Pubdate: Wed, 21 Jan 2009
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2009 Independent Media Institute
Author: Phillip S. Smith, DRCNet


President-elect Barack Obama met Monday with Mexican President Felipe
Calderon to discuss bilateral issues of major importance for the two
countries. In addition to NAFTA and immigration policy, Mexico's
ongoing plague of prohibition-related violence was high on the agenda.
More than 5,400 people were killed in the violence last year, and more
than 8,000 in the two years since Calderon ratcheted up Mexico's drug
war by sending thousands of troops into the fray. The multi-sided
conflict pits rival trafficking groups -- the so-called cartels --
against each and the Mexican state, but has also seen pitched battles
between rival law enforcement units where one group or the other is in
the pay of the traffickers.

The Obama-Calderon meeting comes as the violence in Mexico is creating
increasing concern among US policy and defense analysts. Last month,
the National Drug Intelligence Center warned in its National Drug
Threat Assessment 2009 that "Mexico drug trafficking organizations
represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States."

In a December report to the US Military Academy at West Point, former
drug czar retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey warned dramatically that even
the $1.4 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance plan approved by
Congress and the Bush administration last year was barely a drop in
the bucket, noting that it was only a tiny fraction of the money spent
on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The stakes in Mexico are enormous," McCaffrey warned. "We cannot
afford to have a narco state as a neighbor. Mexico is not confronting
dangerous criminality -- it is fighting for its survival against

The consequences of US failure to act decisively in support of
Calderon's drug war would be dire, McCaffrey warned. "A failure by the
Mexican political system to curtail lawlessness and violence could
result in a surge of millions of refugees crossing the US border to
escape the domestic misery of violence ... and the mindless cruelty
and injustice of a criminal state."

This week, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff jumped on the bandwagon. In
their report, The Joint Operating Environment 2008, which examines
global threats to the US, the Joint Chiefs warned that Mexico was one
of the two countries most in danger of becoming a failed state. The
other was Pakistan.

"The Mexican possibility may seem less likely," the report noted, "but
the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure
are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and
drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next
several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican
state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American
response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."

But for all the dire warnings of doom, the incoming president gave
little sign that he would do anything other than stay the course. Nor
did he suggest in any way that he would make a radical break with US
drug policy on the border. Obama has stated publicly that he supports
the Merida Initiative aid package, and Monday he limited his public
remarks to generalities.

Noting the "extraordinary relationship" between the US and Mexico,
Obama added: "Not only did we talk about security along the border
regions, how the United States can be helpful in Mexico's efforts, we
talked about immigration and how we can have a comprehensive and
thoughtful strategy that ultimately strengthens both countries."

Despite taking his first meeting with a head of foreign state with
President Calderon and pledging renewed cooperation, and despite the
chorus of cassandras crying for more action, analysts consulted by the
Drug War Chronicle said that given the raft of serious problems,
foreign and domestic, facing the Obama administration, Mexico and its
drug war are likely to remain second-tier issues. Nor is the Merida
Initiative going to be much help, they suggested.

"Obama is busy with other pressing issues," said Sanho Tree, drug
policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington,
DC-based think tank. "He just doesn't have the space and will to take
on this other fight in Mexico."

On the other hand, the border violence frightening US policy makers is
largely "a self-inflicted wound," Tree said. "Mix together high
domestic demand here, prohibition economics, and a tough law and order
approach, shake vigorously, and you have a disaster cocktail. It's not
like we didn't warn them," he said.

Also, Tree noted, despite the rising alarm in Washington, there is
little interest in opening a new front on the southern border. "Who
has the stomach to take this on right now?" he asked. "Who is
clamoring for this outside of institutional actors who want to protect
their budgets? There is a lot of war-weariness and budget shock in
this city, and that might leave some openings" for reform, he said.

"Probably not much will come of that meeting," said Tomas Ayuso,
Mexico analyst for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "Calderon was
pleading for Obama to put Mexico at the top of his list of priorities,
but given what Obama is facing, the Mexican drug war is not at the top
of his agenda."

Still, the situation in Mexico is serious and could get worse, Ayuso
said. "If this isn't addressed now, Mexico could really descend into
chaos. The drug cartels have virtually unlimited funding, their
coffers are overflowing. The shadow economy in which they operate is
booming, their operatives are armed to the teeth, and the next step is
to set up a shadow government. It's very easy for them to influence
people. They say: 'Accept our bribes or we'll kill you and your
family.'" Ayuso said. "It's pretty effective."

"This meeting looked mostly like generalities, but Obama has said
repeatedly during the campaign that he supports the Merida Initiative,
and that will most likely continue during his administration," said
Maureen Meyer, Mexico analyst for the Washington Office on Latin
America. "With more and more reports lately painting Mexico as a
security crisis, we are seeing a recognition by the new administration
that this is a priority, and it will continue cooperating with Mexico."

But the looming crisis on the border and in Mexico could provide
openings for reform, Meyer said. "We hope to have more openings to
reopen the debate on US drug policy internationally, and Mexico could
give us the opportunity to look at what has and has not worked in the
Andean region and Mexico as well," she said.

That debate could include modifications to the Merida Initiative,
which is heavily weighted toward military and law enforcement
equipment and training, said Meyer. "Congress has reiterated its
support for the Merida Initiative, but we've also seen a tendency to
redirect funding toward arms trafficking going south and demand here
in the US. The Congress will also, we hope, start to look away from
sending more equipment and toward more support for institutional
reforms. Helicopters aren't going to have any impact on Mexico's
underlying problems," she said.

The violence in Mexico could help further weaken already eroding
support for US drug policy in the hemisphere as a whole, said Ayuso.
"In Latin America, where most of the suffering is happening, many
countries are asking whether the Washington-led war on drugs is the
answer," he said. "That's something Calderon himself has brought up,
but Obama is probably not going to budge on that. Still, the chorus is
growing. More and more people want to re-evaluate the drug war."
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