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Mexico Drug Threat Divides Obama Administration

By Ray Walser

After a major foreign policy speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked to comment on the drug violence in Mexico. She answered quite frankly:

We face an increasing threat from a well-organized network drug trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico and in Central America.

The Mexican government quickly challenged the statement. The Secretary’s top diplomat for Latin America, Arturo Valenzuela, also questioned the correctness of the Secretary’s views. He asserted that Mexico in 2010 is quite unlike Colombia in the 1990s since there are no “armed group aiming to seize political power.” Valenzuela viewed the Mexican cartels as violent and dangerous but essentially lacking the political clout and ideological purpose that characterized the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the late 1990s. Yet, Valenzuela failed to mention how FARC evolved from a political insurgency to a narco-terrorist organization that survives on the cocaine trade.

Spiraling violence, assaults on political authority, military-like firefights: these all seem to validate Secretary Clinton’s concerns. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual, for example, noted in an important speech that:

Cartel-driven violence has moved … to Mexico’s business capital, Monterrey… The security environment in Monterrey has turned, in just months, from seeming benevolence to extreme violence… The total number of cartel-related executions for 2010 has already exceeded the combined total for the previous 12 years. [U.S. schoolchildren in Monterrey have been sent back to the U.S. as they were in Colombia in the 1980s.]

Yet the current U.S. military definition of insurgency tends to support Valenzuela’s views.

An organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict…Political power is the central issue in an insurgency, and each side has this as its aim.

Even the White House jumped into this increasingly confusing debate. President Obama told Spanish language La Opinion, “you can’t compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened in Colombia,” seeking to calm fears raised by Secretary Clinton.

Thus it appears that the widespread, terroristic violence of Mexican cartels falls short of an insurgency because it lacks a well-defined political program and does not formally control territory, a technical point certainly lost on millions of Mexicans living in the shadows of fear and outright terror.

In addition to demonstrating a lack of coordination, the Mexico-Colombia debate highlights a rift in management philosophies at the State Department and White House.  Many officials prefer to play down the security/insurgency challenge in Mexico and still want to shift policy away from the “failed war on drugs.”

They do not want another Plan Colombia and prefer softer assistance approaches aimed at institution-building, anti-corruption measures, legal reform, and human rights training rather than applications of hard power or grants to purchase of police and military hardware.  They seek to demilitarize and de-narcotize U.S. policy and see the emphasis on drugs, violence, and insurgency as upsetting the sensitivities of our southern neighbors and hampering a diplomacy of friendly gestures.

Despite the unresolved insurgency debate, the bottom line remains worrisome.  The situation in Mexico is supremely troubling and constitutes a national security threat.  Design, funding, programs and delivery of counter-drug assistance for Mexico and the region as a whole is fiercely debated within the Administration and Congress.  Metrics for success in the drug fight are limited.  Many fear the project is failing.  Spending for demand and supply reduction is flat-lined at $15 billion.  Yet, shrinking the danger is good politics for the White House.

With his leadership on matters relating to Latin America and the drug issue still as yet unproven, President Obama generally steers clear of contentious hemispheric issues.  Yesterday, however, he challenged the views of his Secretary of State.  While the Administration is uncomfortable with some of the flawed assumptions and aspects of its policy toward Mexico, it does not want Mexico’s drug violence let alone an “insurgency problem” to become a distracting issue in November.


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