Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a dangerous mistake Wednesday when she spoke of Mexico’s drug cartels as “insurgents” and suggested reviving President Clinton’s Plan Colombia to address the issue. That program set up U.S. military bases in Colombia and funneled billions of dollars in military aid to fight the country’s drug-trafficking left-wing insurgency. The last thing the United States needs today is a new quagmire south of the Rio Grande.
Mexico is different from Colombia. Colombia was up against a rebel organization bent on taking over the government. In contrast, Mexican drug traffickers are businessmen who we can assume are principally concerned with increasing their profits. In the end, they prefer to use “silver,” or bribes, over “lead,” or bullets. Although they are quick to kill or decapitate members of rival gangs, they much prefer a pliant police officer, soldier or mayor to a dead one. This is why government officials make up such a small percentage of the dead — only about 3,000 out of 28,000, according to official statistics.
The deployment of U.S. combat troops on Mexican soil could also have the look and feel of a foreign invasion. This would not be the first time the U.S. literally crossed the line. Between 1846 and 1848, the U.S. conquered a third of Mexico’s territory. In 1914, the U.S. occupied the strategic port city of Veracruz. In 1917, as the modern Mexican Constitution was being drafted, U.S. troops crossed the border in a failed pursuit of Pancho Villa.
The Mexican people are therefore much more wary than the Colombians of any sort of military relationship with the United States. This is particularly the case this year, as Mexico celebrates the bicentennial of its independence from Spain and the issue of sovereignty is in the forefront of public discussion.
Plan Colombia was highly problematic. More than $4 billion of military aid and the construction of U.S. military bases did reduce the violence. Nevertheless, Colombian cocaine still flows freely into the U.S. market and is one of the most important sources of income for the Mexican cartels.
U.S. military support in Colombia also led to skyrocketing human rights abuses and numerous “disappeared” citizens, at a considerable cost to the country’s social fabric. Nongovernmental organization and media reports have found that much of the aid was channeled to paramilitary groups and that the U.S. presence emboldened the Colombian military to act with impunity.
The Obama administration is right to consider boosting funding to Mexico. Secretary of State Clinton is also correct to push for more “political will” south of the border. Last week’s decision to withhold $26 million in aid to Mexico on human rights grounds is a breath of fresh air. Recent statements by top U.S. government officials about corruption in Mexico are also a welcome break from the past.
But increased militarization is not the solution. As Alonzo R. Pena, deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said last week to The Times, “Giving the Mexican government 12 new Black Hawk helicopters to fight the drug lords has no value if corrupt officials tip off the cartels before the choppers swoop in.” Mexico urgently needs to take the corruption problem head-on.
There is evidence that some progress might be taking place on this front. Last week, the government announced that it had fired 10% of the federal police force because the agents had not passed their “confidence control” exams, which include lie detector and drug tests. Another 5% are subject to investigations and also may be expelled.
In addition, the recent increase in direct attacks on public officials may be a sad indication that something is actually working in Mexico’s attempt to clean up government. Nine municipal presidents, one candidate for governor and numerous police chiefs have been assassinated in recent months. Although it is always possible that these officials were killed because they favored one gang over another, at least in some cases the gangs were responding to anti-corruption efforts.
But it is simply naive to think that confidence control exams and a few honest government heroes will do the trick. Mexico needs to implement powerful institutional solutions that change the incentive equation for government officials. Specifically, it should create a new, fully independent and well-funded anti-corruption commission to work closely with civil society to oversee, investigate and catch wrongdoing by public servants. Today, Mexico has nothing even close to such an institution.
Another strategic move would be to aggressively fund and support independent investigative journalism and alternative media outlets, which have played a major role in holding government accountable. Journalism has become a high-risk profession in Mexico. Both cartels and the government have done their best to suppress the truth about corruption.
Unfortunately, neither strong anti-corruption agencies nor support for journalists have formed a part of the new focus on social programs, which months ago the Obama administration suggested as a possible focus for future funding to Mexico. Under the influence of the Calderon government, most of the talk has been about much “softer” initiatives, such as drug education, urban renewal, scholarships and community development programs. All of this is fine, but none of it will attack the roots of the present failure to rein in the drug cartels in Mexico.
It is time to turn the corner in U.S. policy toward Mexico. Instead of sending more money down the black hole of attack helicopters, military bases or social development programs, the U.S. could make a significant contribution to peace in North America by helping to aggressively combat corruption and supporting freedom of expression.
John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, editor-in-chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist for La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine. johnackerman.blogspot.com