Small Wars Journal

Mexico: The Accidental Narco?

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 11:39am
Mexico: The Accidental Narco?

by Paul Rexton Kan

Download the Full Article: Mexico: The Accidental Narco?

The Obama Administration's National Security Strategy clearly makes the case: "Stability and security in Mexico are indispensable to building a strong economic partnership, fighting the illicit drug and arms trade, and promoting sound immigration policy." For the National Security Strategy, it was the first time that the words "stability and security" were used in association with Mexico. President Barack Obama himself was clearer: "I think it's unacceptable if you've got drug gangs crossing our borders and killing U.S. citizens. I think if one U.S. citizen is killed because of foreign nationals who are engaging in violent crime, that's enough of a concern to do something about it." But doing something about it is proving to be exceptionally thorny.

With the escalation of drug cartel and gang violence in Mexico directly and indirectly affecting US interests, the US government's response has been to bolster border security and support Mexican president Felipe Calderon administration's efforts to break the cartels and strengthen the institutions of the Mexican state. This approach can be labeled as "contain and consolidate"—contain Mexico's violence within that country while helping Mexico consolidate its government reforms to better combat corruption and tackle the cartels. The centerpiece of this approach is the multi-year, billion dollar Merida Initiative that was initiated in 2008 by the Bush Administration and re-authorized and expanded in 2010 by the Obama Administration. The Merida Initiative is at its core a joint security plan with four pillars: 1) Disrupting organized criminal groups; 2) institutionalizing the rule of law; 3) building a 21st century border; 4) building strong and resilient communities.

Nonetheless, contain and consolidate as manifested by the Merida Initiative has not led to substantial reductions in violence in Mexico or in drug smuggling to the US. In fact, the current policy has led to what can be described, at best, as a stalemate between Mexican state authorities and the cartels. As in any war, a stalemate can be particularly dangerous as each side attempts to break through by turning up the levels of violence.

The use of the Mexican military to bolster law enforcement efforts has brought some success in removing many cartel leaders from positions of power. However, the long-term use of the military in counternarcotics roles has led to many drawbacks in other cases. The use of such a strategy has tempted and personally enticed many members of the military who are involved in counternarcotics operations. The lucrative nature of drug trafficking has corrupted many military commanders who saw opportunities for personal enrichment. Corruption of the Mexican military has already surfaced. A number of soldiers have been arrested for accepting payments from a drug cartel to provide intelligence about government operations against drug gangs.

In addition, human rights concerns have typically arisen in other instances of military actions in the realm of law enforcement. Soldiers are not trained for key interactions with the public when it comes to dealing with crimes. In Mexico, there have been charges by the public that the military has engaged in torture and disappearances. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has logged a large increase in the number of abuse claims against the National Defense Ministry since 2006. The UN has also called on the government to remove the military from policing duties. Human rights concerns can also be used by the cartels to generate popular opposition that leads to political pressure to remove the armed forces from the streets, allowing a freer hand for the cartels. Human rights concerns may also affect US funding for the Merida Initiative. Releasing funds for any efforts to tackle drug cartels will face obstacles from members of the US Congress who believe that foreign aid to police agencies and militaries must be linked to the upholding of basic human rights in those countries. When these concerns are combined with US budget concerns, the overall effect may be to reduce or eliminate Merida Initiative support, leaving Mexico to fend for itself.

The continued reliance by the Mexican government on the military for non-military purposes has led to a strategic stalemate between the Mexican government and the cartels. Current and future attempts to break the stalemate may have the ironic effect of causing the end of the Merida Initiative, thereby deepening the crisis in Mexico and creating even more strategic dilemmas for the US.

Download the Full Article: Mexico: The Accidental Narco?

Paul Rexton Kan is currently an Associate Professor of National Security Studies and the Henry L. Stimson Chair of Military Studies at the US Army War College. He is also the author of the book Drugs and Contemporary Warfare (Potomac Books 2009) and was recently the Visiting Senior Counternarcotics Advisor for CJIATF-Shafafiyat (Transparency) at ISAF Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. He recently completed field research along the US-Mexico border for his forthcoming book, Cartels at War: Mexico's Drug Fueled Violence and the Threat to US National Security (Potomac Books).

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