Friday, March 4, 2011

The elephant in the room

"We are very mindful that the battle President Calderon is fighting inside of Mexico is not just his battle, it's also ours," President Barack Obama said after Calderon's Washington visit. "We have to take responsibility just as he's taking responsibility. And that's true with respect to guns flowing from north to south, it's true about cash flowing north to south."

The two presidents discussed "how we can strengthen border security on both sides" to curtail the weapons and drug traffic," Obama said, calling it "a challenging task."

Indeed. Why are we here again? Why have I heard this spiel a dozen times in my life, and I'm only 36 years old?

The buildup to this meeting was appalling. It was as if players on all sides of the equation were making everything as bad as possible so that the two presidents would be able to meet and proclaim everything will be better just so it appeared everything would indeed be better.

A recap: In an interview with the leading Mexican daily El Universal last week, Calderon bashed US cooperation in the war on drugs and organized crime and even called US Ambassador Carlos Pascual "ignorant."

Calderon's use of the anti-American card was risky at a time when US-Mexico cooperation is at an all-time high. There is just no doubt of that. The DEA assists 200-something vetted high-ranking Mexican cops, who conduct anti-drug operations. Dozens of top cartel leaders have been caught or killed in the past four years. US military advisers are on the ground in Mexico and even the Left has been relatively quiet about it. Yes, the violence is out of control and yes, that is a huge, huge problem. But that's nothing to do with US cooperation. Cooperation must be continued and built upon. Wikileaks couldn't be helped, don't make matters worse by spilling your guts to a newspaper that you know isn't going to highlight to lovey-dovey aspects of the relationship.

Everyone knows there are tensions between US and Mexican agencies. Since 2006, Mexico's top anti-drug official has been arrested for being in the pockets of organized crime, while a former ICE agent was also charged with feeding information to the drug cartels (I believe he plea-bargained). A US agent was killed in Mexico two weeks ago; eight Mexican soldiers were arrested yesterday while trying to traffic a ton of cocaine through Tijuana. The bodyguard of the Mexican general in charge of catching Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted drug trafficker, was arrested for feeding information to the drug lord; and so on.

On Thursday during an interview with the Washington Post, Calderon cited a U.S. cable that said that Mexican military officials had "risk-averse habits," suggesting that it had caused turmoil on his national security team.

"It's difficult if suddenly you are seeing the courage of the army [questioned]. For instance, they have lost probably 300 soldiers ... and suddenly somebody in the American embassy, they [say] the Mexican soldiers aren't brave enough," Calderon said during an hour-long meeting with The Post editorial board and reporters. "Or you decide to play the game that they are not coordinated enough, and suddenly start to bring information to one agency and not to the other and try to get them to compete."

Well, sorry Mr President, but your soldiers are indeed risk averse – perhaps rightly so. I've spent plenty of time with them in the past three years. Most of them are lonely and scared, and will put aside their machismo to readily admit that. They hate being stuck out in the middle of the sierra, spending the night camped out in tents, worrying that at any point, a group of AK-47-wielding narcos might gun them down. They spend most of their days pulling up and burning down marijuana plants, and then are asked to conduct raids against what are effectively well-armed paramilitaries during their off-hours? They aren't allowed off the base on weekends because they'll be killed or kidnapped? They have to wear masks 24 hours a day, some even wear them inside the military compounds because they don't trust each other! They are formidable when it comes to hurricane rescues and the like, but combat against these thugs is a different story. Put the pride aside, and admit it, Mr Calderon. Your army is fine, but it could do with some help.

As for bringing intel to different agencies, courage was the factor cited by Calderon, but I'm pretty sure the person in the Embassy who questioned that courage was just being diplomatic. What's likely being questioned is integrity. For instance, Gen. Noe Sandoval is in charge of operations in Sinaloa – where Chapo is believed to be hiding – and his bodyguard was arrested for filtering intel to Chapo's people. If I were sitting in the embassy, or in the DEA, that might make me think twice before I shared intel with the general, no matter how honest he might be.

As for the "challenging task" of "how we can strengthen border security on both sides" to curtail the weapons and drug traffic" that Obama mentioned, here's one suggestion: Get Mexican soldiers deployed to checkpoints along the border to actually start checking suspicious vehicles for weapons. I spent an afternoon about two years ago in Matamoros watching soldiers "inspect" the vehicles. They stopped one in every ten cars and only checked about every 10 of those. That, my friends, is not "increased and improved" weapons checks along the border, as the Calderon administration had promised back then.

Calderon is right to complain, he really is. The US has so much to do which it never does and will never do. During the period that the assault weapons ban was in effect, 1994-2004, Mexican homicide rates apparently dropped. The weapons ban was never renewed, and my guess is, it never will be.

Drug consumption is a US problem, not a Mexican one. Something has to be done, and I'm flummoxed as to what it is. Legalization in the US, in my mind, is not the answer, as I am pretty sure the drug cartels would simply lower their prices and still flood the market (this is what they do now anyway, it's not like Mexican weed is the good stuff. But maybe legalizing weed would be a way to start something new.)

Nor is legalization in Mexico, because I just cannot see the cartels giving the government control over drug production. Nor will they pay taxes on their stuff if they do retain control over it. (About 40 percent of Mexicans already don't pay taxes, why would the narcos be more law-abiding?)

Lastly, I don't think legalization would quell the violence. I just can't imagine a bunch of narcos deciding to settle their dispute in a court. Much easier to just shoot each other down in some back alley somewhere.

So maybe, once again, it comes down to ending American drug use – the one issue that didn't come up in Obama's recap of his meeting with Calderon.


  1. I agree with you that legalization isn't the panacea that many people claim.

    So maybe, once again, it comes down to ending American drug use

    Here's the problem on that point that few people want to acknowledge: drug use in the US is already pretty low. Yes, we can maybe shave off a few tenths of a percent with better preventive education or good healthcare or even better enforcement (which comes with its own problems), but short of a complete totalitarian state, the rate of drug use will never get down to zero. There is a natural rate of drug use that will always exist and we're probably not too far above it.

    Of course, that's really bad news for Mexico. It's easy to call on the US to cut its drug use, but the reality is there are few gains to be made by reducing demand. Demand is already way down from its peak in the late 70's and early 80's and the problem has gotten worse in Mexico, not better.

    I don't have a good answer to the problem. Just pointing out that this solution doesn't have as much merit as some people think.

  2. 1.- The biggest nose of the world: USA
    2.- The strongest money of the world: US Dollar
    3.- The best weapons in world: American ones
    4.- The best bussines of americans in the world: war
    So... Americans use drugs, pay with dollars (tons of dollars), then make a war anywhere els in the world, sell weapons and get dollars back... a very good american bussines. As I see it you wont reduce demand of drugs because americans dont want to be out of bussines.

  3. Malcolm, Boz, Sorry, I disagree, legalization is the only solution to the problem.

    The arguments that Malcolm uses all came up during the Prohibition days and they proved to be specious.

    Drug use may represent a small percentage of the U.S. population, but it's a fairly large population, like, over 300 million people, and that's a large market, taken in absolute numbers.

    I believe that serious, addicted alcohol, drug and tobacco users represent fairly constant percentages of populations, and that drug use wouldn't change appreciably were all/all drugs to be legalized.

    The benefits of legalization would far, far out-weigh the costs of any (small) increase in drug use, in my mind. I won't bother enumerating them here since I assume you guys know what they'd be.

    There would be big challenges to legalization are all of the parties that have interests in seeing the (losing) drug wars continue, ranging from the cartels themselves to the very law enforcement entities that oppose them. As in many other sad cases, war, and a drug war at that, can be very profitable even as it takes an obscene toll in lives of people corrupted, imprisoned, and of course, ended.

    You all know Einstein's apocryphal definition of insanity (repeating the same thing over and over...), and that's what the drug wars are, in my opinion. They've never, ever, been a winning proposition, and they never will be, until the powers that be decided to declare "victory" and legalize drugs...