Al DÍA: A Critical Time for Mexico

Eric Olson and Andrew Selee, AL DÍA: News and Analysis from the Mexico Institute, 3/3/2011

Given historic and dramatic developments in North Africa and the Middle East, one could be excused for overlooking this week’s visit to Washington by Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon.  But his meeting with President Obama comes at a particularly sensitive time in U.S. –Mexico relations.  Despite nearly five years of improving security cooperation, there is a growing list of aggravations and disappointments on both sides of the border that require special attention.  While there will be no major agreements to sign or initiatives to be announced, merely keeping the relationship from veering horribly wrong may be the trip’s greatest accomplishment.

Back in 2007 then-President Bush and President Calderon announced a landmark security cooperation deal to fight organized crime.  What became known as the Merida Initiative ushered in a new era of collaboration in which both sides acknowledged the shared nature of the threats posed by organized crime and traffickers.

But despite the unprecedented collaboration both countries are finding that the problems continue to grow.   The violence has reached truly horrifying levels, with over 15,000 deaths tied to organized crime last year.  In two particularly gruesome episodes last year, 15 teenagers were gunned down at a birthday party in January and 72 migrants were slaughtered only a few miles from the US border in August.

The violence has also touched home in the United States.  In March, three people tied to the US consulate in Ciudad Juarez were killed, including two US citizens, and only two weeks ago, traffickers assassinated an ICE agent assigned to the US Embassy in Mexico City on a major highway.    Shared responsibility is now also leading to shared suffering.

In private, US officials worry about the slow pace of Mexico’s police and judicial reform and the government’s inability to overcome pervasive corruption within the criminal justice system, despite the unquestioned commitment of the country’s top leaders.   Mexican officials, in turn, are increasingly frustrated by the lack of focus in the U.S. on reducing the consumption of illegal narcotics and the failure to take more active measures to stem the tide of U.S. guns and drug money flowing south.

President Calderon’s frustration boiled over in a sharp reproach of U.S. officials in an interview given to a major Mexican newspaper that was published on the same day the U.S. agent was buried.  U.S. officials, not surprisingly, saw the public venting of frustration as particularly ill-timed.

There is no shortage of voices on both sides that would like to blame the other for the rising violence and the inability to make progress on their joint commitments, and pressure to engage in the blame game will only increase as both countries enter into presidential campaigns.  However, both countries have a stake in working together to lower organized crime violence.  Mexico needs U.S. intelligence to pinpoint the top leaders of the trafficking organizations and to interrupt their logistics networks (which are built on the money U.S. consumers spend on illegal narcotics).  The U.S. needs Mexico to succeed in containing the violence, not only to be a good neighbor, but because the same traffickers operate in the United States, where their consumers are, and may one day bring the violence with them.   Finger-pointing is counterproductive for both.

Nowhere are the stakes higher for the U.S. but the latitude for action seemingly more restricted.  Given a difficult history with the United States, Mexico vigorously guards its sovereignty and its army is amongst the most insular in the world.   Mexico’s army is willing to receive training from the U.S. but talk of joint or coordinated exercises, and the exchange of personnel is unthinkable within Mexico’s military high command.  The kind of presence the U.S. military – and even civilian authorities — enjoyed in Colombia is inconceivable in Mexico.

What the U.S. can do is largely provide valuable information on traffickers and help provide technical support to strengthen the criminal justice system.  Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. can do a much better job at interrupting the traffickers’ logistical networks in the United States to cut off their supply of money and weapons.

So despite the lack of any policy breakthrough, the upcoming visit of Mexico’s president to Washington carries with it major significance for this critical relationship.   Mexico is not in the Middle East or North Africa, but its future may be even more important to the safety and security of U.S. citizens.  Not allowing the current frustrations and aggravations of the relationship to drag down this important partnership could be the best and most important outcome of this trip.

The authors are, respectively, the Senior Associate and Director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center.  They recently edited Shared Responsibility: U.S.-Mexico Policy Options for Confronting Organized Crime with David Shirk of the University of San Diego.

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