A Plan Colombia for Mexico

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated week that Mexico and Central America were facing an "insurgency"
that requires the equivalent of a Plan Colombia in the region. Her
comments immediately raised the ire of the Mexican government and
sparked fears of expanded U.S. military intervention.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated week that Mexico and Central America were facing an "insurgency"
that requires the equivalent of a Plan Colombia in the region. Her
comments immediately raised the ire of the Mexican government and
sparked fears of expanded U.S. military intervention.

"[W]e face an increasing threat from a well-organized network drug
trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making
common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico and in
Central America," Clinton said. She added that "these drug cartels are
now showing more and more indices of insurgency; all of a sudden, car
bombs show up which weren't there before."

Ironically, Clinton was responding to a question on what the United
States was doing regarding its "responsibility for drugs coming north
and guns going south." Instead of answering the question, Clinton
compared Mexico to Colombia and made the boldest statement to date about
U.S. intervention, including military support, in Mexico's drug war.

"[I]t's looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago,"
Clinton said. "And Colombia -- it got to the point where more than a
third of the country, nearly 40 percent of the country at one time or
another was controlled by the insurgents, by FARC. But it's going to
take a combination of improved institutional capacity and better law
enforcement and, where appropriate, military support for that law
enforcement married to political will to be able to prevent this from
spreading and to try to beat it back." Clinton maintained that Plan
Colombia worked, adding, "We need to figure out what are the equivalents
for Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean."

Mexican Response

It took no time at all for members of Mexico's Congress to respond
with indignation. In session to analyze President Felipe Calderon's
fourth state of the union report, one representative noted that the U.S.
government was "good at criticizing other countries and not recognizing
that they are an important part of this dark chain of drug trafficking
and organized crime. The Mexican people should reject any
interventionist attitude on the part of the U.S. government." Some
members of the Mexican Congress demanded that the secretary of foreign relations send a formal note of protest to the Obama administration.

Secretary Patricia Espinosa stated
that she did not "share the judgment" of her northern counterpart, and
cabinet spokesperson Alejandro Poire rejected the comparison with

In Washington, Obama officials rushed in to do damage control. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela corrected his boss,
saying that the use of "the term insurgency should not be viewed in the
same way we would refer to a Colombian insurgency. Not an insurgency of
a militarized group within a society that is attempting to take over
the state for political reasons." Later, President Obama discarded the comparison in remarks to La Opinion.

The comment set off a small whirlwind within the Obama cabinet and in U.S.-Mexico diplomatic relations.

The Colombian Comparison

The only thing surprising about Clinton's concept is that she said it
out loud. The Merida Initiative was initially floated as "Plan Mexico,"
until the moniker was scrapped. The direct comparison with Plan
Colombia was considered a liability. In Mexico, the thought of U.S.
military presence riles nationalist sentiment. In the United States,
meanwhile, the negligent impact on drug trafficking and the rise in
human rights violations of the $7.3 billion Plan Colombia spark concerns
about copying it on the border.

By whatever name, the Bush plan for Mexico and Central America has
always borne a close relationship to its southern predecessor. Plan
Colombia began as a counter-narcotics plan, built along the drug war
model of enforcement and interdiction and use of the army, with close
U.S. participation. Plan Mexico does not include U.S. Army presence but
relies on the same model.

Clinton's willful conflation of insurgency and drug trafficking
arises from one of two possible sources: ignorance or malicious
misinformation. An insurgency seeks to take over territory to bring
about a profound change in the structure of society and, usually, take
over the government. Drug traffickers, despite Calderon's statements to
the contrary, do not launch offensives against the state to replace the
government. They're all about protecting and expanding their very
lucrative business. In part, the seemingly purposeful misunderstanding
of this distinction is at the root of the failed drug war policy.

If this were understood, the obvious strategy should be to attack the
business, not its operatives. Hiring cartel replacements is extremely
easy in Mexico. The cartels are flexible in structure, with new leaders
or rival gangs replacing displaced or weakened ones. There is an
inexhaustible pool of young men with few prospects in life in a country
where the government has failed to provide adequate educational or
employment opportunities.

Attacking the business means going after the transnational financial
structures that support it. Both governments have seemed reluctant to do
that forcefully since drug money flows through powerful mainstream
financial institutions, adds liquidity, and funds outwardly legitimate

Backwards Policymaking

Shortly before Clinton's remarks, the U.S. Congress appropriated
an additional $175 million for the Mexican drug war with no
comprehensive review or strategy analysis of the terrible results the
model has had to date. Drug-related violence has exploded south of the
border, with nearly 30,000 dead since the launch of the drug war in late
2006. Human rights violations charged against the army had gone up
sixfold by last year, and just in the past months Army forces have shot
and killed several civilians.

Elected representatives should appropriate our tax dollars based on a
careful analysis of how the resources will effectively attain goals
related to the public good. When it comes to defense appropriations in
general, and Plan Mexico as an extreme example, the modus operandi is spend now, and deal with the disastrous results later -- by spending more. A recent report from the General Accounting Office reported that the Merida Initiative does not even contain benchmarks by which to evaluate it.

The supplemental appropriation
to Mexico states that the provisions under the heading "International
Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement" require a report from the State
Department showing compliance with the requirements of Section 7045(e).
These "human rights conditions," which some legislators and Washington
groups pushed, reflected serious concerns that funds would be flowing to
notoriously corrupt and abusive security forces in Mexico. In practice,
however, Congress watered down the conditions so that they provided a
smokescreen to hide deeper concerns about the strategy. Congress ignored
criticisms of the Merida Initiative from the AFL-CIO and scores of
faith-based organizations, and approved five separate appropriations
totaling nearly $1.5 billion. The initiative morphed from a three-year
commitment to permanent engagement.

On September 5, Clinton announced that the U.S. government was
withholding 15 percent of the new supplemental based on the human rights
conditions. The Mexican government complained loudly and publicly, but
quietly celebrated. The math is pretty straightforward -- we'll give you
$175 million in extra funds but hold back $26 million, for a
net gain of $149 million. Both governments made sanctimonious
statements. The United States criticized Mexico while ignoring the fact
that transnational crime couldn't function without corruption within its
own borders. The Calderon administration protested its neighbor's fuss
over human rights when it has a war to fight. Even the mainstream press
noted the contradictions of the numbers game.

By now it would seem that the conditioning strategy for a kinder and
gentler drug war would be thoroughly discredited. The most generous
interpretation is that it was a strategy made by groups and
congressional members that misread the situation in Mexico, and the
nature of the new Pentagon-led binational relationship that was being
forged through the plan. Immediate rectification should be in order.
Instead, the Obama administration plans to request even more public
funds for the failed policy while paying lip service to human rights.

Mounting Doubts

The latest controversy over drug-trafficking policy in Mexico comes
in the midst of doubts on both sides of the border. Mexican senators of
political parties except Calderon's sharply criticized the "failure" of
the president's war drug war in a review of the administration's annual
report. The Revolutionary Institutional Party noted
that the yearly report submitted by Calderon showed fewer interdictions
and no notable rise in arrests from historic levels, with only 1.5
million pesos allotted to prevention of addiction. A member of the Party
of the Democratic Revolution decried the equation of "more resources,
more deaths," as the drug war has cost the depleted Mexican budget
nearly $7 billion dollars to date.

In the United States, doubts have also grown over the effectiveness
of the strategy. Deputy Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement Alonzo R. Pena complained
that the Mexican government often does not act on U.S. intelligence.
Pena noted that at times the reason for this could be caution, but at
others "it is completely corruption." In Washington, the rise in
negative consequences has led to concerns over the lack of an exit
strategy or a clearly defined path to success.

No magic formulas present themselves to solve the severely
deteriorating situation in Mexico. Nonetheless, Congress shouldn't
ignore the violence that has been unleashed under the current policy and
cannot accept the murders as collateral damage. Experts in Mexico
calculate that at this rate drug-related deaths will reach over 70,000 by the end of Calderon's presidency, with a rate of some 50 deaths a day throughout the country.

The United States must start by recognizing shared responsibility for
the growth of organized crime in Mexico. The United States also faces
major challenges within its own borders and shares responsibility for
supporting a drug war strategy that has so evidently increased the
brutality of drug cartels. There is a dearth of information on the
anti-corruption activities in the United States that have failed to
prevent, and indeed have facilitated, the transfer of illegal substances
across the border for distribution to cities coast to coast. Addiction
treatment and drug abuse prevention programs are woefully under-funded.
Measures like California's marijuana regulation referendum could
eliminate a huge chunk of cartel income by removing the drug from the
black market.

Clinton's comments reveal the strong currents within government that
seek to deepen U.S. involvement in the Mexican drug war. It is never
easy to admit a policy failure of this magnitude, or turn back plans
like Plan Mexico that involve the powerful lobbies of defense
contractors and private security companies. But Obama has shown the
courage to admit errors in the past and seek to rectify them. Both the
administration and Congress must show that kind of courage now to
profoundly reorient the out-of-control drug war on the border.

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