At a time when the U.S. government is seeking more cooperation with the Mexican armed forces, Mexicans are becoming increasingly disillusioned. The Mexican army has long been regarded as one of Mexico’s most highly regarded institutions, generally ranking second in public polls following the Catholic Church. However, its high-profile role in President Felipe Calderón’s drug war has highlighted its gross incompetence, corruption, and disregard for human rights. As a result, public confidence in the armed forces is plummeting. After three months of the Mexican army’s Joint Operation Chihuahua, two out of three people recently polled in Ciudad Juárez said that the army’s anti-drug operation has had little or no impact. At the outset of the army’s anti-narcotics campaign in Chihuahua, the army ranked first in public confidence among thirteen institutions. Today, only 34% of those polled in the border city of Juárez had confidence in the army – a drop from 77% in early April. It’s no wonder. The drug violence that sparked state and local government officials to request an expanded army presence has continued unabated. In public displays attended by school children, the army periodically burns stacks of marijuana that it has “decommissioned” and display the rangy “delinquents” it has arrested. But there have been no arrests of drug lords or major raids on the highly lucrative drug trafficking networks that run through the border state. At the start of Joint Operation Chihuahua, the army engaged in an aggressive public relations campaign to win public support and explain its mission. General Jorge Juárez, commander of the Chihuahua operation, explained away the drug violence, asserting it was the result of the “efecto cucaracha” or cockroach effect whereby the army presence set off increased feuding among the country’s main drug organizations. This explanation is the official line of the Calderón government, which insists that the escalating drug-related violence since December 2006, when the current drug war began with the army in the lead, is actually a sign of success. More sober assessments, however, attribute the new violence to the internal dynamics of the illegal drug business in Mexico rather than a reaction to government progress. The various drug cartels are competing among one another for increased control, and in the process they are eliminating police who aren’t loyal to the new regional drug bosses. It’s the “plata ó plomo” (silver or lead—bribes or death) system gone wild. The United States is betting that the army, with its help, can bring stability to Mexico. It praises the Calderón administration for “using the military to reestablish authority and counter the cartels’ firepower.” (see International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, March 2008). In its ever-hopeful vision of the drug war, the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy declares that the Mexican institutions leading the drug war “are making a tremendous amount of progress” – without detailing what that progress is. Reacting to congressional concerns about gross human rights abuses by the army, ONCCP Chief John Walters says, “The use of the military against the cartels is a temporary necessity; President Calderón is reforming Mexican police institutions to enable them to confront cartels that use the income from our addicted citizens to arm themselves and kill and corrupt security forces.” Few Mexicans, who detest the police, would bet on that scenario. And few close observers of the drug war in Mexico would bet that the military’s role in the drug war is temporary.
Photo: Bush and Calderon shake on drug war cooperation