U.S. falls short in help­ing Mex­ico end its drug war

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Last month, 303 peo­ple were mur­dered in the Mex­i­can border city of Juárez, which lies along­side El Paso. This month, the dead in­clude three men killed by a so­phis­ti­cated, re­mote-con­trolled car bomb — the first in Mex­ico’s drug wars. In a city of 1.2 mil­lion, more than 2,600 died vi­o­lently in 2009; some 200,000 more might have fled.

Mean­while in Washington, the Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice has drawn up a list of as­sis­tance promised to Mex­ico by the United States since 2008, but not de­liv­ered. It in­cludes: at least nine Black Hawk he­li­copters; three Bell he­li­copters; four air­planes for sea pa­trolling; in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance air­craft; 218 poly­graph units; two rail­road in­spec­tion units; mo­bile gamma ra­di­a­tion trucks; and five train­ing pro­grams, rang­ing from “fi­nan­cial in­tel­li­gence” to “drug de­mand re­duc­tion.”

Since the end of the Cold War, ne­glect of Latin Amer­ica has be­come some­thing of a fine art in Washington, prac­ticed by Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions alike. But even in that con­text, the dis­re­gard for Mex­ico over the past cou­ple of years is kind of as­ton­ish­ing.

The govern­ment of Felipe Calderón — a proAmer­i­can mod­er­ate who just barely de­feated a left­ist pop­ulist in the 2006 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion — is locked in a bat­tle with drug car­tels that will de­ter­mine whether the coun­try re­mains a mod­ern­iz­ing democ­racy or plunges to­ward failed-state sta­tus. For vi­o­lence and for sheer ter­ror, the war re­sem­bles that of Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 50,000 Mex­i­can troops have been de­ployed to fight the car­tels; some 25,000 peo­ple have been killed in less than four years. Be­head­ings have be­come com­mon, along with mas­sacres, as­sas­si­na­tions, gun bat­tles on the street — and now, car bombs.

The United States has not en­tirely ig­nored this cri­sis. But its ef­forts to help Calderón’s govern­ment have been late, paltry and mired in bu­reau­cracy. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­posed $10.7 bil­lion for civil­ian sta­bi­liza­tion pro­grams in Afghanistan and Pak­istan in its 2011 bud­get; it re­quested $300 mil­lion in aid to Mex­ico. Congress has ap­pro­pri­ated $3.6 bil­lion for fenc­ing along the U.S.-Mex­i­can border, to keep out il­le­gal im­mi­grants. For the Merida Ini­tia­tive, the pro­gram de­vel­oped to as­sist Mex­ico’s coun­ternar­cotics cam­paign, it has ap­proved $1.3 bil­lion since 2008.

As of March, $121 mil­lion of that ap­pro­pri­a­tion — or about 9 per­cent — had ac­tu­ally been spent. Much of the rest, ac­cord­ing to the GAO, was bogged down in more than a dozen fed­eral agen­cies. The Mex­i­can govern­ment was so frus­trated by the de­lays that it ad­vanced its own money for an anti-money-laun­der­ing op­er­a­tion, the re­port said. The State Depart­ment re­sponded by re­pro­gram­ming the money it had promised but never de­liv­ered.

This record of malfea­sance is bad enough. But in Mex­ico’s war, the United States also plays the role of sup­plier to the en­emy — and it does that far more ef­fi­ciently. At a dis­cus­sion spon­sored by the think tank Third Way in Washington last week, Mex­i­can Am­bas­sador Ar­turo Sarukhán pointed out that the vast ma­jor­ity of guns and money flow­ing to the The ex­cesses of the drug war are stag­ger­ing. In April, the Mex­i­can army seized more than 18 tons of mar­i­juana, above, dur­ing an op­er­a­tion with the Ti­juana po­lice. Eight sus­pects were ar­rested. Be­low, 80 per­cent of the 75,000 guns seized by the Mex­i­can govern­ment over three years came from the United States. car­tels come from the United States, in­clud­ing from 7,000 fed­er­ally li­censed gun stores along the border in Texas and Ari­zona. Eighty per­cent of the 75,000 guns seized by the Calderón govern­ment over three years came from the United States.

Calderón has pleaded with Congress and two ad­min­is­tra­tions to re­in­state the fed­eral ban on as­sault weapons and to stop the mas­sive il­le­gal sales to Mex­i­cans. Next to no ac­tion has been taken, de­spite Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s rhetor­i­cal sup­port for tougher en­force­ment. Sarukhán di­plo­mat­i­cally noted that south­bound in­spec­tions of ve­hi­cles for guns and cash have fi­nally be­gun; but so far there have been only a hand­ful of seizures.

The am­bas­sador main­tained that de­spite the red tape and fail­ures of co­op­er­a­tion, “the for­mal diplo­matic, bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship be­tween Mex­ico and the United States is as good as it has ever been in the re­cent past.” But “pub­lic per­cep­tions on both sides of the border,” he added, are some­thing else. They are “run­ning counter to where the for­mal, bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship is headed.”

“Mex­i­can cit­i­zens on my side of the border … be­lieve that we’re pay­ing a heavy toll for what is ba­si­cally a U.S. re­spon­si­bil­ity,” Sarukhán said. So will they vote for a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who would con­tinue to pay that cost when Calderón’s term ends in 2012? The am­bas­sador said he thought so.

But he might have added: That might de­pend on whether the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress do more to help turn the tide in cities like Juárez.

A po­lice of­fi­cer flees a car bomb at­tack on po­lice pa­trol trucks in the Mex­i­can border city of Juárez on July 15. The bomb was trig­gered by a cell phone af­ter po­lice and med­i­cal work­ers were lured to the scene, ac­cord­ing to Mex­i­can and U.S. in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Ed­uardo Ver­dugo

Guillermo arias

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