A week after a state visit by Mexican President Felipe Calderon to Washington, U.S.-Mexico relations are still irritable because of undiplomatic comments about Mexico by U.S. officials, and now because of a U.S. government program that ended up putting even more high powered weapons into the hands of drug cartels.
Mexico is wracked by massive violence by cartels, which have arisen due to Mexico’s geographic position, which makes it the natural route for cocaine coming up from Colombia for sale in the United States. There is also marijuana and methamphetamine production in Mexico. The battles among the cartels, and between them and Mexican police and military, have caused thousands of deaths in the last couple of years. Very controversial is the decision by President Calderon, on coming to power in 2006, to redefine Mexico’s efforts to suppress the cartels as a military operation involving thousands of troops.
Various politicians in the United States, including most recently Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, have expressed fear that the cartel wars will spill over Mexico’s 1,900-mile border into the United States, though so far this has not happened. Mexico, in turn, has asked that the United States do something about the vast market for drugs here. As the drugs move north, countless millions of U.S. dollars move south into the hands of the cartels, enriching and empowering them immensely. Mexico also complains that the United States does nothing to crack down on some 8,000 gun shops strung along the border on the US side, which are the main source of automatic and other weapons with which the cartels often outgun Mexican police. Efforts by the Obama administration to control this gun trade have been met with opposition in Congress, led by the National Rifle Association.
Statements by Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal, who compared the drug wars in Mexico to an insurgency and hinted that the U.S. might end up sending in troops (read more here) have caused indignation. Comments by U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual, leaked via Wikileaks, which seemed to suggest that the Mexican military is cowardly (“risk averse”) were especially galling to President Calderon, who has staked his reputation on his military strategy. In a meeting with the Editorial Board of the Washington Post during his Washington visit on March 3, Calderon strongly hinted that he wants Pascual out.
The idea of any kind of US military presence within Mexico is very sensitive. Between the Texas war of “independence” in 1836, the US-Mexican War of 1846-1848 and the corrupt Gadsden Purchase of 1852, Mexico lost more than half of its original national territory to the United States.
Nevertheless, US involvement in Mexico’s drug wars is massive. The Merida Initiative, signed by Presidents Calderon and George W. Bush, is funneling $1.6 billion US dollars into material support. Some of this money has gone to subsidize the services of Colombian personnel to train their Mexican colleagues how to fight drug cartels.
There is a lot of doubt in both countries about this military strategy. One of the worst of the Mexican drug cartels, the Zetas, was initiated by rogue Mexican military officers who had been trained in counterinsurgency methods at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. The Zetas are believed to be responsible for the killing of a U.S. agent in San Luis Potosi in February and many other atrocities.
And less than helpful is Operation Fast and Furious, a program run by the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which was supposed to permit a controlled entry of illegal firearms into Mexico with the purpose of being able to trace how these weapons moved. Unfortunately, according to the Center for Public Integrity, ATF lost control of the shipments, which ended up in the hands of the cartels, and may have led to the death of a US agent in December, among others. Mexican authorities charge that the United States never informed them about the program, an accusation which ATF denies. Attorney General Eric Holder is initiating an investigation.
To top it off, the US Department of Justice announced indictments of the mayor and several other officials in the town of Columbus, New Mexico, for running illegal guns to Mexico. Columbus is the town that was shot up by cavalrymen of Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa in March of 1916, resulting in 18 deaths of US soldiers and civilians. The raid led to the farcical expedition into Mexico by U.S. General John Pershing. Pershing never caught up with Villa, and met with antagonism from all political forces in Mexico as a result of this violation of Mexico’s national sovereignty.