Pubdate: Thu, 19 Jun 2008
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2008 The Economist Newspaper Limited
Bookmark: (Mexico)


A Wary Friendship

Amid Bad Temper and Wounded Pride, Mexico and the United States Inch
Towards Compromise on a Plan to Boost the Fight Against Drug Crime

IN AMERICAN psyches, the war with Mexico of 1846-48 is muddled in with
many others, and earns no more than a passing mention in history
books. By contrast, every Mexican schoolchild is taught the story of
the "boy heroes"--six military cadets who fought to the death rather
than surrender to the invaders. Mexico lost nearly half its territory,
comprising what is now the south-western United States. Of course
relations have improved much since then, but history can still amplify
everyday strains. Trade and cross-border investment have flourished
under the North American Free-Trade Agreement of 1992. But recently
the relationship has come to be defined more by illegal commerce--in
people and especially in drugs.

At a meeting with George Bush in Merida in March 2007, Felipe Calderon
took an unusual step for a Mexican president: he asked the United
States to help him fight the criminal mafias based in his country that
supply much of his neighbour's drug habit. Under the "Merida
initiative", the Bush administration promised $1.4 billion over three
years in hardware (transport and surveillance planes, helicopters and
communications systems) and training, with another $100m for Central

This was controversial in Mexico--but also in Washington, DC. In the
hope of getting it approved swiftly, the administration tacked the aid
onto a bill for supplementary funds for the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. The Democrats in Congress were angry that they were not
consulted in more detail before the bill was drawn up.

In both the House and the Senate they responded with changes. These
assure funding only for the first year, in which Mexico will get only
$400m, subject to conditions. At one stage they also included a
requirement that Mexican troops accused of abuses should face civilian
trials. Another amendment proposed that human-rights groups should
judge whether the aid should continue.

These drafts prompted Mexico's government to say that it would reject
the aid. Under pressure from nationalists at home, officials had
stipulated that they would neither accept American troops operating on
their soil nor political conditions.

Weeks of negotiation between Mexico, the administration and the
Democrats now seem close to achieving a compromise. The latest
proposal says that 15% of the resources to be transferred will be
subject to America's State Department confirming that Mexico is
increasing the accountability of its police, and doing more to enforce
existing laws that ban torture and require civilian trials of abuses
by the security forces.

The debate was acrimonious. For many Mexicans it recalled a previous
ritual (toned down in 2001) when the State Department "certified" each
year whether other countries were co-operating in the "war" on drugs
while the United States was patently failing to win this at home. The
Merida initiative is supposed to set the seal on a new era in which
co-operation has replaced suspicion and name-calling.

In fact, if not in government rhetoric, it marks a small, incremental
change. The sums involved are not large. Mexico already spends $2.5
billion a year fighting drugs--while American officials reckon that up
to $20 billion of drug money crossed the border in cash alone last
year. Mexican and American drug fighters already work closely together
and share intelligence in a way that was previously unthinkable, notes
an official from America's Department of Homeland Security.

But the Mexicans, as well as America's Democrats, have grumbles.
Eduardo Medina Mora, Mexico's attorney-general, has repeatedly asked
the Americans to do more to stop the flow of illegal weapons from
north to south. In response, the United States' Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco and Firearms has started sharing information with Mexican
counterparts, says Thomas Shannon, the State Department's top official
for Latin America.

Mr Calderon launched his crackdown against the drug gangs because he
thought they were imperilling public safety and the functioning of the
state. But can it work? Some people in both countries argue that drug
prohibition is bound to fail. Many more students of the drug problem
have concluded that money spent on demand reduction has a much bigger
impact than attempts to curb supply.

More specifically, the aid can only work in the medium-term if Mexico
builds an effective national police force. Mr Calderon has deployed
thousands of army troops on a supposedly temporary--but apparently
indefinite--basis against the drug gangs. The federal police force is
partly composed of army units and officers on secondment. But the army
is not trained or equipped to do preventative police work or
investigation, says Juan Salgado, a policing specialist at the
Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. He thinks American training
might be better used to strengthen local police forces.

Mexican officials hope that the Merida aid will bring some useful kit
and send a message to the drug gangs that Mr Calderon has allies. It
shows that at an official level at least, relations between Mexico and
the United States are much more constructive than they were. But they
remain less harmonious than those between, say, Canada and the United
States. Mexico's inability to police itself, and America's prohibition
of, but continued demand for, illegal migrants and drugs ensure that.
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