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Analysis & Opinion
12.11.08 America’s Skewed Priorities
By Graham Stack

Among the victims of the plane crash in Mexico City were Juan Camilo Mouri?o, the 36-year-old close friend and ally of President Felipe Calder?n. Calder?n had charged Mouri?o with heading the fight against Mexico’s insidious drug cartels immediately following his election in 2006. Jos? Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a presidential advisor on security issues, also died in the crash that almost everyone regards as an assassination by the cartels.

The crash, coming hours after Obama’s triumph, exposed a major lacuna in U.S. election foreign policy debates, which failed to mention the Mexican crisis. Instead, besides inevitably mulling over the disastrous situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the debates focused on “containing Russia.”

Discussion of Russian “aggression” in Georgia thus eclipsed the mention of a major law and order crisis in the United States’ direct neighbor, its second largest trading partner and the largest source of immigrants. It eclipsed mention of the cocaine trade that is behind the violence, and for which the United States is the major source of demand. All this despite the fact that President George W. Bush, as a former governor of Texas, is well acquainted with Mexico and despite the fact that U.S. Latino voters are a major pro-Obama constituency. And despite the fact that the 43rd U.S. president refuses to deny past use of cocaine, while the 44th president openly admits to having used the drug.

Since Mexico’s President Calderon took office in mid-2006 and declared war on the cartels supplying the $15 billion U.S. market, there have been nearly 5,000 officially registered deaths from drug-related violence. Twenty thousand soldiers have been deployed to contain the violence.

According to Bruce M. Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami and a leading international expert on the drug cartels, “violence in Mexico is used against other criminal gangs, against government security forces, and, increasingly, against innocent civilian by-standers in the form of indiscriminate narco-terrorism, designed to intimidate both civilians and government authorities.”

Nor is an end to the violence in sight. Following this year’s 50 percent escalation, according to Sam Logan, an independent investigator for the Swiss-based International Relations and Security network, “violence in Mexico will continue to escalate” in the next two years.

Logan refers to a recent UN study which found that up to 60 percent of Mexico's cities are controlled by organized crime, “with Mexico ranking 6th in the world for organized crime, after Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.”

November 5’s deaths thus seem to confirm what Guillermo Vald?s, head of Cisen, Mexico’s secret service, told the Financial Times in July: "Drug traffickers have become our principal threat because they are trying to take over the power of the state.” According to Logan, “As organized crime gains increasing control over the country, the possible formation of a mega-cartel could precipitate the slow, steady failure of the government.”

The narco-violence thus threatens to undermine the much-hailed democratic breakthrough of 2000, when in fair elections Vicente Fox became the first president in post-revolutionary Mexican history not from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, (PRI).

But U.S. foreign policy, for all its pro-democracy rhetoric, looks the other way in the case of Mexico. “Yes, narco-violence poses a threat to democracy, it attacks government institutions, erodes their legitimacy and effectiveness and undermines citizen's beliefs in government authority and efficacy,” said Bagley. “It also leads to widespread corruption in key state institutions like the police, military, judiciary and government officials at all levels of Mexico’s federal system.”

On the local level, the source of much of Mexico’s democratic vibrancy, the cartels are also smothering freedoms. According to a local democracy researcher Trevor Stack of the University of Aberdeen, “Narco-cartels are impacting more and more on local politics even in small localities, rural towns and villages. People are whispering now ‘x or y’ is connected with the cartels, and this was not the case before. There is fear in the air.”

Besides the danger to democracy in Mexico undermining the United States’ pro-democracy foreign policy, Bagley sees a very direct threefold threat to U.S. national security. “Spillover of Mexican violence into U.S. territory, already underway, growing instability of governing institutions in Mexico and growing potential for corruption to spread in Mexico's armed forces could render the country almost ungovernable,” he said.

Mexican narco-terrorism reached the United States in 2008, according to Bagley. In August, the bodies of five Mexicans were found in Alabama. They had been tortured before their throats were slashed. And, incredibly, in Phoenix, Arizona, Mexican traffickers dressed in police SWAT uniforms attacked the home of a renegade drug dealer with high caliber weapons and killed him. Most U.S. narco-violence still takes place within cartel structures, but it is only a matter of time before it spills onto the streets.

Despite the direct threat to U.S. security arising from the narco-cartels, the Bush administration has paid little attention to the escalating crisis. “At a U.S. national security level, Mexico ranks very low. The violence has been on the rise since the middle of former president Fox's administration, but only a couple weeks ago did Bush send Condoleezza Rice down to have a chat,” said Logan.

Rice's visit marked this year’s U.S.-Mexican “Merida Initiative,” signed into U.S. law in June. The Merida Initiative is a U.S. aid package, providing $400 million of anti-narcotics assistance to Mexico in the form of helicopters, training and surveillance equipment, among other things.

Four hundred million dollars might sound like an impressive figure, until compared with the estimated $4 billion the United States has poured into Georgia since 2004 – a country with two percent of Mexico’s population, located on a different continent. Meanwhile, according to Bagley, “Most Mexicans continue to blame the United States” for the crisis. The Merida Initiative has at least symbolic importance, as “a sign of U.S. acceptance of co-responsibility.”

But, judging by the U.S. presidential campaign, U.S. foreign policy is not likely to pay closer attention to Mexico and to its security crisis anytime soon. This glaring evidence of skewed U.S. foreign policy priorities is all too reminiscent of the 2000 election campaign - and the complete failure to anticipate the devastating September 11 terrorist attacks just one year later.

In the George Bush-Al Gore debates of 2000, just as in the Barack Obama-John McCain ones in 2008, foreign policy discussion waxed lyrical about containing Russia – with Serbia and Kosovo in 2000 taking the place of this year’s Georgia and Ossetia. Bizarre as it may seem in hindsight, such was the concern with Russia in the 2000 presidential debates that neither candidate once mentioned Al Qaida, Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan or international terrorism.

Two of Mexico’s top crime fighters died in a plane crash Tuesday night, leaving the government’s cabinet in tatters and serious questions hanging over the future of the country’s anti-narcotics strategy.

The victims were Juan Camilo Mouri?o, government secretary and the man responsible for coordinating Mexico’s war against organised crime, a close ally and confidant of president calderon, and Jos? Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a presidential advisor on security issues. According to local media reports, several motorists also died after the plane carrying the government officials ploughed into rush-hour traffic in Mexico City.

The news of the deaths will doubtless come as devastating news for Felipe Calder?n, Mexico’s centre-right president. Mr Calderon appointed Mouri?o to the post of government secretary in January this year, and considered him both a personal friend and a close confidant.

His comments come as George W. Bush, US president, this month signed into law the Merida Initiative, an aid package that will provide $400m of anti-narcotics assistance to Mexico this year.

The aid will provide Mexican authorities with helicopters, training and surveillance equipment, among other things. It is believed Cisen will receive only about $20m of the assistance.

Violence resulting from Mexico's drugs war has climbed to alarming levels. According to figures that the government's public security cabinet is expected to release this week, there were 443 drug-related murders last month alone.
That is by far the highest monthly tally since Felipe Calder?n, Mexico's president, declared war against organised crime when he took office in December 2006.

Mr Vald?s' remarks on the threat to Mexico's national Congress come as some of its members have expressed outrage at the discovery last month that Cisen had hired a private company to investigate their movements.
Mr Vald?s defended the decision, arguing the investigations were within Cisen's legal remit. However, he said it was still far too early to tell whether the drugs cartels had managed to co-opt any of Congress' members. "Those types of investigations are only just beginning," he said, but added: "It is a real risk."
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