Longtime Concerns Over Joint Effort May Fade
MEXICO CITY - Alarmed by spiraling drug violence along their shared border, U.S. and Mexican officials say they foresee an enhanced U.S. role in the battle against powerful cartels, including joint operations that could involve private American contractors or U.S. military and intelligence personnel.
The U.S. and Mexican officials say their cooperation could go beyond the current practice of "sharing intelligence." They say that historical concerns about Mexican sovereignty may be overcome by the challenge in restoring stability to key regions, particularly along the border.
Several officials, interviewed separately and on the condition of anonymity, stressed that specifics about an enhanced U.S. role remain unclear and that the timing is also unclear and will largely depend on the widening violence.
But "everything is on the table," one Mexican official said, including "joint operations."
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"I agree with that statement," said a senior U.S. counternarcotics official agrees. "I think the cooperation is unprecedented, and it's yielding unprecedented results."
Tony Garza, who last week resigned as U.S. ambassador, also wouldn't rule out joint operations but cautioned, "We've come a long way in terms of law enforcement cooperation, but I don't think you'll see joint operations in the traditional sense in the near term."
It's too early in the administration of President Barack Obama to determine whether any change in drug policy is imminent. And, at first glance, the idea of joint operations is seen as an affront to sovereignty.
Schoolchildren in Mexico are taught from an early age about the U.S. military occupying Mexican soil, plus the loss of half its territory - - including Arizona, New Mexico and California - after the 1846-48 U.S.-Mexico war.
"Mexicans are not culturally prepared for joint operations, and by doctrine, the very idea would be rejected by the Mexican military," said Raul Benitez, an expert on the Mexican military at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Still, the bloodbath in Mexico is widening. The number of gangland slayings more than doubled in 2008 from the previous year, to more than 5,700. U.S. officials say they view the violence as a national security threat because routes to transport drugs north could be exploited by terrorists.
Underscoring those concerns are new alarms being sounded, including a report by the U.S. Joint Forces Command that says lack of security puts Mexico and Pakistan at risk of becoming failed states.
That assessment is challenged by senior U.S. and Mexican officials, including Mexico's Interior Minister Fernando Francisco Gomez Mont and Garza.
"Mexico is not even close to becoming a failed state," Garza said. "You can bet there will be more violence, but we need to be supportive of this administration's efforts and build alliances with Mexico, not slip back into a climate where we blame first and think later."
Next month, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, a Washington research organization, will recommend that both governments "establish joint or combined binational law enforcement units capable of quick response to cartel activity."
To deal with issues of mistrust, one analyst suggested, the U.S. government will need to allow Mexican federal law enforcement investigators on U.S. soil, albeit in limited roles.
Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a political consultant, predicted that "joint operations on both sides of the border will be a key decision made by the Obama and Calderon administrations in the months to come. Otherwise, joint operations will be unacceptable for the Mexicans."
Mexican agents are already being posted in key U.S. agencies, he said.
"We're talking about a transnational threat that doesn't stop on the Mexican side," he added.
Underscoring the increased cooperation is the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, a U.S. aid plan that calls for the use of private contractors to train Mexicans in the handling of sophisticated new equipment, including helicopters.
Signs that cartel leaders were negotiating a truce have ended, the U.S. counternarcotics official said, because they couldn't agree on a split of key states Tabasco and Veracruz.
The result is increased bloodshed in some trouble spots. In Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, more than 100 people have been killed this month, compared with 40 for last January.
The senior U.S. counternarcotics official predicted that a high level of violence will continue for at least another "four to five years" before authorities can weaken the Sinaloa cartel, as they have the Arellano Felix group, the Tijuana-based cartel whose power has been diminished considerably.
The official noted, however, that drug organizations use up to half their proceeds to pay off government officials, making enforcement more difficult.
And as the economic situation worsens, analysts predict organized crime is likely to grow.
"Mexico is not a narco state, but we're witnessing a giant criminal apparatus operated by drug traffickers," said Arturo Yanez, an author and security expert at the Autonomous University in the state of Mexico. "If Mexico is not a failed state, it sure is acting like one."
In Juarez, a group calling itself the Juarez Citizens Command is claiming it will take the law into its own hands and kill a criminal every 24 hours to bring order to the city, a reminder of similar vigilante groups in Colombia.
Howard Campbell, a border anthropologist and drug expert at the University of Texas at El Paso, said Mexico's situation is different from Colombia.
"I really characterize this as a civil war, even if it's not formally declared," Campbell said. "We're seeing all the casualties of a war, people murdered, people wounded, people fleeing their homes, social disintegration and chaos.
"This is more like Afghanistan than Colombia, with regional, powerful chieftains who operate with complete authority, oftentimes through graft and corruption."
Author: Alfredo Corchado
Pubdate: Wed, 28 Jan 2009
Source: The Dallas Morning News