Obama must fulfil Mexican promise
It's time to initiate a new phase in relations with Mexico, based on a more nuanced understanding of life south of the border
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 25 March 2010 22.00 GMT
Tuesday's announcement by US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, that future US aid to Mexico will focus less on military support and more on institution building and community renewal is a step in the right direction. But this new approach is doomed to fail if it is not grounded in a more nuanced understanding of the situation south of the border. Instead of simply reacting to crises as they emerge, President Obama should develop a new forward-looking strategy of engagement.
Obama did not mention Mexico once in his state of the union address. He did visit Mexico twice last year, but both trips were brief and bureaucratic. In contrast to his visits to Europe and Africa, where he spoke before large crowds and held meetings with a wide variety of political and social leaders, he has only met behind closed doors with Mexico's president Felipe Calderón and his cabinet.
Tuesday's meeting in Mexico City was more of the same. The top-level team that accompanied Clinton did not deign to meet with anyone outside of Calderón's immediate circle and a cloud of opacity enveloped the discussions.
The problem with being captured by Calderón is that the Mexican president continues to have serious political legitimacy problems. The failure in the battle against the drug cartels is largely attributable to Calderón's use of the "war on drugs" to boost public opinion polls. This explains why so few of the alleged cartel leaders who are paraded in front of television cameras actually end up behind bars.
No amount of new technology, institution building, or training of law enforcement officials will resolve this issue. If the US government wants to contribute to long-term solutions, it should broaden its contacts beyond Calderón to include direct relationships with the Mexican Congress, judiciary, opposition political parties and civil society. This is the only way the US can guarantee that the next round of assistance will be used to attack the roots of the problem rather than as a political tool.
Calderón's heavy dependence on the military is one of the most important problems with the present strategy. US secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, was right in saying last week that the militarisation of Ciudad Juárez "hasn't helped anything" – the number of homicides have increased ten-fold since the implementation of the new strategy. But she was quickly "corrected" by the US ambassador in Mexico, Carlos Pascual, who explained that she had merely meant that the military "should not be left alone" in its battle against the drug cartels.
Despite Clinton's effort to emphasise the kinder and gentler side of the relationship in her public comments after Tuesday's meeting, the presence of Robert Gates, Michael Mullen, and Dennis Blair at the encounter suggests that one of the central agenda items was support for the Mexican military and for Calderón's strongman tactics. Unfortunately, the opacity which enshrouded the meeting prevents us from knowing the details of the deals that were surely struck.
The US government seems to be unaware that not so long ago Mexico's first military drug tsar, General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, turned out to be in the pocket of the drug cartels. Today, a large percentage of narco-assassins are former soldiers and the high levels of rotation amid rank-and-file military personnel makes it virtually impossible to prevent infiltration by organised crime.
The presence of soldiers in the streets has also led to an explosion of human rights violations in Ciudad Juárez and throughout Mexico. Both the UN human rights committee and the inter-American human rights court have called attention to this in recent months. The militarisation of law enforcement activities is also blatantly illegal under the Mexican constitution.
Two years ago, during the Democratic primary campaign against Clinton, Barack Obama vowed to make Mexico a priority during his administration. In an article he wrote for the Dallas Morning News he condemned George W Bush's approach to Latin America as "clumsy, disinterested and, above all, distracted by the war in Iraq". He also promised that the meetings between Mexico and the US would be "conducted with transparency" and would be based on the "active and open involvement of citizens, labour, the private sector and non-governmental organisations in setting the agenda and making progress". It is time for President Obama to take his words seriously and initiate a new phase in US-Mexico relations grounded in broad-based participation, transparency and a repudiation of the use of the military in law enforcement activities.
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