Pubdate: Thu, 26 Feb 2009
Source: Buenos Aires Herald (Argentina)
Copyright: 2009 S.A. The Buenos Aires Herald Ltd.
Author: David Rieff


MEXICO CITY - Shortly before America's election last November, then
vice-presidential candidate Joseph Biden was widely criticized for
predicting that an Obama administration would almostcertainly be
tested by what he called a "generated" international crisis, in much
the way that the Soviet Union "tested" John Kennedy shortly after he
took office. Mr. Biden did not point to a specific region of the world
but mentioned the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Russia as
the likeliest sources of trouble for the new President.

Impolitic or not, Mr. Biden's anxieties seem to have informed several
of the administration's early foreign-policy decisions. These include
Mr. Biden's own extension of an olive branch to Russia at the recent
Munich Security Conference, and Barack Obama's appointment of Richard
Holbrooke as special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistanand of George
Mitchell to a similar post for Israel and Palestine.

But as pressing as the Middle East, South Asia and Russia (as well as
Iran and North Korea) are, another crisis looms far closer to home.
That crisis is in Mexico, which is in freefall, its state institutions
under threat as they have not been since at least the Cristero
uprising of the late 1920s and possibly since the Mexican Revolution
of 1910. While the Obama administration is obviously aware of what's
happening south of the Rio Grande, the threat simply does not command
the attention that its gravity requires.

The crisis is nothing less than an effort by the major drug cartels to
tame and suborn the Mexican state, and not just in the strip along the
U.S. border, although the epicentre is there. Obviously, the cartels'
leaders do not have designs on Mexico's presidential palace. But
through a policy of terror extending from Oaxaca in the south, through
Acapulco on the Pacific coast, and up to the great border cities of
Tijuana and Juarez, they have made it abundantly clear that they are
trying to achieve impunity.

The only recent parallel in Latin America was a similar effort 15
years ago by the Colombian drug cartels. That disguised coup failed -
barely - and there is no guarantee that the result will be similar
this time around in Mexico.

Journalists with long experience of war zones report being more
worried about their safety in Mexico than when they were in Bosnia,
Afghanistan or Iraq, although much of the violence is internecine. Of
the thousands who have been killed, often after being tortured, many,
if not most, have been members of the drug cartels and their families.

But it's the campaign of targeted assassination against any Mexican
official who seems to pose a serious threat to the cartels' operations
that makes the crisis so dire. First, in May of 2007, the cartels
killed Jose Nemesio Lugo Felix, the general co-ordinator of
information at the National Centre for Planning and Analysis to Combat
Organized Crime. Soon after, a hit man murdered Edgar Milan Gomez,
Mexico's highest-ranking federal police official.

In November of 2008, a plane carrying Juan Camilo Mourino, Mexico's
national security adviser, crashed under mysterious circumstances. And
very recently, retired general Mauro Enrique Tello Quinones, one of
the most decorated officers in the Mexican army, was abducted,
tortured and killed less than a week after assuming a new position as
anti-drug chief in the resort city of Cancun.

For all the lip service paid to relations with Mexico (and, indeed,
with Latin America more generally) from Franklin Roosevelt to Mr.
Obama, the truth is that developments in Mexico have always got short
shrift from U.S. presidents. Illegal immigration is a major issue, to
be sure, as is the drug trade. But the U.S. government has always
regarded them as domestic American issues rather than as key
foreign-policy concerns.

It is true that Mr. Obama has received Mexican President Felipe
Calderon, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked almost
nothing about Mexico at her confirmation hearings, and she emphasized
relations with Mexico neither in her own statement nor in those she
has made since assuming her post.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom in the United States is that Mexico
policy regarding illegal immigration and drugs will be the province of
the new Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano. (Ms.
Napolitano, citing the threat of Mexico's drug cartels, announced
steps this week aimed at preventing the spillover of violence into her
country.) The Treasury and Commerce Departments, meanwhile, will
handle trade policy concerning the North American free-trade agreement.

This is the way Mexico policy has been run for decades. And offensive
as this has been to Mexican sensibilities - and harmful to finding
long-term solutions to America's immigration dilemma - these
complacent arrangements have never presented such a clear and present
danger as they do today.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin