Monday, June 2, 2008

Mexico’s Drug War or Ours?

By Nicole M. Ferrand.

With the Democrat primaries coming to an end, the candidates’ experience on crucial matters such as national security and foreign affairs has been largely discussed and scrutinized by the media, with Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. and Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton each claiming to have more international credentials than the other. So it is surprising to see how mistaken they are when they say that if elected, they will re-examine trade policy with other countries and that they will not ratify the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, our best and closest ally in Latin America. This is unfortunate, especially in times when the United States is fighting a war against terror and when enemies such as Iran have entered this country’s sphere of influence with the help of Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez. What is worse, Obama, while making plans to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has already alienated Colombia’s President, Alvaro Uribe. In April, he declared: “I’ll oppose the Colombia Free Trade Agreement if President Bush insists on sending it to Congress because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” Uribe immediately responded, with considerably more diplomacy than the Democratic front-runner: I deplore the fact that Senator Obama, aspiring to be President of the United States, should be unaware of Colombia’s efforts.[1]

The Venezuelan leader is working together with other terrorist organizations of global reach such as the FARC to do everything possible to attack and diminish the US and its allies in the region; instilling terror and fear whenever and wherever they can. Chávez and his buddies, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and the Revolutionary Armed forces of Colombia (FARC) are trying to destroy democracy because they mistakenly believe that capitalism is corrupt and decayed, that it exploits workers and that it must be destroyed. Their aim is to groom groups in neighboring countries, forcing US friendly, democratic governments to take such repressive measures that discontented and violent people will rise up and overthrow their respective regimes. (To read about why trade is pivotal for US’ interests and why we must stand with our allies, please see the Americas Report from May 23rd, 2008: “We must stand with Colombia,” by Nancy Menges.)

We have written several articles on this matter; in fact our latest “The Americas Report” we state: “Instead of recognizing the outstanding leadership President Uribe has provided, the message he and the Colombian people are getting (from the Democratic candidates and leadership) is that we are punishing them by not passing the FTA. This weakens Colombia in the eyes of other Latin American leaders and proves Chávez right that America cannot be counted on as an ally.” Colombia is still our best Latin American ally and the Democrats are turning their backs on a true US friend. Now there is another controversy brewing in Congress, this time having to do with funding for the Merida Initiative, put forth by President Bush to assist Mexican President Calderon fight the drug cartels in his country.

Covering almost 2 million square kilometers, Mexico is the fifth-largest country in the Americas by total area and the 14th largest in the world. With an estimated population of 109 million, it is the 11th most populous country and the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. As a regional power and the only Latin American member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) since 1994, Mexico is firmly established as an upper-middle income country. Mexico is the 12th largest economy in the world by GDP by purchasing power parity. The economy is strongly linked to those of its North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) partners, despite being considered an emerging world power, the country’s social and security problems keep it from being effective. Mexico shares a 1,952 mile border with the United States. Violent criminal activity fueled by a war between criminal organizations struggling for control of the lucrative narcotics trade has escalated in recent months. Recent clashes between authorities and drug cartels have escalated to levels equivalent to small-unit military combat and have included use of machine guns and fragmentation grenades. In any case, the stakes are high for the United States because violence in Mexico is bound to spill over the border.[2]

Violence in Mexico
Since taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Calderón has sent 25,000 Mexican troops into the field in an all-out battle with drug trafficking cartels. He says the sovereignty of the nation is at stake and he is right. He vows to keep up the fight against those who threaten the state, especially the criminal organizations. The strategy has resulted in the arrest of numerous cartel bosses and forced the drug organizations to make costly detours on their trafficking routes. But it has also sparked a backlash: the cartels have retaliated with a new level of savagery, aided by the country’s legions of bent cops, that has left a trail of hundreds of murdered police, prosecutors, politicians and civilians.[3] More than 1,000 Mexicans have died this year in violence tied to organized crime. On May 8th 2008, Edgar Millán Gómez, Mexico’s acting chief of police, was shot nine times and died as he arrived home late at night. One of his bodyguards was wounded. The cartels “respond like this because they know we’re hitting their criminal structures,” President Calderón said after Millán’s killing.

Edgar Millán Gómez, Mexico’s former acting chief of police, shot dead by the cartels. Source: Sun/Mexico.

Political analyst George Friedman, who heads the Stratfor private intelligence company, says Mexico could become a failed state if the government does not make a strong counterattack on the drug cartels. “If Calderón does not respond effectively to this killing, any minister of his government is going to see himself at risk and that is going to change their behavior.” Friedman says Mexico could turn into the kind of battleground that existed in Colombia in the 1980’s when drug cartels held sway over several cities and operated with impunity. He says the private armies of the Mexican drug cartels resemble the militias that have undermined governments in other parts of the world.”[4]

President George Bush is trying to help Calderón with a package of aid and training that came out of a meeting between the two leaders last year in Mexico called the Merida Initiative. (To learn more about the Merida Initiative please see “The Americas Report,” December 6, 2007 titled: Merida Initiative – NOT Plan Mexico by Nicole M. Ferrand.) Bush’s request has been reduced by the U.S. House of Representatives and has yet to pass in the Senate, but the President continues to support it. “We are working hard to reduce demand for drugs here in America and, at the same time, we want to work in conjunction with strong leaders to make sure these drug traffickers do not get a stronghold and that is why it is important for Congress to fund the Merida project,” said President Bush. The courageous actions of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s Administration have achieved historic results in taking down narcotics trafficking organizations. Mexico made record seizures of illicit drugs, weapons and money in 2007, reducing the illicit drug supply in major U.S. cities. Arrests of high level criminals and extraditions to the U.S. also set records.[5]

The Millán assassination has sparked new urgency on Capitol Hill to pass President Bush’s $1.4 billion, three-year plan to help Mexico combat narco-terror. Yet, while the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the measure on Wednesday, even rising the funding to $1.6 billion, its fate on the House floor, and in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress, remains uncertain. Mexico’s security forces, whose firepower pales in comparison to the high-powered arsenals of the drug cartels, are in dire need of just the kind of short-term aid envisioned in the plan, dubbed the “Merida Initiative” for the Yucatan city where it was announced last year by Bush and President Felipe Calderón. While most of the aid package goes to equip Mexico with Black Hawk helicopters and more sophisticated surveillance equipment, it also includes funds for more credible training of police, prosecutors and judges. As Congress debates the best way to fix the problem, Mexico’s cartels, including the Sinaloa gang’s main rival, the Gulf Cartel, have in recent years raised the scale of the bloodletting by introducing such weapons as grenades, AK-47 assault rifles and bazookas, as well as ghastly methods like mass beheadings. The U.S. government says drug proceeds earned by Mexican cartels selling cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine in 2005 ranged from between $8 billion and $23 billion. Cocaine is shipped to Mexico from Colombia and other South American countries in speedboats, small planes and in one case a jumbo jet, all coordinated with state-of-the art technology and communications to move the cargo north by sea, air and land.[6]

The Republican response
In contrast to the Democrats, John McCain, the Presidential Candidate for the Republican Party, has declared: “Colombia is a beacon of hope in a region where the Castro brothers, (Venezuelan president) Hugo Chávez and others are actively seeking to thwart economic progress and democracy.” Stalling on the approval of the CFTA “will not create one American job or start one American business, but it will divide us from our Colombian partners at a time when they are battling the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) terrorists and their allied drug cartels.”[7]

Mr. McCain seems to really understand what is at stake here and apparently has done his homework with regards to international relations and what would be best for his nation. When Alvaro Uribe became Colombia’s president in 2002, he faced what seemed an impossible task: Waging a war on narco-terrorism, on a continent whose loudest voice is narco-terror supporter, Hugo Chávez. But since taking office, Uribe has made enormous progress, most recently in mid-May, when top FARC commander, Nelly Avila Moreno, known by the nom de guerre, “Karina”, turned herself in. In Uribe’s five-year tenure, Colombia has seen a dramatic drop in murders, kidnappings, and assassinations. According to Kathryn Jean Lopez from the National Review: “These facts don’t impress the U.S. Democratic Party, whose leadership is stalling the free-trade agreement. The free-trade agreement would cost Americans next to nothing. As things stand, most Colombian goods already enter the United States duty-free. The agreement would open Colombia’s markets to our exporters, and strengthen our economic and security ties to a friend that’s fighting the bad guys.”[8]

Mexico’s potential failure is important for three reasons. First, Mexico is a huge country, with a population of more than 100 million. Second, it has a large economy, the 14th-largest in the world. And third, it shares an extended border with the United States and violence can easily come to this country where the leading cartels will compete in the United States, and that competition will extend to the source of the money, as well. We have already seen cartel violence in the border areas of the United States, but this risk is not limited to that. The same process that we see under way in Mexico could extend to this country.[9] U.S. law enforcement agencies such as the DEA, the ATF and Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement work closely with their Mexican counterparts to halt the flow of arms and cash that provide firepower to criminal organizations.

The Merida Initiative is a three-year, $1.4 billion program to help Mexico wipe out drug traffickers and terrorists. Taking these barbarians on is critical to Mexico’s and the region’s future and an act of courage that has been shown by no other Mexican leader. As Ms. Jean Lopez correctly analyzes that “Chávez will delight in and be emboldened by the failure of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement (CFTA), which will be seen as Uribe’s failure to get a vote of confidence from the world’s No. 1 superpower. Chávez has already used it as a rhetorical weapon on state-run television. He has insanely accused Uribe of running a ‘genocidal government.’ For Congress to hand Chávez this victory would be a shameful and dangerous act.” Imagine how he would feel if the Democrats now reduce the funds for the Merida Initiative.

The Democrats’ agenda
Worried about “human rights abuses,” the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress is expected to trim the $500 million in aid planned for this year. They have a lot of “excuses” for withholding the money. Their friends in the AFL-CIO, who have enough pull in Congress to ice Colombia’s free-trade pact, are now playing the same power game by contending Mexico’s human rights aren’t good enough for U.S. aid. Their alternative: Let the violence continue until every Mexican cop is perfect. The aid is aimed at helping clean up the Mexican police forces so they can fight and win. The union’s opposition probably is more rooted in a leftist agenda that wants the Calderón administration to fail. Democrats who resent Bush entering the agreement on his own, relish the chance to remind him they’re in charge now. So far, they’ve whacked $88 million from the proposed first installment.

The United Steelworkers sent House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid letters saying that “without significant and concrete improvements in institutional mechanisms to weed out criminals, provide training in human rights, and establish effective civilian oversight, additional funding to these security forces is likely to worsen corruption and violence.”[10]

Senator Chris Dodd, D-Conn., calls the Merida Initiative “the old war-on-drugs paradigm” that orthodox leftists doubt can ever be won. Along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Dodd doubts the tough security approach that cleaned up New York City and Medellin, Colombia, can ever work.[11]

Colombia’s urban areas went from gunfire-ridden hellholes to Singapore-like cities with virtually no trash, graffiti, beggars or dopers, cities with courteous soldiers, professional policemen and honest citizens, not to mention 7% economic growth. Every night in Bogota’s Candelaria district, college kids literally celebrate peace in the streets “because we once couldn’t,” one told us. That’s a transformation. What could be better for the United States than to bring that to Mexico? In terms of illegal immigration from Mexico, there are many Mexicans who cross the border who are fleeing from drug violence, in addition to seeking higher paying jobs. Get rid of the drug traffickers and many Mexicans will have reason to head home. Apparently, Democrats have no enthusiasm for the promise of such success. They would prefer to see Mexico suffer, pat themselves on the back as they lecture on human rights and throw every roadblock they can at its future to get back at Bush. This is no way to treat a neighbor whose house fire could easily spread to ours.[12]

Why we should help Mexico
Some analysts see the recent spike in violence as a sign of progress. Calderón’s campaign has disrupted established drug-trafficking channels, creating cash shortages and causing turf battles among the cartels. But the drug business in Mexico has a way of rebounding, thanks to relentless demand from the north. The supply of cocaine in the U.S. has declined in the months after Calderón’s assault on drug cartels began. The front lines have pushed north to towns such as Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez. Already the State Department has issued a travel alert, warning citizens about visiting Mexico.[13] The U.S. has a huge stake in this conflict, and not just because of the growing security risk along the border. About 90% of the cocaine smuggled into this country comes from or through Mexico.

The bottom line
There is no good reason to oppose the Merida Initiative. This is our war too. Mexican soldiers and police officers are dying while fighting an enterprise that exists largely to feed the drug habits of users in the U.S. It would be a serious mistake to abandon Mexico in this time of struggle by reducing funding for the Merida Initiative from the proposed $500 million to less than $300 million. We have a strong vested interest in this battle and a responsibility, as Calderón himself noted pointedly in a recent visit to the U.S. “I’m not asking the United States for a favor,” he said. “This is a shared problem that requires a shared solution.”

*Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

[1] Recent developments in Mexico’s drugs war. May 20, 2008. Reuters.
[2] Dems vs. Latin American Democracy. Kathryn Jean Lopez. National Review.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Mexico: On the Road to a Failed State? By George Friedman. May 13, 2008. Stratfor.
[5] AFL-CIO opposes aid package for Mexico. May 9, 2008. McClatchy Newspapers.
[6] Why Are Dems Making Mexico Suffer? May 13, 2008. Investor’s Business Daily.
[7] Mexico Wages Bloody War with Drug Cartels. May 21, 2008. Voa News.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Obama Alienates Another Ally. April 2, 2008. The Associated Press.
[10] Home Country: Mexico. March 20, 2008. Oklahoma State University.
[11] Can Narco-Terror Be Stopped? May 16, 2008. Time.

[12] Ibid.
[13] It's not just Mexico’s war. May 21, 2008. The Chicago Tribune.