Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Focus on U.S.-Mexico Cooperation Ignores Differing Interests in Drug War

One of the best detailed articles to appear anywhere on this topic. Reposted here in full.

Patrick Corcoran | 26 Mar 2008
World Politics Review Exclusive

TORRÉON, Mexico -- The Merida Initiative is a billion-dollar anti-drug aid package that only a kindergarten teacher could love: The results are not important, just the mere idea that the United States and Mexico are cooperating makes it worthwhile. The focus on the two countries overcoming their prickly past and learning to play nice ignores the fact that their interests in the war on drugs are not the same. What solves Mexican problems won't necessarily work on American ones, and what works for Washington could make things a lot worse south of the Rio Grande. The increased commitment and cooperation promised by the Merida Initiative can't change that.

The Mexican drug problem lies not in the consumption of cocaine, marijuana, or meth (though drug abuse is rising here), but rather in the incredible influence American users have indirectly bestowed upon the Mexican cartels, and the latter's tendency to solve problems and send messages with dead bodies. The United States has the opposite problem. There are no scandals about the nexus of political power and drug traffickers. Drug gangs are a general nuisance, a lethal danger in some communities, but the state is not threatened by cartels. Americans snort, smoke, and inject too much, but the nastiest symptoms of the drug wars rage south of the border.

The number of drug-related killings in Mexico has steadily increased over the past decade, topping out last year at around 2,500. Drug dealers wage war openly in border cities like Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana. Ricardo Ravelo, the dean of Mexican journalists on the narco beat, has estimated that half of the nation's cops are allied with the drug cartels. (Half!) With the possible exception of the mid-1990s, Mexico has never seemed so vulnerable to drug traffickers as it has over the past two years.

The scale of the violence reflects the degree to which drug trafficking has invaded Mexico's economy. The various cartels (the industry is in a constant state of flux, but most experts count about a half-dozen major cartels, with the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels being the most dominant) generate billions of dollars of revenue; nearly every expert agrees that the cartels' revenues exceed $10 billion annually, and some estimate a much greater total. One analyst, Samuel Gonzalez of the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, estimates the drug trade's slice of Mexico's economic pie at 4 percent. That 4 percent is no less active than legitimate money. Drug income reinvents and reproduces itself in the purchases of restaurants, cars, houses, and everything else such business brings with it. As Ravelo detailed in his 2005 book "Los Capos," many cities (your author's Torreón prominently included) rely on drug trafficking as a vital economic crutch.

Although its leaders might like to pretend otherwise, Mexico would suffer drastic economic consequences if the drug trade came to a screeching halt. The abrupt removal of 4 percent of the nation's economic activity would be equal to a severe recession. While Mexican society wants to rid itself of the cartels, it wouldn't sacrifice its economic well-being to do so. The late Jesús Blancornelas, Ravelo's legendary predecessor as the foremost chronicler of the drug trade, includes a revealing anecdote in his book "El Cártel:"

[Sinaloa Governor Juan Sigfrido Millán] remembered the first action of the army against the drug trafficking, called Operation Condor, and it was headed by José Hernández Toledo with great vigor. The effects were immediate: he weakened the mafias, but then something unexpected happened, according to the memory of Governor Millán: the automobile distributors, the real estate executives, the bank managers, and certain businessmen began to complain because of the drop in their sales or cash flow. "The economy plummeted," remembered the governor.

Hernández Toledo resisted and even scolded the businessmen eager for him to ease up, and Sinaloa remained relatively calm as long as the army was nearby. Eventually, though, the operation was weakened, and the cartels went right back to work along the state's long Pacific coast.

The consequences resulting from a too-sharp decline in drug trafficking wouldn't be strictly economic. Even if the Mexican government manages to reduce cartels' capacity to traffic drugs, the men running the organizations won't simply go get jobs selling insurance. Those not arrested or killed will probably branch off into other criminal fields, like bank robbery or kidnapping. Something like this has happened in the past five years or so in Tijuana, where the famous Arellano Felix cartel has been gravely debilitated. The cartel's erstwhile members have made the city increasingly unpleasant, if not uninhabitable. Since a kidnapping is more of a public nuisance than a peaceful drug transaction, separating criminal gangs from their sources and shutting down their smuggling routes is not a necessarily positive development in terms of public security.

The ideal scenario for Mexico would be the gradual replacement of the violence-prone supercartels with smaller and less ambitious drug trafficking groups that lack the means as well as the inclination to threaten the government. The drugs and the cash would keep flowing for the time being, but with less bloodshed. In time, Mexico could wean its economy off of its drug dependency. The Merida Initiative may be able to aid Mexico in this endeavor; Plan Colombia did coincide with the atomization of the Colombian drug trafficking organizations (apart from the guerilla groups and paramilitaries), and the baby cartels that dominate much of the landscape today are less menacing than was Pablo Escobar.

But based on the statements of American officials, no one is aiming for a reorganization of the Mexican cartels. In fact, it's hard to pin down exactly what the United States is aiming for. Officials talk admiringly about the Merida Initiative opening a new era of bilateral trust, but rarely do they link the rhetoric to concrete goals. Indeed, the entire thrust of American policy can be boiled down to one word: cooperation.

A few examples: the joint statement announcing the plan in October was titled, "A New Paradigm for Security Cooperation." Thomas Shannon, the State Department's top man in Latin America, told lawmakers in a congressional hearing, "The Merida Initiative would combine each nation's domestic efforts with broader regional cooperation to multiply the effects of our actions." John Negroponte, the State Department's No. 2, used an interview with Mexico's Televisa to strike the same themes: "[The Initiative] is a strategic cooperation between our two countries to fight this common problem." (In that one brief appearance, he used the magic word six other times as well.) The Barney-esque emphasis spans both sides of the border. Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa refused to call the Merida Initiative an aid package, opting instead for the friendlier "program of cooperation." A Google search of the words "Merida Initiative cooperation" yields more than 81,000 results.

What's missing in the comments above, and presumably the overwhelming majority of the 81,000 articles, is any articulation of objectives that goes beyond the one ubiquitous noun. The lack of complexity is partly explained by the fact that those quoted are government officials, and thereby incapable of speaking in anything other than broad platitudes. But even their platitudes reflect a lack of understanding. What they say about bilateral cooperation is true; a more trusting relationship would be great. The question is, to what end? More collaboration alone won't make an adequate solution to each nation's drug problem suddenly appear. Indeed, despite the enhanced relationship, it's a near certainty that for both nations a solution will remain out of reach.

There are three possible results of the Merida Initiative, none of which will satisfy both sides. The first is that despite some splashy takedowns of kingpins, nothing much changes, drugs continue entering the United States by the ton, and the cartels continue tormenting Mexico. The second is that, over the next five years, Mexico makes great strides in weakening the cartels and reducing the violence, and the bilateral pact is perceived as being a big part of that, but the drugs continue to flow northward through Mexico. The third, and least likely scenario, is that Mexico manages to reduce the drug trade to a shell of its former self and in five or 10 years is basically free of drug violence, thanks to in large part to the Merida Initiative.

The first two options, which will almost certainly end up being the actual result, are failures from an American point of view. The third option, which I wouldn't bet on even at 100 to 1 odds, could be even worse for Mexico. Whatever the end result, someone's walking away disappointed.

There are flaws with the plan's design -- for starters, there is way too much concentration on hardware, though Mexico's most immediate challenge is corrupt police -- but not even a perfectly conceived agreement could sweep under the rug the fact that the two countries want different results. Before sacrificing $1.4 billion to the altar of cooperation, both nations need to offer a more clear-headed analysis of this fundamental obstacle to bilateral drug policy.

Patrick Corcoran is a writer based in Torreón, Coahuila, in northern Mexico.

World Politics Review | Focus on U.S.-Mexico Cooperation Ignores Differing Interests in Drug War


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