I wrote here a while back when Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was elected that we should give him a chance. I said this for several reasons, among them: 1) he and a majority of his party are of a new generation that has turned its back on the old patron-client system that characterizes so much of the developing world, and 2) he knows that to lift the half of the population that still lives in poverty and suffers from massive economic inequality he must increase economic growth, which is possible only if monopolies are smashed and foreign investment welcomed. He's off to a good start, bringing his party with him and building coalitions with the center-right PAN and others.
Three of his administration's actions demonstrate my optimism.
First, like the last PRI president before him, Carlos Salinas, Peña Nieto has shown his resolve and ability to put reform and the public above his cronies by having the head of the national teachers' union arrested on corruption charges (see here and here). No matter that she helped him get elected -- she opposed his reform to strengthen the hand of the state to hire and fire teachers at the expense of the union's overweening power. It is easy to be cynical and say that she was arrested for being a political opponent. Maybe that is exactly what happened. But maybe the president doesn't care who was or was not a supporter of his campaign for the presidency -- corruption is in his sights. In the end, if she is truly corrupt and found guilty, Mexico is better for it no matter what motivated the arrest. With his act he wins respect and not a little fear from the caciques of other sectors who might oppose his reforms and try to take Mexico backwards. We should remember that Mexico is not yet Switzerland or Sweden and is still an evolving democracy. Think Chicago, or Louisiana before Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Second, he is taking on the richest man in the world -- Carlos Slim, who has for decades controlled telecoms in Mexico. Slim controls 80 percent of the country's fixed lines and 70 percent of its mobile phones. The reform the president has put forward (see here and here) would give the government the right to break up monopolies that constitute 50 percent of a market and to make it easier for foreigners to invest.
And finally, the really big prize: reform of the nationalized oil sector. This is the third rail of Mexican politics after Salinas in the late 1980s reformed the communal land system. Peña Nieto leads a party that for decades led with the cry "the oil is ours!" as it nationalized and ran the industry. While the state hasn't run the industry into the ground as Chavez did, it has never lived up to its potential as a key funder of the government and for the last eight years has seen its production capacity drop. The problems stem largely from keeping significant foreign investment and technology out of the industry. The president means to change all that and got a good start at it by getting his party to vote in favor of the reform that now moves to Congress.
While it is unlikely that the leftist parties will support Peña Nieto's reforms -- and certainly not the oil industry reform -- the center-right PAN should and supporters of Mexico, free trade and the free market definitely should. U.S. policy should be to congratulate Peña Nieto and his party and to encourage Mexico to open itself further by these reforms. These are hopeful days for Mexico.
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
I'd like to follow up on my colleague Jose Cardenas' excellent post last week on the presidential election in Mexico. The PRI's Enrique Peña Nieto has won, but with only a little more than 38 percent of the vote. He will have to make deals with the opposition in the national legislature to get the much needed reforms he promised; exert his authority over the PRI at all levels, including the governors; handle any lingering student protests deftly; and win over critics in the United States and abroad who have a phobia where the PRI is concerned. All these burdens are legitimately laid on him, but the latter one is arguably unfair and unhelpful if taken too far.
As it is said, "the sins of the fathers are visited on the children to the third and fourth generations." Nevertheless, Peña Nieto should not be held accountable for the PRI's misdeeds and political culture over 71 years of rule for two very good reasons. First, he has already demonstrated in his governorship of Mexico state that though he might be a scion of the quintessential old guard, he has governed differently in many ways. For example, he was a reformer in his state as he tackled tax cheating at every level, including in his own cabinet. And Peña Nieto has experience working with an opposition legislature as governor.
Second, he has positioned himself among a line of PRI reformers. The PRI was transforming itself, albeit slowly, even from the time of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado in the 1980s. In other words, let's give credit where it is due and see the previous three PRI presidents, even with their warts, as reformers who had already begun to free the PRI from the grip of the dinosaurs. From the 1980s on, the PRI was pro-free trade, seeking foreign investment and knocking down barriers to it. By the time of Ernesto Zedillo, the PRI was on the path to reforming and improving Mexico's democratic institutions and culture. The PRI has been choosing candidates by primaries for years now and has been learning what a legitimate opposition actually is by having to live as one. Maybe we can say that with Peña Nieto enough generations have lapsed for the sins to be expunged. It is time to start fresh with the PRI and give him a guarded benefit of the doubt.
He has started his national presence rather well, despite the accusations of electoral fraud that will be evaluated by the elections tribunal. Peña Nieto led in the polls for most of the campaign and the charges tossed about now are so far mostly about the perennial vote-buying and media bias. In the old days, the charges would have been electronic manipulation of the vote and outright ballot-box stuffing; who can forget the "computer crash" that led to the victory of Carlos Salinas in 1988 that no one doubts was fraudulent. We'll see if any of the charges hold up or if there are more serious ones, but for the most part, it appears that not even the PRD loser, Lopez Obrador, is willing to go the barricades again as he did for months his last time out.
Throughout his campaign and even now as the president-elect, Peña Nieto has said a lot of things that should encourage the United States and win over at least those segments of Mexico that understand that there is no chance of growth and prosperity without a strong commercial Mexico that works well with the United States, regional partners, and the emerging Pacific Alliance. Most important of all, Peña Nieto is determined to reform the labor laws and foreign ownership regulations that have stymied Mexico's growth. The PRI blocked these reforms while in opposition, most likely out of a stubborn refusal to allow the PAN presidents to win their biggest agenda items. But now the PRI is led by a president who campaigned to do these things because he knows, unlike the dinosaurs, that there is no other option if Mexico is to prosper. The PRI and the PAN will have a chance to make an alliance for reform. Let's hope the PAN is not stricken with foolish pride. It is certain that the PRD leftists will not try to move Mexico into the modern world of global competition and cooperation among investors and producers.
So a PRI victory can certainly be a boon for the United States. It already is in some ways regarding the security issues surrounding the drug war. Peña Nieto's tapping of the former Colombian National Police Chief, Oscar Naranjo, as his advisor speaks volumes for his commitment and determination to continue the war against those who make war on society. While he might change some tactics, the public and the new president appear as committed as ever to curtailing the violence with all the means the state can bring to the task. Will he focus more on stopping the violence and less on arresting kingpins? Perhaps, but that is not the same thing as saying he will return to the old PRI modus vivendi of making deals with outlaws. He'd lose Naranjo quickly if that is his plan and he has no interest in making both his citizens and the United States nervous by doing so.
And speaking of interests, in all the problems he'll face, the new president has zero interest in returning to his party's corporatist, statist, and sometimes violent roots. He has demonstrated with bold words and deeds that he is a modern politician of a chastened party that, having begun to reform itself and having suffered 12 years in the wilderness, knows what the future must look like. He might have been raised by the dinosaurs in his home state (which was for decades ground zero for the dinosaurs), but he talks and acts like a different breed. He appears to be a leader who can appreciate the technocrats who began the changes in his party (and he surrounds himself with U.S.-educated advisors), but so far he seems to be a politician who can get things done, who knows how to lead Mexico for what it is while looking ahead to what it can be.
Only Nixon could go to China, another saying goes. And perhaps only the PRI can take Mexico fully into a future of free trade, free labor, and freely flowing -- and abundant -- foreign investment in the moribund Mexican energy sector. The United States should not squander the opportunity to give this new leader and this hopefully newly reborn party a chance to prove his critics wrong.
Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images
Mexican voters go to the polls this Sunday to decide whether to return to power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had governed the country for seventy years under a "one-party democracy." Polls show PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto comfortably ahead of his two rivals, leftist populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the incumbent center-right National Action Party (PAN).
If those polls hold, it would mean a remarkable comeback for a party that was tossed out of power in 2000 after it came to symbolize nothing more than clientelism, patronage, muscle, and corruption.
For most observers, a Peña Nieto victory raises the $64,000 question: Will he govern as a forward-looking reformer eager to modernize and accelerate Mexico's integration to the global economy, or will he simply preside over Mexico's slide back to its authoritarian and statist ways under the PRI?
This question is not just academic. This election is important for the United States because what happens in Mexico does not stay in Mexico. Instead, events there have a direct impact on U.S. interests, whether it's the health of the Mexico's $1.1 trillion economy, energy production, and security issues -- e.g., narcotics trafficking -- among a range of other important issues.
In short, we really don't know how Peña Nieto intends to govern because his campaign has been vague on many key policy issues, although he has tried to reassure voters who remember the PRI-style all too well that, as president, "[he] will govern with the most solid and free democratic principles in the world."
While only time will tell where a President Peña Nieto will lead Mexico, on one crucial issue he will not have the luxury of time or nuance. That is, the war begun by President Felipe Calderón to break the backs of the Mexican drug cartels, a courageous decision that specifically upended the PRI-model of "live and let live" and deal-cutting with the drug syndicates.
Many thus are looking for signs as to just how Peña Nieto intends to wage (or not) the war against the cartels. So far, there has been no detailed plan, only vague statements about shifting priorities to reducing violence over the primacy of taking down capos and drug seizures. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, the drug war is not a loser with the Mexican people; 8 in 10 support the use of the Mexican army against the cartels, according to Pew.
However, in a nod that Peña Nieto intends to keep the pressure on the cartels, his campaign recently announced the hiring of Colombia's former national police chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo as his drug war adviser. (Naranjo has a sterling record against Colombia's drug cartels and is well-known to both Washington and the Calderón administration.)
While that is a good sign, it still will not be easy for Peña Nieto to overcome his party's historical reluctance to take on the drug cartels or, politically, to embrace his predecessor's signature policy. It is admittedly a war fraught with great risks and enormous costs. Some believe that the extent of the counter-drug mobilization ordered by President Calderón means that any successor will have no choice but to continue forward.
One certainly hopes that is the case, but there is no guarantee. And there can be any number of gradations on how that war is fought and the underlying commitment communicated. Let's hope that Peña Nieto also understands this is a battle to take back Mexico's security and sovereignty from criminal organizations and that there is no going back to some deal-cutting modus vivendi.
Lastly, this is not just Mexico's war, but our war too. It is U.S. demand that fuels the Mexican drug trade and it is their product that blights our neighborhoods and poisons our youth. Yet a transfer of power in Mexico will necessitate a delicate diplomatic dance by the Obama administration to help keep the next government on the right path. The administration stumbled a bit trying to build a trusting relationship with the Calderón government. We need to get it right from the start this time around.
Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images
From the photographs of Hillary Clinton partying up at a Cartagena disco during last weekend's Sixth Summit of the Americas, it appears she was the only U.S. official who enjoyed herself while in Colombia. (We'll leave out the members of the president's security detail who were sent home for allegedly consorting with prostitutes.)
Indeed, despite being commended for "listening politely," President Obama had to have been frustrated with being endlessly harangued by his counterparts over historical and ideological grievances that predated his birth. It was, as the president said, like entering a "time warp."
Rather than figuring out how to cooperate with our southern neighbors in meeting the challenges of the 21st century global economy, the president was instead forced to sit and listen as others complained about why Stalinist Cuba wasn't invited to a summit of otherwise popularly elected governments or how come the United Kingdom won't honor Argentina's specious claim to the Falkland Islands after more than two centuries?
It's a wonder nobody demanded that President Obama cede back to Mexico a huge chunk of the American Southwest.
Of course, one of the hallmarks of Latin American populism is nursing historical grudges; it's easier than having to solve real problems. But, still, the disconnect between the agendas of the United States and our neighbors to the south continues to widen. And, in this, those administration officials tasked with managing the Latin America portfolio are not blameless.
Three years of U.S. neglect -- combined with a period of economic prosperity built mostly on Chinese demand for agricultural commodities and raw materials -- have convinced many governments in the region that cooperation with the United States is not as important as it used to be. An expression of that new-found attitude is talking about issues they want to talk about, and in which the United States has no interest discussing.
It is perfectly natural that Latin American governments are branching out and establishing new economic relationships or boosting trade amongst themselves. But spurning closer cooperation with the United States -- whose economy still comprises almost seventy percent of regional GDP -- is in no one's long-term interest.
It may be that the region is enjoying good times economically, but Chinese demand isn't always going to be there, and it is hardly a foundation on which to build lasting prosperity. Moreover, confronting the U.S. over historical grievances may boost some sort of elitist self-esteem, but it is hardly relevant to the majority of the region's citizens who live on less than two dollars a day.
Enhancing long-term development is better met through closer regional cooperation in trade integration, promoting energy security, strengthening democratic institutions, and tackling drug corruption and violence. And, of course, it cannot just be a one-way street. The ground is shifting under U.S.-Latin America relations, with the days of demand and compliance a distant memory.
In an increasingly turbulent world, there is much to say for developing stronger relationships within our own hemisphere. By doing so, we will also necessarily crowd out those who would rather wallow in the past than look to a prosperous and mutually beneficial future.
With this most recent summit so dominated by issues no U.S. president can find any benefit in discussing, some have speculated that this may very well be the last such summit in which the U.S. will likely participate. That would be unfortunate. Better that the Sixth Summit of the Americas be remembered as the nadir of U.S.-Latin America relations, with the only way to go but up.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
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.
ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images
Much of official Washington has been stunned by the Justice Department announcement this week that an Iranian-American, acting on behalf of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has been arrested for allegedly conspiring with an individual he believed was tied to a violent Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and carry out other possible terrorist activities.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for one, remarked, "The idea that [Iran] would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?"
But as outlandish as it may seem, it can also be seen as the fruits of Iran's steady expansion into Latin America and attempts to make common cause with transnational criminal operations in its global conflict with the United States.
Last week, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roger Noriega and I co-authored a paper, The Mounting Hezbollah Threat in Latin America, for the American Enterprise Institute, in which we establish that, over the last several years, Iran, with its Hezbollah proxy in tow, has made a major diplomatic and economic push into the Western Hemisphere. Their goals are three-fold: to break down their international isolation and gain access to strategic resources; undermine U.S. influence in the region; and establish a new platform from which to wage their war against the United States.
That effort has been largely facilitated by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, who has served as the principal interlocutor on Iran's behalf with other like-minded governments in the region, primarily the Rafael Correa and Evo Morales governments in Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively, who themselves have established dubious networks with criminal groups.
What experts say is new, however, and indicative of a deepening relationship, is Mexican drug traffickers' increasing use of small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and car bombs in waging their mayhem in Mexico, an expertise for which Hezbollah is particularly known; and, secondly, the ongoing discovery of increasingly sophisticated narco-tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border, which experts say resemble the type used by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Frankly, from their own warped perspectives, it would be more surprising if there was no cooperation between Iran-Hezbollah and Mexican cartels, given the obvious benefits to both criminal enterprises. The cartels are able to access Hezbollah's smuggling and explosives expertise and links with drug trafficking networks in the Middle East and South Asia (the alleged Quds Force operative also reportedly offered opium shipments from the Middle East to Mexico). In turn, Iran and Hezbollah are able to establish a presence and develop assets in a lawless environment with ready access to the U.S. border that can go operational when the need arises -- as it apparently did in this case.
To be sure, trying to arrange the assassination of a foreign diplomat on U.S. soil represents an ominous turn in Iranian strategy against the United States. In any case, the stakes are clear. In a May 2011 visit to Bolivia, Iranian Defense Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi proclaimed that in the event of any military confrontation between Iran and the United States, "The strong Iran is ready for enemy-crushing and tough response in case of any illogical and violent behavior by the U.S." It seems we now have a pretty good idea on how Iran will rely on its new-found friends in the Western Hemisphere to carry out that threat.
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
If President Obama wants to solve America's immigration dilemma, he should avoid mixed messages. On May 19, he naively sided with visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderón who complained that Arizona's new immigration control law could lead to racial profiling. This last week, he ordered 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border and requested an additional $500 million from Congress to step up border enforcement.
While his words may have pleased undocumented migrants (a potential constituency) and immigration lawyers, his deeds seemed too much like bait for Republican votes on upcoming reform legislation. In both cases, he forgot to do his homework.
For starters, he was too quick to criticize the Arizona law. It hardly differs from federal statute that penalizes illegal entry, or a 2007 Prince William County, Virginia ordinance that allows police to check the immigration status of detainees. As amended, the Prince William law ensured that the status of all detainees would be reviewed, not just those who looked like migrants. Fears of profiling abated. With similar tweaking, worries over the Arizona law are likely to recede.
Obama also backed up his Mexican counterpart without knowing the history behind his remarks. President Calderón (an otherwise fine leader and good friend of the United States) carps at our immigration policies to satisfy Mexican voters -- including entrenched elites who resist land tenure and market reforms that would end monopolies and expand jobs at home. His predecessor Vicente Fox felt compelled to do so and now it seems to have become a ritual.
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.
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
As if Mexico didn’t have enough problems, it is now the epicenter of the swine flu epidemic. Confirmed cases of the influenza top 300, with 12 officially confirmed deaths. Experts, though, estimate the true number of infections in the thousands. Mexico’s economy – already on the rocks – will now definitively plummet in 2009, leading hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even millions, back into poverty. But there is a silver lining. The Mexican government’s handling of the epidemic should banish any notions of a failed state on our southern border....
As in the fight against drug traffickers, the government is working to develop and implement a comprehensive policy that reaches throughout its territory. Through the health ministry, the government has launched mobile health units to test individuals and administer antivirals throughout the nation. It is marshalling substantial internal resources, as well as coordinating closely with other governments and international organizations. While the severity and spread of this epidemic remains uncertain, the fundamental capacity of the Mexican state does not. This is the best news for Mexico, and for its neighbors.
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.