facilities owned by private companies that exist solely to turn a profit.
  5. Our Ruinous Game / Donald Kaul
    Football fans have a high tolerance for pain — in others — and show little sympathy for the plight of the players who now are seeking redress for their injuries.
  6. Coddling the 10 Percent / Jim Hightower
    To reel in these mid-level richies, bankers are offering to pamper them lavishly.
  7. Abortion Politics / William A. Collins
    Although its opposition to abortion and family planning probably won’t foment a landslide away from the Catholic Church, the steady erosion of membership is increasing.
  8. USS Excess / Khalil Bendib
USS Excess, an OtherWords op-ed by Khalil Bendib.

USS Excess, an OtherWords op-ed by Khalil Bendib.

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