In December 2006, newly elected Mexican president Felipe Calderón donned military fatigues and declared a “war on drugs.” Washington, increasingly concerned about the steadily rising power of Mexico’s drug cartels, expressed its strong support for the Mexican president’s decision to deploy the Mexican military in this domestic war.
At President Bush’s behest, the U.S. Congress in 2008 approved the Merida Initiative, which authorized $1.3 billion on military assistance and other U.S. aid to Mexico (and to a lesser extent Central America) to fight the drug war and organized crime over three years.
Calderón’s decision to tap SEDENA – the National Defense Secretary – to direct the campaign against the drug trafficking organizations was never questioned by Washington policymakers. Even after two years of dubious accomplishments in army-led war on drugs, the new administration of Barack Obama opted to continue Washington’s whole-hearted support for Mexico’s war.
In the administration’s first year, DHS Secretary Napolitano, Drug Czar R. Gil Kerlikowske, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton uniformly praised Calderón’s “courage” in taking on the cartels. The administration also continued its predecessor’s strong backing of the Merida Initiative.
The near-giddy enthusiasm at that time for Calderón and his declared war on drugs has given way more recently to a more sober evaluation of drug war, the role of the army, and binational cooperation.
By late 2009 the spectacular failure of the army’s offensive against the cartels – so evident in the disaster of “Operación Conjunto” in Chihuahua – obligated administration officials to tone down their acclaim for Mexico’s drug war.
The degree of the deepening frustration with its partner institutions in Mexico and the spreading gloom about the prospects for stability in Mexico came to light recently in the secret State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.
In marked contrast to the shine given to U.S.-Mexico cooperation in the four-year drug war in Mexico by U.S. officials, the diplomatic cables have revealed a more sober assessment of the relationship, the war’s progress, the capabilities of its Mexican partners, and of the Merida Initiative framework of cooperation.
After dining with Mexico’s then-Undersecretary of Interior Geronimo Guitierrez and U.S. Justice Department officials, one U.S. diplomat reported that Mexican officials had belatedly realized that the initiative was patched together with “not enough strategic thought” and with “too much emphasis in the initial planning on equipment.” An October 2009 cable reported that Gutierrez “expressed a real concern with ‘losing’ certain regions” of the country to the drug cartels.
In a Nov. 9, 2009 cable, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual wrote: "Mexico's use of strategic and tactical intelligence is often fractured, ad hoc, and heavily reliant on the United States for leads and operations." He lamented the “entrenched mistrust” and turf wars that obstructed collaboration among the various security forces in Mexico. They "would rather hoard intelligence than allow a rival agency to succeed."
The cables also point to the Mexican Army’s lack of modernization, its risk-avoidance, and its inability to adapt to its law enforcement mission.
Perhaps the most embarrassing assessment about Calderón’s drug war strategy came in cable communication that praised the cooperation and operations of the Mexican Navy (SEMAR), which operates apart from the SEDENA and the Mexican Army.
One cable noted that SEMAR “has shown itself capable of responding quickly to actionable intelligence. Its success [in hunting down drug kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyba] puts the Army … in the difficult position of explaining why it has been reluctant to act on good intelligence and conduct operations against high-level targets.”
The Dec. 17, 2009 cable stated, “The U.S. interagency originally provided the information [about Beltrán Leyba’s whereabouts] to SEDENA, whose refusal to move quickly reflected a risk aversion that cost the institution a major counternarcotics victory.”
Despite U.S. commitment’s to assist in the modernization of Mexico’s judicial system, the State Department communications bemoan the country’s low prosecution rates. According to one cable, “Prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal, 2 percent of those detained are brought to trial. Only 2 percent of those arrested in Ciudad Juarez have even been charged with a crime.”
In an apparent reference to corruption in Mexico’s security forces, a WikiLeaks-distributed cable bemoaned the persisting need for “the development of strong trust through proper vetting.” Later, the cable writer noted, “It would also be excellent to get to the point where there is no longer impunity for ‘Chapo’ Guzmán.” Guzmán heads the Sinaloa Cartel and is regarded as one of the world’s richest individuals.
Cynicism about the drug war – and just about everything to do with politics and governance – is overtaking hope in Mexico.
Initially, Calderón’s commitment to confront the cartels with the Mexican Army, together with his promises to overhaul the federal police and the country’s deeply flawed judicial system, was widely supported in Mexico, bolstering his own legitimacy after a bitterly contested election and raising hope that a war against the cartels was winnable.
The Mexican government can boast of a string of arrests or killings of major cartel figures. But the scourge of narco-violence not only continues, it is intensifying and spreading.
Perhaps even more disconcerting is the knowledge that violence isn’t the only indicator of the presence of organized crime. Calm in the streets may also point to organized crime penetration.
The absence of narco-violence in a town, municipality, or region can also be a sure indicator that organized crime has consolidated its control over this territory.
Because of the cowed and co-opted state of much of the Mexican media, particularly outside the major metropolitan areas, there is little information about the full extent of organized crime’s power and reach. As a result, Mexicans don’t know what is happening in their own towns and states.
What news that does surface about the drug-trafficking organizations – their capacity for violence, their diversification into other criminal and legitimate businesses, and their insistence on the acquiescence of politicians and police – lends increasing credibility to the hypothesis that the Mexican state is not only weak and corrupt but is also fundamentally endangered and now running scared.