The United States’ responsibility in a matter of hemispheric security
By Zidane Zeraoui, 7th May 2009
In order to make progress in the fight against narcotrafficking, the distribution of drugs, as well as the sale of arms and their exportation to Mexico, must be reduced, just as money laundering in the United States must be combated.
(Monterrey) MORE THAN A CENTURY AGO, Don Porfirio Díaz, president of Mexico from 1876 to 1911, said: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States”. His statement has never lost its validity in describing the interactions between the two countries. Indeed, today, barely three months since Barack Obama took office, relations between Mexico and the United States are the worst that they have been in the last four decades, despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to the country in late March, which was followed by successive visits by Janet Napolitano and Eric Holder, the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General, respectively, and finally, on April 16, by the president of the United States himself, Barack Obama.
MISUNDERSTANDINGS BETWEEN NEIGHBORS
There have been misunderstandings between the two nations ever since the Aztec country achieved its independence. We only need to be reminded of its loss of Texas (nearly 700,000 km2, or 270,000 sq mi) and, as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, of another 1.36 million km2 , or 525,000 sq miles (California, Arizona, Nevada,Utah, part of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming). Furthermore, in both 1914 and 1917, the northern country occupied its southern neighbor.
“In spite of a close economic relationship with the United States, a result of a nearly 3,200 kilometer long shared border, Mexico has always emphasized an independent foreign policy”
Many American ambassadors have acted as if they were in a conquered country. Examples include Henry Lane Wilson, who signed the Pact of the Embassy with Victoriano Huerta and Félix Díaz, which led to the overthrow and assassination of President Francisco I. Madero, and John Dimitri Negroponte, who has repeatedly meddled in Mexico’s domestic affairs recently.
AN AMBIGUOUS POSITION
This troubled relationship allows us to understand why, since the Mexican Revolution, successive governments have chosen to stress International Law as a barrier standing in opposition to American hegemony. Mexico’s stance grounded in defense and the promotion of principles such as those of non-intervention, self-determination, the legal equality of states, prohibition of the use – or threat – of force, and peaceful solutions to conflicts, are a response to the Aztec nation’s permanent fear of its great neighbor, which is driven by power.
In spite of a close economic relationship with the United States, a result of a nearly 3,200 kilometer (2,000 mile) long shared border, Mexico has always emphasized an independent foreign policy based on the fundamental principles of its diplomacy.
This stance has led Mexico to oppose the United States in many forums, particularly in the seventies, when President Luis Echeverría Álvarez ruled the country. The White House even accused the Mexican leader of being communist because of his support for Third World causes.
Throughout this whole period, the foundation of Mexican nationalism was an anti-American attitude that brought all of the the country’s forces together, despite the fact that, economically, its dependence on the United States grew stronger and stronger.
Beginning with Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s administration, the Mexican strategy has been to become even more ingrained in the American economy, with NAFTA, which eliminated the Aztec country’s critical attitude towards its northern neighbor. Even during Vicente Fox’s six years in power, the country tried to adhere completely to American policy, although the September 11 terrorist attacks and President Bush’s war on terror stood in the way.
In addition to this history of misunderstandings, there have been recent clashes between the two governments, ranging from the United States’ declaration that Mexico is a “failed State” in which the authorities do not have control of wide regions of the nation’s territory to the restriction of the mobility of Mexican truck drivers within American territory, which violates the agreements established in NAFTA. And of course both narcotrafficking and immigration deserve a special mention, as they are undoubtedly both administrations’ Achilles heel.
WAR OF WORDS
The high level of tension between Mexico and the new American administration can be directly traced back to September 2, 2008 when – out of fear that Obama would return to a protectionist policy – President Felipe Calderón openly supported Republican McCain, who at the time had a clear advantage over his Democratic rival. This diplomatic blunder of openly supporting one of the two candidates was implicitly behind the first attacks on Mexican policy. What’s more, the failure of the fight against narcotrafficking and the rise in the number of casualties hurt the PAN administration.
“The foundation of Mexican nationalism was an anti-American attitude that brought all of the the country’s forces together”
On November 25, 2008, in an official document entitled “Joint Operating Environment 2008″, the new Democratic team characterized Mexico as a country “on the verge of disaster and collapse” and compared it to Pakistan. The following month, Forbes magazine brought the idea back and called our country a “failed State”. Since assuming the presidency on January 20, 2009, the Obama administration has kept the same views expressed by his provisional cabinet.
On February 11, 2009, Dennis Blair, the American Director of National Intelligence, mentioned the existence of the “arc of instability” in Mexico and Asia, and brought back the concept of a “failed State”, aside from talking about the existence of areas of lawlessness. In addition to these attacks on the Calderón administration, on March 10 the United States Senate itself reduced the amount of foreseen aid as part of the Mérida Initiative from 450 to 300 million dollars, and rejected the opening of the country’s borders to Mexican truck drivers, limiting their mobility to within only thirty miles from the border. The following day, Forbes magazine published its list of the richest people in the world and placed “Chapo” Guzmán at number 701, with more than a billion dollars in assets. This very controversial nomination raises several questions: In the United States, is it really known just how wealthy this narcotrafficker is? And if the answer is yes, then both money laundering and his own accounts are very highly protected in our northern neighbor. If the answer is no, this means that the magazine is contributing to the anti-Mexican campaign.
“The appointment of Cuban-American Carlos Pascual as Washington’s representative was not a very good move”
In view of these clearly orchestrated campaigns, in a rather undiplomatic and violent speech on March 12, President Felipe Calderón counter-attacked and accused the United States of being resistant to change and of indirectly supporting narco-violence with its weapons. Four days later, nearly 90 American products were subjected to tariffs, in violation of NAFTA, but as a response to Washington’s limiting the mobility of Mexican truck drivers.
The harsh position taken by the Mexican president forced the White House to react, and not only announce a visit by the American Secretary of State, but also visits by Janet Napolitano, Eric Holder and Barack Obama himself.
DRUGS AND CORRUPTION
The outcome of these visits is ambiguous. With Hillary Clinton’s visit, the appointment of an ambassador to Mexico was finally announced, as for two months a businessman had assumed the duties.
Traditionally, the first decision made by the American Secretary of State is to designate the ambassadors to its two NAFTA allies, but on this occasion the naming of Mexico’s ambassador was put off for nearly 10 weeks.
“Corruption at all levels of the government, arms trafficking, lax border control agents and money laundering are all things that we must work on if we want to make progress in this area
Furthermore, the appointment of Cuban-American Carlos Pascual as Washington’s representative was not a very good move, and instead reinforces the idea that on the other side of the Rio Grande, our country is seen as a failed State.
Indeed, before he arrived to Mexico, the American diplomat was the vice president and director of foreign policy for the Brookings Institution, and is considered an expert on “failed States”.
In contrast, despite the fact that they accepted that the drug problem is also an American issue, neither Clinton nor Obama could make any commitments regarding their country’s weapons, due to American law. The American president himself clearly stated that the Second Amendment establishes the right of citizens to bear arms, even high-powered weapons that in Mexico are considered to be of exclusive use of the army. Furthermore, the weapons lobby is one of the most powerful in the United States.
THE PRESSURE FROM THE LOBBIES
As such, both the trucking and weapons lobbies, the two with the greatest influence in domestic policy after that of the retirees, have imposed their wishes on the White House.
“In order to put up a better fight, Mexico needs to take a more regional approach, one that includes not only the United States, but also Colombia and Guatemala”
Recently, the American Secretary of State herself, contradicting the position held during her trip to Mexico, emphasized that American weapons represent only a small portion of the narco-traffickers’ arsenal, which more than anything comes from the Mexicans themselves – in particular former law enforcement agents and soldiers – or are smuggled in from China.
It was also stressed that Mexican corruption is the principal factor hindering an efficient fight against narcotrafficking.
It would seem like the narcotrafficking issue has turned into a ping pong ball, bouncing from one side of the border to the other. For the American government, the Mexican state’s inability to dismantle the drug cartels is a fact, as much as the Mexican government has pointed out the lack of action taken by its neighbor to combat consumption. If we continue to view the narcotrafficking problem as an issue based on supply and demand, it will be difficult to find a solution to it, since it is a much more complex matter.
Corruption at all levels of the government, arms trafficking, lax border control agents and money laundering are all things that we must work on if we want to make progress in this area.
The issue of drugs and corruption is not exclusive to Mexico. As early as the 1980s, the cigarette company R.J. Reynolds, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was involved in narcotraffic money laundering. During the same time period, the American government itself took part in drug trafficking.
“Unlike in Mexico, where the cartels prevail in order to transport the drugs in large quantities, in the United States there are hundreds of gangs along the border in charge of the drugs’ distribution”
During the 80s, Barry Seal, who occasionally worked for the American government, led a narcotrafficking operation that brought an enormous amount of drugs – estimated at five billion dollars’ worth – to the United States from Latin America, via an airport in Mena, Arkansas. This operation was carried out under the protection of Washington’s most important politicians, in particular the National Security Council, which was under the direction of George H.W. Bush, and of which Oliver North was a member.
These cases were very high-profile at the time, and they clearly demonstrate that drug money has been used for all types of purposes, even for the most important politicians.
A CONSTRUCTIVE JOB
This critical climate, characterized by mutual reproaches, does not allow for a joint effort by the two countries to combat this international problem to take place.
In order to put up a better fight, Mexico needs to take a more regional approach, one that includes not only the United States, but also producers like Colombia and transit countries like Guatemala. What’s more, instead of a frontal assault, the fight should focus more on money laundering and sources of finance, and above all on police corruption.
“Only with an awareness that the narcotrafficking problem is a hemispheric issue and the responsibility of everyone will the fight against this social cancer be more effective”
Unlike in Mexico, where the cartels prevail in order to transport the drugs in large quantities, in the United States there are hundreds of gangs along the border in charge of the drugs’ retail distribution. However, the country has no concrete policy aimed at reducing the distribution or sale of narcotics. Napolitano herself admitted that 200 cities are under the traffickers’ control.
Without a policy clearly directed at controlling the distribution of drugs, as well as the sale of arms, their exportation to Mexico and money laundering, Mexico’s efforts will be in vain.
Only with an awareness that the narcotrafficking problem is a hemispheric issue and the responsibility of everyone will the fight against this social cancer be more effective.