What Mexico really needs from Obama

President Obama should not focus exclusively on short-term military goals during his visit to Mexico this week. The violence there, which has taken the lives of 10,000 Mexicans over the last two years, must be stopped. But the helicopters, weapons scanners and listening devices that have been the cornerstone of promised U.S. support will only go so far. The real solution lies in effective institution-building.

It does no good to capture drug kingpins if they don’t go to jail. During 2008, only one out of every 10 suspects arrested in Mexico for drug offenses was convicted, according to official statistics. In Chihuahua, one of the bloodiest states in the country, only 1,621 out of the 5,674 suspects arrested over the last 12 months have even had to stand trial, because of the weakness of the prosecutors’ cases.

Almost a decade ago, the U.N. special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Param Cumaraswamy, discovered fundamental problems of inequality and inefficiency with Mexico’s system of criminal justice. Today, the grim picture he painted has changed little. Mexico’s jails remain full of petty thieves while serious criminals with money and connections roam the streets.

Last year, Mexico passed a major constitutional reform that would introduce oral trials -- to replace trials conducted only through written documents -- and transform the role of government prosecutors. The goals are to reduce case backlogs by speeding up trials, to prevent corruption by increasing transparency and to improve criminal investigations by dropping the requirement that prosecutors issue a preliminary judgment on the culpability of suspects. With this latter change, prosecutors would be able to dedicate themselves exclusively to investigating cases and avoid conflicts of interests. But the authorities have dragged their feet on implementation. Congress has delayed passing all of the necessary follow-up legislation, and the commission created by the reform, with representatives from the executive, judiciary and legislative branches, has not convened.

Crimes against journalists, especially those who cover the drug trade, are another important problem. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, Mexico is one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world. Since 2000, 25 journalists have been killed. The problem is so acute in the northern states that reporters often write anonymously, and editors receive constant threats. The Mexican government has not done enough to combat this problem.

President Felipe Calderon has rolled out the military against drug traffickers, but he’s faltered in fighting corruption in law enforcement. The center of his strategy has been to submit all police officers to “confidence control” reviews. This search for “bad apples” neglects deeper institutional issues.

Mexico should grant full autonomy and expand funding for the key federal agencies responsible for fighting corruption, following the lead of other countries in the region, such as Ecuador, Brazil and Colombia. It should also submit police and military personnel to stronger independent scrutiny. Today, investigations of wrongdoing by public officials typically are marred by conflicts of interest and political manipulation.

But Calderon’s most important failing has been his political isolation. Instead of reaching out to former allies on the political left -- whom he joined with only a decade ago to end the rule of the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI -- he has depleted his political capital by relying exclusively on loyalists from his right-wing National Action Party. The result has been a dangerous resurgence of the PRI, as Calderon increasingly depends on cutting political deals with the old authoritarian party to get laws through Congress and assure stable governance. This is a worrisome trend because the neglect and complicity of PRI governments of the past are directly responsible for the current strength of Mexico’s drug cartels.

The Obama administration seems to be unaware of these deeper institutional issues. During her recent trip to Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t push Calderon on corruption control, human rights, freedom of the press, institutional reform or political reconciliation. She also went out of her way to cater to conservative constituencies. Her visit to Mexico’s principal basilica implied a nod to Calderon’s efforts to narrow the traditional separation between church and state. Her choice to travel to the city of Monterrey, home to the most powerful members of Mexico’s corporate oligarchy, also sent a clear signal about the priorities of the U.S. government.

Obama’s recognition that U.S. drug consumption and guns fuel the violence south of the border is an important step forward. But the administration has yet to break the mold of past policies. Only 15% of the funds in the $1.4-billion Merida Initiative signed by President Bush last year is earmarked for “institution building and rule of law.” If Obama hopes to contribute to long-term solutions, he should dramatically increase this percentage in future aid packages.

He should also meet with opposition leaders during his visit this week. The ruling party is 10 points behind in the polls for the upcoming July congressional elections, and Calderon will try to use Obama’s visit to boost his falling popularity. A meeting between Obama and like-minded leaders on the political left in Mexico would send a much-needed message that the U.S. president is interested in the future prosperity of all Mexicans, not just the wealthy and powerful linked to the present administration.

During a recent interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Obama made an unfortunate comparison between Calderon and Eliot Ness. Just as Ness eventually failed to defeat the Chicago Mafia during Prohibition in the 1920s and ‘30s, Mexico’s problems will not be solved by placing high-powered weapons into the hands of a group of supposedly “untouchable” elite police officers. The United States needs to think of more creative ways to help build lasting peace and stability south of the Rio Grande.

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a columnist for Proceso magazine and La Jornada newspaper.