Pubdate: Thu, 25 Mar 2010
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2010 The Economist Newspaper Limited


Turning to the Gringos for Help

As Drug-Related Violence Continues to Rise, Mexican and American 
Officials Unveil Plans for Unprecedented Security CO-Operation. but 
Will They Work?

LAST March, after Mexican officials took offence at warnings from 
their American counterparts about security south of the border, 
Hillary Clinton travelled to Mexico City to repair the diplomatic 
damage. The secretary of state accepted blame for her country's 
demand for illegal drugs, recognised its need to control the 
southward flow of guns and cash, and vowed that the United States 
would be an equal partner in the "war" against drug gangs and 
organised crime declared by Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon. Some 
of those promises have been kept, in a modest way: over the past 
year, Barack Obama's administration has seized a little bit more drug 
money, begun to search southbound freight trains, examined its budget 
for trying to cut drug demand and raised it by 13%, and shared 
intelligence that led to the finding (and death) of a top drug trafficker.

But the drug "war" in Mexico has intensified, with 6,600 killings 
last year, up from 5,800 in 2008. This year has started badly. In the 
border city of Ciudad Juarez, 555 people have already died in 2010, 
compared with 449 in the first quarter of 2009. The violence is 
starting to strike innocents. In January 16 teenagers at a party were 
massacred in Juarez. Two students at Monterrey's Technological 
Institute were killed in crossfire this month; afterwards the 
traffickers organised roadblocks of stolen and torched vehicles, 
causing chaos in the city, Mexico's industrial capital.

In Reynosa the Gulf "cartel" and its former armed wing, the Zetas, 
concealed their violent split for weeks by threatening local 
journalists, killing one. Residents were reduced to finding out about 
the gun battles they heard nearby on Facebook and Twitter. On March 
13th the traffickers broke a taboo against taking on the United 
States. In simultaneous drive-by shootings, gunmen killed a visa 
worker at the American consulate in Juarez, along with her husband 
and that of another employee there.

Faced with such a grim panorama, this week Mrs Clinton returned to 
Mexico City, accompanied by the entire American national-security 
team. She reiterated many of the same arguments. But this time both 
sides wanted more than soothing rhetoric.

After three years of throwing some 50,000 troops against the drug 
gangs, Mr Calderon is now trying to broaden his strategy. In tandem 
with American officials, his government has announced a new plan to 
fight organised crime. This will be enacted in pilot programmes in 
Juarez and Tijuana, the two biggest border cities. It includes 
customised attempts to dismantle each gang through intelligence; 
spending on social development in violent areas; and a promise to 
speed up a glacial effort to overhaul police forces and the courts.

All of this will require far greater teamwork with the United States. 
American officials say that the new plan calls for more intelligence 
sharing, with "fusion centres" where American agents are embedded 
with Mexican analysts. American police will step up training and 
vetting of their counterparts. To try to prevent security worries 
clogging cross-border trade, American customs officials may be posted 
throughout Mexico. "Secure corridors" would be set up where goods 
could be tracked to the border. Mrs Clinton announced that the Merida 
Initiative, a $1.3 billion anti-drug aid effort for Mexico involving 
hardware and training, will be followed by $331m for social 
programmes and to strengthen the courts.

In the past this closer American involvement would have prompted 
Mexican outrage over the violation of its sovereignty. The mood is 
changing. In the run-up to Mrs Clinton's visit both Mexico's 
ambassador to the United States and the general in charge of its 
defence college declared that the country needed international help 
to win the drug war. "It was unprecedented for a high-level member of 
the Mexican army to say that," says Denise Dresser, a political 
scientist at ITAM, a Mexico City university. "But the situation has 
gotten so bad that you're starting to see a wearing down of that 
reflexive, historical anti-Americanism."

Yet compared with the $18 billion-39 billion that the drug gangs are 
officially estimated to send south each year, American aid to Mexico 
remains small. And only $128m of the money promised under the Merida 
Initiative, signed in 2008, has been disbursed.

American officials point to the relative success of Plan Colombia, a 
much bigger aid programme, in reducing drug-related violence in that 
country. But Mexico poses some unique difficulties. It is bigger and 
richer but more decentralised, with weaker police forces and courts. 
Colombia has let several hundred American military advisers operate 
in its territory. Some of the training of Mexicans takes place in the 
United States. Mexican officials refuse to put American agents in 
operational roles. "That takes a lot of options off the table," says 
Scott Stewart of Stratfor, an intelligence consultancy. "There's only 
so much you can do in the classroom instead of out on the streets." 
And the Obama administration has ruled out seeking a new ban on the 
sale of assault weapons in American gunshops-the main source of the 
mobsters' weaponry.

The new strategy looks more promising, but as always success will 
depend on implementation. Polls suggest that Mexicans' previous 
support for Mr Calderon's crusade against the drug gangs is wearing 
thin. In one recent poll only 21% of respondents said that it had 
made the country safer, whereas half thought it had heightened the 
danger. Mr Calderon's term ends in 2012, and his successor may not be 
equally committed to vanquishing organised crime. The new long-term 
plan will have to show some short-term results.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake