A surprising thing happened on the way to the coronation of Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro as the designated heir to chavismo, the movement created by the obstreperous former President Hugo Chávez, who succumbed to cancer last month. Evidently, a good number of the Venezuelan people decided that bread-and-butter issues like inflation, shortages of basic goods, electricity blackouts, and soaring street crime were more important to them than the circuses Chávez regularly supplied.
Challenger Henrique Capriles, who lost the presidential election to Chávez last October by some 11 percentage points, narrowly missed an epic upset, losing this time to Chávez's chosen successor by a count of 50.7 to 49.1 percent of the vote.
Capriles has rejected the official tally and demanded a recount of the paper receipts of each Venezuelan vote. "We are not going to recognize the result," he said, "until every vote is counted, one by one." He has also called for peaceful street demonstrations outside the electoral council offices. In welcome developments, both the Obama administration and the Organization of American States have backed the call for an audit of the election results.
Maduro's reaction was predictable, rejecting any recount and accusing Capriles of "coup-mongering." He has no doubt calculated that a recount is more dangerous to the continuation of chavismo than trying to tackle Venezuela's myriad post-Chávez challenges while dogged with questions about his legitimacy. Not only must he address declining socio-economic conditions -- including soaring inflation, a bloated public sector, a crippled private one, electricity blackouts, shortages of basic goods, and one of the highest homicide rates in the world -- he must also deal with a reinvigorated opposition while attempting to manage a movement that is splintering under the weight of corruption and competing interests.
Already, Maduro has been put on notice that he is under scrutiny from his own side. Diosdado Cabello, the powerful head of the National Assembly and long-seen as a Maduro rival within chavismo, said of the election: "These results require deep self-criticism ... Let's turn over every stone to find our faults, but we cannot put the fatherland or the legacy of our commander [Chávez] in danger."
What is clear is that Venezuela's contested election likely presages a period of political turmoil not seen in the country since 2002, when Chávez was briefly ousted from power. But it also presents an extraordinary opportunity for the United States to actively defend its regional interests. No one is advocating that the Obama administration engage in mud-slinging contests with Hugo Chávez wannabes, but neither should we remain silent on matters of principle and U.S. security.
For example, the Iranian presence in Venezuela, including the existence of a number of suspicious industrial facilities, and the prodigious use of Venezuelan territory for drug shipments to the United States and Europe have been tolerated for too long without any effective U.S. response. (Several high-ranking associates of the late President Chávez have been designated as "drug kingpins" by the U.S. Treasury Department.
Maduro's shaky standing today within Venezuela means there is increased leverage for the United States to hold the government accountable for its threats to regional stability. It is not likely Maduro will be able to withstand the pressure coming not only from the opposition and his own coalition, but from the United States as well. That can come in the form of more designations and indictments of Venezuelan officials involved in drug trafficking and violating sanctions against Iran, but also repeated public calls to disassociate his government from these criminal activities.
The administration must also continue to stand behind the Venezuelan opposition on matters of principle. Voters deserve a clear accounting of what transpired last Sunday. The future of their country hangs in the balance.
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Reading this piece analyzing Karzai's apparently self-defeating -- indubitably, American-mission-threatening -- behavior reminded me of an interaction I once had with him.
The background to the story was a dispute between the Bush Administration, which was interested in pursuing aerial spraying to eradicate the poppy fields supplying the drug trade and the Karzai Administration, which claimed to support the goal of stopping the drug trade but just opposed the idea of aerial spraying.
My theory at the time was that Karzai actually opposed eradication and would have complained regardless of the method. At the time, this reminded me of a scene from a favorite childhood book of mine, Cheaper by the Dozen. In the book, as I remember it, the mother was objecting to the locus of the spanking applied by the father: "Not the seat of pants, dear. Not there." But when he shifted to apply the spanking elsewhere, he got the same objection: "Not the top of the head, dear. Not there." Exasperated, the father bellowed, "Where can I spank him?" The reply was classic, "I don't know where, but not there, dear. Not there."
Karzai claimed that was not the case, and when we pressed him for an explanation, he gave one that none of us had anticipated. He said we should do truck-based spraying, not aerial spraying, because that way the Afghan farmers would be able to shoot at the trucks in defense of their fields. As I recall, the conversation went something like this....
"Wouldn't that block the spraying?"
"Not really. You could shoot back and the trucks would finish the job."
"But why not just do the aerial spraying and be done with it? It is safer and more efficient."
"Because the Afghan people will resent it so much more if they can't shoot back. They won't like losing the crops either way, but they will learn to live with it if they had a chance to shoot back while you were doing it. If you just do it from the air, they will feel powerless and the resentment will grow."
It was not at all how we thought about the problem and perhaps it was not the real reason anyway. Perhaps Karzai calculated that the risks of ground-spraying would be enough for us to be deterred from proceeding.
But his explanation has always stuck with me, and it has a certain perverse logic to it. It certainly seems to me like Karzai is "taking pot-shots at the trucks," as it were. Maybe there is an Afghan logic to it.
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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos's announcement that he has agreed to peace talks with the narco-terrorist FARC is a dangerous gambit that threatens to undo a decade's worth of hard-won military gains that have rescued Colombia from the brink of failed-state status.
The decades-old FARC, which long ago devolved from a guerrilla army into a drug-running mafia with zero public support, has a track record of deceit in such "peace" talks, using them only as a tactic to shore up its position when the need arises. No doubt today it sees the government's agreement to negotiate less as an opportunity for peace than as an opportunity to prolong their destructive reign.
President Santos, who served ably and honorably as Colombia's defense minister under former President Álvaro Uribe and knows the enemy quite well, certainly knows the risks involved, but that can't stop one from asking hard questions: What has convinced Santos that the FARC are now seriously interested in laying down their arms? And what exactly is he prepared to offer a group awash in drug money and impunity from the law?
The last time a Colombian government entered into peace negotiations ended badly. In 1999, the FARC was granted a Switzerland-sized safe haven within Colombian territory as an area where they could ostensibly reside unmolested to facilitate talks. Instead, the FARC used the zone to further increase its military capabilities and drug activities and carry out terrorist attacks. Those "peace" talks collapsed in 2002, when the FARC hijacked a commuter aircraft and kidnapped a Colombian senator who happened to be on board.
It may be that President Santos believes the government is now in a position of strength to begin new negotiations, with the FARC battered and bruised after a decade of relentless Colombian military pressure by the Uribe government; but we know nothing of the FARC's intentions.
Reportedly, the framework agreement for the talks has several themes: land reforms; political participation; disarmament; truth and reconciliation; drug trafficking; and security. But it is difficult to see what incentive exists for the FARC to lay down their arms absent full-blown amnesty for their crimes. Political participation? No one affiliated with the FARC could be elected dog catcher in Colombia, so low is their public standing.
Frankly, the only thing the FARC should be negotiating is the terms of their surrender to the Colombian state and some measure of accountability for the mayhem they have caused over the past decades.
For its part, the United States is no disinterested bystander, having invested some $8 billion in the bilateral Plan Colombia to help the government reassert its control over its territory. The Obama administration "welcomed" Santos's announcement, but given its only casual acquaintance with Latin America in four years, it does not inspire much confidence that they will take an active behind-the-scenes role in monitoring the talks.
President Santos is certainly no one's pigeon, so it's unclear what ultimately will come of his gambit. What is clear is that he is taking a huge risk, not only with his own political fortunes, but Colombia's future as well. It's one thing to open a window of opportunity for legitimate peace; it's quite another to open an escape hatch for the FARC to prolong their criminal conspiracy against the state. President Santos can preserve both his legacy and Colombia's security by keenly appreciating the difference between the two.
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Tonight a small but enterprising Miami-based TV network, SoiTV, will air a revealing interview with former Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice Eladio Aponte Aponte, who has been under the protection of the U.S. DEA for several days. The authors of this article had access to the interview results.
Judge Aponte Aponte is, so far, the highest official who has defected since Hugo Chávez came to power. His testimony presents a unique view into the criminal structure promoted by the current Venezuelan government. Aponte also names individuals who have committed serious violations of Venezuelan human rights and attacks on foreign interests.
Mr. Aponte confessed that he received direct orders from President Hugo Chávez to use his legal power against individuals that opposed the regime. As president of the criminal tribunal of the Supreme Court, Aponte had supervision of all criminal courts in the country and practically on all judges, with a capacity to influence almost any judicial decision.
Moreover, in his testimony Mr. Aponte says he also received calls from Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, Venezuela's Defense Minister and Hugo Carvajal, who until recently was the head of military intelligence, among others, ordering him to "manipulate judicial proceedings." Both Rangel Silva and Carvajal have been designated by the U.S. Treasury as "drug kingpins" for their ties to the narco-terrorist FARC guerrilla army in Colombia. Moreover, Aponte alleges that he has "evidence" of the high officials' ties to narcotics traffickers. An example he cites is that of a drug shipment that was safeguarded overnight in a Venezuelan military base. Aponte says he was ordered to provide legal cover for the drug shipment as it made its way from the border to "the center of the country" (on the coast, where Venezuela's ports are located).
Aponte also admits to having been linked to other important figures designated by the U.S. Department of Treasury as international drug traffickers, such as Walid Makled who, according to a federal indictment in New York, sent hundreds of tons of cocaine into the U.S. with the help of top-ranking Venezuelan officials. Makled's "trial" began a few days ago in Venezuela.
It was, in fact, Aponte's link to Makled that led to Aponte's removal from the Supreme Court by the General Assembly of Venezuela and his subsequent defection to Costa Rica, where the DEA picked Aponte up. Makled had been arrested in Colombia nearly two years ago and extradited to Venezuela in 2011. While in a Colombian prison, Makled was interviewed by various U.S. law enforcement agencies, and his testimony implicated Aponte in drug trafficking. Since Chávez has had Makled in his jails for nearly a year, Chávez knew what Makled was going to say at his trial about Aponte, and therefore Aponte had to be "sacrificed" to save Chávez and what the Venezuelan people call his "narco-generals."
Numerous reports from the U.S. State Department and international human rights monitors indicate that the Venezuelan judicial system is used by the President Chávez as a tool to punish and persecute opposition leaders, as well as to obtain the release of drug traffickers.
Aponte's testimony is probably the most important evidence so far to show the lack of independent institutions in Venezuela, the existence of political prisoners, and the links between high-ranking members of the Venezuelan government to drug trafficking and criminal organizations such as Colombia's FARC.
Otto J. Reich is president of the consulting firm Otto Reich & Associates LLC. He is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter: @ottoreich
Ezequiel Vázquez Ger is an associate at Otto Reich Associates LLC and collaborates with the non-profit organization The Americas Forum. Follow him on Twitter: @ezequielvazquez
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Vice President Joe Biden was in Central America this week attempting to staunch the hemorrhaging of regional support for the U.S.-led War on Drugs.
His trip follows one last week by Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, who similarly decamped to the region to buoy a faltering U.S. flag as drug cartel-fueled violence continues wreaking havoc on Central American societies.
What's caused this flurry of high-level administration attention to the region is a number of recent public statements by sitting Latin American presidents openly questioning the effectiveness of current counter-narcotics policies and calling for multilateral discussions on legalizing or decriminalizing the use of illicit drugs.
Those speaking include the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, but they also have received the sympathetic ears of President Santos of Colombia and President Calderón in Mexico. Their unprecedented statements can be seen as a measure of their collective frustrations at the ravaging of their countries by drug gangs just to feed the drug habits of recreational users in the United States.
But they also are indicative of the failure of the Obama administration to provide strong leadership and support as the drug cartels have reacted to strong government policies against them in Colombia and Mexico by relocating their operations to much more vulnerable countries in Central America.
Doubts about the administration's commitment to the drug fight were also fueled by the president's 2013 budget request, which includes a 16 percent reduction in counter-narcotics assistance to Latin America -- including a 60 percent drop in aid to Guatemala. That is hardly the way to win friends and influence people who are risking their lives against brutal and uncompromising enemies wealthier and better armed than they are.
It may be that these leaders don't really have any intention of decriminalizing or legalizing the use of drugs at home (profoundly risky, to say the least) and instead are desperately trying to get Washington's attention to the crises, but that is hardly comforting. Four decades of cooperation between Latin American governments and the United States on enforcement and eradication of illicit narcotics shouldn't come to this; instead of pushing forward to confront new challenges, we're are left trying to recoup lost ground.
To be sure, combating drug cartels is not a pretty business. One does not have to be a member of a peace brigade to be concerned about the impact of drug violence on Latin American communities, but excessive sentimentalism is rarely a sound basis for public policy. Especially when trying to confront drug gangs that have killed tens of thousands, fueled corruption by buying off public officials and undermining democratic institutions, and terrorized local populations.
Nor is lethal assistance the sole answer. These countries need across the board assistance to build up their judicial and penal systems and more economic opportunities for their people to depress the lure of the drug trade. But nothing is possible without re-establishing peace and security and that means employing superior force against those who prefer it the other way.
Unless the administration's approach to the increasing drug violence in Central America becomes more of a priority, they will continue to be confronted by counterproductive distractions like the current statements out of the region. For example, next month President Obama will travel to Colombia for the sixth Summit of the Americas. There are many issues to discuss with responsible governments looking to better the lives of their peoples. Drug legalization should not be one of them.
Even though Vice President Biden said all the right things during his trip this week -- "...there is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization" -- the problem is he had to say it at all.
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In the Al Pacino epic Scarface, about Miami's violent cocaine culture of the 1980s, the drug kingpin is seen as a Bolivian ensconced in a luxurious mountain villa with a handful of Bolivian generals in his pocket. It was of a piece with the times. (Bolivian dictator General Luis García Meza Tejada would later be sentenced to 30 years in jail for drug trafficking.)
However, through the 1990s and 2000s, successive Bolivian governments worked with the United States to cripple the drug cartels operating there, so much so that the notion of a South American narco-general seemingly had been dumped into the historical dustbin.
Well, thanks to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, the South American narco-general appears to be rising again from the ash heap. Last week, a federal judge in Miami sentenced the former head of Bolivia's elite counternarcotics unit, General René Sanabria, to 14 years in prison for arranging protection for a shipment of some 140 kilos of cocaine from Bolivia to the United States. He was captured in June in Panama in a DEA sting and reportedly controlled a network of some 40 dirty cops.
Such is the outcome of Morales's decision in 2008 to expel the DEA from Bolivia, one of the largest cocaine producers in the world. Morales, a coca grower union leader, said the DEA's presence was an offense to the country's "dignity." Since then, the production and trafficking of cocaine has skyrocketed, with drug traffickers from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere seizing the opportunity to expand operations in Bolivia.
This month, the State Department again cited the Morales government as having "failed demonstrably" to adhere to their obligations under international agreements to combat narcotics trafficking.
Lumped in with Bolivia and Burma as countries that have also failed demonstrably is Venezuela, where Morales benefactor Hugo Chavez relies on his own share of narco-generals to maintain power. Earlier this month, the Treasury Department added another of Venezuela's most powerful generals, Cliver Alcalá, to its kingpin list, where he joins two others designated in 2008, the Commander-in-Chief of the Venezuelan military, General Henry Rangel Silva, and the Chief of Military Intelligence, General Hugo Carvajal. (The Treasury designation means any assets the individuals have in U.S. accounts are frozen and U.S. citizens are barred from doing business with them.)
All three are charged with aiding and abetting the activities of drug-running guerrillas in neighboring Colombia and all three were named by captured Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled as having been on his payroll and facilitated his drug trafficking operations. (Unfortunately, the Obama administration failed to pursue Makled's extradition from Colombia, and he was sent back to Venezuela.)
U.S. law enforcement agencies -- particularly the DEA -- deserve great credit for following these investigatory leads wherever they have gone, considering the Obama administration's preference to avoid confrontations with Hugo Chavez and his regional acolytes. For a variety of important reasons the U.S. government needs to keep pushing for more designations and indictments, not the least of which is to send an unmistakable signal that this regional backsliding on the counternarcotics front is a growing concern.
For example, in Venezuela's case, Makled claimed he had videos and other documentary evidence implicating some 40 Venezuelan generals in his illicit activities. In Bolivia, opposition members believe the Sanabria case is only the "tip of the iceberg."
The Venezuela cases in particular deserve close attention, since narco-generals like Rangel Silva and Carvajal will work to spoil any democratic transition if Chavez's health should fail him, since their protected status could not be guaranteed in a post-Chavez Venezuela. They may be presently out of the reach of the U.S. law enforcement, but the continued "naming and shaming" of the narco-generals and, even better, their indictments by the U.S. government will make them less able to carry out their nefarious crimes.
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Tomorrow the House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a joint subcommittee hearing on "Venezuela's Sanctionable Activity." The hearing follows the Obama administration's recent announcement of sanctions against Venezuela's state-owned oil company and a military armaments entity for illicit dealings with Iran.
Congress has been at the forefront in pressing the administration to further unravel the dangerous Venezuela-Iran relationship to identify and sanction activities found to be aiding Iran's international sanctions-busting campaign and that threaten U.S. security interests. There is no shortage of opportunities. It is, as they say, a target-rich environment.
In fact, the next target should be the Venezuelan airline Conviasa, which is operating secretive weekly flights between Venezuela, Iran, and Syria. We do not know for certain who or what is aboard these flights because passengers are not subject to immigration and customs controls and cargo manifests are not made public.
Published reports, however, indicate the flights are ferrying terrorists and weapons between the Western Hemisphere and the Middle East, meaning that that these flights should be targeted immediately using Treasury Department anti-terrorism authorities.
For example, it was widely reported that Abdul Kadir, a Guyanese national who is serving a life sentence for his role in the 2007 terrorist plot to explode fuel tanks and pipelines at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, was arrested in Trinidad as he was attempting to board a flight to Venezuela. From there, he was to planning to continue on to Iran on the Conviasa flight.
President Barack Obama and his advisors formulated their Afghan policy almost exclusively to achieve one goal: deny safe haven to al Qaeda, according to Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars. Counterterrorism is an important goal, but the administration seems to believe it is the only goal. This is a seriously myopic vision of U.S. national security interests. We have a much broader range of interests at stake in Afghanistan and South Asia. The administration's failure to understand them goes a long way to explain why it settled on a half-hearted strategy in Afghanistan.
So why are we fighting?
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With the inauguration of Juan Manuel Santos as the new president of Colombia on August 7, we are reminded how far that Andean country has come from near failed state status just a decade ago. In 1999, about 70 percent of the countryside was in the hands of drug traffickers and marauding guerrillas when then-president Andrés Pastrana concluded the only thing that would save the nation was a European-style Marshall Plan, soon dubbed Plan Colombia.
Today following a U.S. and multinational aid effort and considerable native resources invested in change, rural bandits are on the run, violent crime is down, the country's human rights climate has improved, the economy is thriving, and Colombia is sharing its counternarcotics and counterterrorism expertise with other nations such as Mexico and Afghanistan. Now it's time to treat Colombia differently.
Sadly, many in our own Congress don't think so. They still regard this erstwhile democratic ally as little more than a hemispheric trouble spot that requires aid. On hold is the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, signed by Presidents George Bush and Alvaro Uribe in 2006. The accord would have established a permanent commercial relationship to enable Colombia's economy to support more of its own security expenditures, and would have allowed freer entry of U.S. goods into growing Colombian markets.
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The murders of two employees of the U.S. consulate in the violent Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez serve as a grim, and likely unwanted, reminder to the Obama administration of the drug-fueled carnage taking place just across our southern border. With the range of foreign policy challenges on the President's plate, the last thing he probably wants to contemplate at this point is a deepening involvement in a messy entanglement involving ruthless drug cartels and a besieged government and society on our doorstep.
But foreign crises operate by no calendar, and, given the stakes involved, the Obama administration has no choice but to give higher priority to supporting Mexican President Felípe Calderón's declared war against the cartels in what will be a long, drawn out (and, in many quarters, controversial) struggle for the future of our neighbor and third-largest trading partner.
The administration deserves credit for following through on President Bush's commitment to President Calderón in Merida in 2007 to provide U.S. support for his effort to seize back his country from the grip of the drug mafias. Under the subsequently named Merida Initiative, the U.S. is providing more than $1 billion over three years in counter-narcotics assistance to Mexico, to include weapon-detection technology, surveillance and intelligence-gathering equipment, helicopters and training for police, prison, and military personnel. Look at that as a down-payment.
The effort in Mexico will involve a transformation no less dramatic than what Colombia has undergone over the past decade (and where the U.S. has invested some $7 billion in counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency assistance). From fundamental overhauls of the military and police, the judiciary and financial systems, and social and economic programs to head off the descent into the drug culture by the citizenry, the challenge Mexico faces is steep and costly.
And the United States is no innocent bystander. It is our society's insatiable demand for illicit narcotics that fuels the drug violence in Mexico. The demand for cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamines is a plague visited not only on our own youth and social fabric but on Mexico's as well. As such, we have a responsibility and duty to not only combat the demand on the home front through prevention and rehabilitation programs, but also assist our neighbors combating the criminal elements profiting off such trade.
Just as Plan Colombia before it, the Merida Initiative has generated controversy: from the NGO industrial complex, that fears an empowered Mexican military and police will run roughshod over human rights; to those who oppose a military strategy in favor of attacking the social and economic roots of the drug culture or targeting the cartels' financial structures; and those who argue for decriminalization of drug use to end the carnage. (Former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, concluding the drug war is lost after only three years, recently made that case elsewhere on this site.)
Yet aside from the latter, there is no reason why all of that cannot be incorporated into a comprehensive strategy, much as we have done in our partnership with Colombia. Certainly the drug war in Mexico will not be won without fundamental reforms of the judiciary, rooting out corruption, addressing broader societal ills, and employing sophisticated financial strategies to choke off the cartels' profits. But neither will those initiatives have any chance of succeeding without robust military and police pressures on the cartels that include arresting kingpins, breaking up networks, and interdicting drug shipments: anything and everything that drives up the cost of doing their nefarious business.
The Obama administration can signal its continuing support and commitment to President Calderon's brave and unprecedented campaign to save his country from further damage by the drug mafias by formally committing to a follow-on phase to Merida, a Merida Initiative II, just as was done in Colombia. This would key of the progress made to date and expand, in partnership with the Mexican government, the "softer" side reforms so desperately needed to strengthen the judiciary and civil society -- while continuing the "hard" side of taking the war to the cartels.
With some 90 percent of the cocaine and much of the marijuana crossing our borders from Mexico, our security and societal well-being is directly affected by what is happening there. President Calderón has embarked on a campaign that none of his predecessors has dared, despite years of U.S. pleadings; that is, rescue his country from the violence and lawlessness of the drug trade and welcome U.S. partnership in doing so. The country has already paid a high price, with up to a reported 18,000 deaths in the past three years (albeit many of those caused by internecine gang warfare over turf).
The Obama administration has acknowledged a "shared responsibility" to combat the drug trade. Today, more than ever, that sentiment needs to be backed by strong action in support of a friend of the U.S. trying to do the right thing.
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By Christian Brose
For too long, Mexico's intensifying war against narcogangs has gone largely unnoticed in U.S. debate. At last, that's changing. For starters, there was the Joint Forces Command report late last year warning that Mexico, like Pakistan, is in danger of near-term collapse. Barry McCaffrey weighed in with his now famous memo warning much the same thing. Alma Guillermoprieto offered a bleak picture in beautiful prose in the New Yorker. Even Newt Gingrich is jumping in, warning that Mexico is worse than Iraq and Afghanistan. Mary O'Grady raised a red flag yesterday in the Journal.
This is all good, but by going from 0 to 60 as fast as we have, are we now in danger of painting the situation as more dire than it actually is? To be sure, a country that had more than 5,300 citizens killed in drug-related violence last year isn't in good shape. But from reading recent U.S. commentary and analysis, you'd think Mexico is the next failed state. This isn't sitting well with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, as the L.A. Times reported yesterday, and his government is pushing back against their country's depiction as Pakistan south of the border. (By the way, while most major newspapers have largely missed the Mexico story, the L.A. Times has totally owned coverage of it. Their series Mexico Under Siege is not to be missed.)
Now, of course the Mexican government is supposed to say that things aren't as bad as recent U.S. coverage would have us believe, but to some degree they have a point. I'm still horrified and alarmed about what's going on in Mexico, but here are a few reasons to keep our feet on the ground -- for now.
1.The narcogangs still seem to be largely focused on fighting each other, not on bringing down the Mexican state. They have stepped up attacks on Mexican officials, police, and the army, but more out of necessity because Calderon has taken the war to them. As yet, there is no alliance unifying all of the narcogangs into one force that seeks to challenge and topple the Mexican state. Now, this could still happen, and even if it didn't Mexico could still be fatally compromised, but thus far the gangs are still mostly killing each other.
2. The gangs have no political agenda; their main goal remains selling dope. They are not providing basic services to Mexico's citizens, nor are they trying to create a parallel system of political order to rival the Mexican state and erode its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. In fact, even if most Mexicans think the gangs are winning, they by all accounts still hate them and what they are doing to the country. In that sense, Mexico's gangs are not a true insurgency. There are signs -- literally, in this sense -- that the gangs are beginning to compete for the allegiances of the Mexican people and wage a strategic communications battle against Calderon. This is a troubling development. But for now, these campaigns are not focused on advancing rival forms of gang-led governance; their goal is simply to brand their cartel opponents as illegitimate in the eyes of the Mexican people.
3. Calderon's government is fighting for its life, but it hasn't lost (yet). In fact, there is still a chance that the worsening trend of the past few years actually reflects a problem getting worse before it gets better. Calderon may yet break the backs of the gangs, and the recent surge in violence may reflect the increasingly desperate actions of cartels that, for the first time in Mexican history, are now up against an adversary that is not content merely to look the other way, but is instead willing to do what is necessary to reclaim his country. Even if he succeeds, for his troubles, Calderon will likely spend the rest of his life after government in exile from his own country out of fear for his life.
The Merida Initiative will help Calderon, and thus far, President Obama -- rightly -- seems committed to carrying on the unprecedented security assistance to Mexico that President Bush and the last Congress began. This is good. Calderon was the first head of state Obama chose to meet, which is likely more than just the old visit-with-the-neighbors-first tradition. Obama would also be wise to recognize how the Mexican gangs are largely fighting their war with U.S.-bought weapons, a point well made in this FP column by Shannon O'Neil -- who, by the way, has a great Latin America blog.
I would be interested to know what the counterinsurgency community's read of Mexico is: Does it fit the model of an insurgency? And if so, should Calderon be mounting more of a COIN campaign, focusing on population security as opposed to the largely seek-and-destroy operations his army seems to be waging?
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.