As recent tradition would have it, Felipe Calderon was the first foreign leader to meet with President-elect Obama since winning the Nov. 4 election. During their often interrupted 90 minute-long conversation, the leaders discussed several topics of shared interest. The deeply troubling security situation in Mexico (which may not have been adequately appreciated until now by the incoming president), a snap-shot of the current status of the immigration imbroglio and the future of NAFTA during the current economic recession, were amongst the most pressing issues. Calderon mainly pushed Obama to continue U.S. assistance in responding to the narco-fueled violence that has paralyzed Mexican society since Calderon’s election in 2006.
“The more secure Mexico is, the more secure [the] U.S. will be,” said Calderon referring to the importance of U.S. cooperation in the struggle to halt the expanding crime wave from spreading even further. Recently, the U.S. released another $99 million dollars of the proposed $1.3 billion allocated to the Merida Initiative program that was engineered under the Bush administration. Obama mechanically praised Calderon’s troubled anti-drug offensive and pledged to help stop the southbound flow of weapons and laundered U.S. funds that fuel the drug cartels’ enterprises, and pledged to continue to back the Merida Initiative framework. But, under the present perilous economic situation it will remain to be seen whether the administration will be able to continue funding the program at the present level.
The Mexican president expressed strong opposition to Obama’s campaign promise of reengineering NAFTA, a topic that was pressed but brought only perfunctory acknowledgements from the new administration’s spokesperson, Robert Gibbs, “[Obama] expressed his continued commitment to upgrading NAFTA to strengthen labor and environmental provisions to reflect the values that are widely shared in both of our countries.” Mexico City has generally opposed NAFTA revisions as they would be likely to reduce local production while reducing exports abroad as well as inducing further northbound immigration due to a contraction of its economy.
Obama, who won the election partly due to a historically large Latino vote, has promised to mend hemispheric relations, particularly with Mexico, which suffered from woeful neglect under the Bush administration. Calderon and Obama both demonstrated a great deal of optimism and confidence in what was labeled “an extraordinary relationship” during their conversation; but caution will remain as the same was said when Bush met with Vicente Fox after he assumed office.
The Contagion Spreads Southward
The comparatively weak security apparatus in Guatemala has been placed under strain by the expanding Mexican cartels within its borders. Rember Larios, director of Guatemala’s National Civilian Police (PNC), recently estimated that the figure for last year’s nation-wide violent death toll was 6,234, averaging an estimated 17 deaths per day, in a country of roughly 13 million. “Narcotrafficking has been the difference between the amount of violent deaths in 2007 and 2008. Therefore all our strategies and tactics that we will apply in 2009 will be to fight this social phenomenon,” said Larios in reference to the difficulties Guatemala’s already over-extended and pervasively corrupt security forces are now having to deal with.
President Colom, who was elected last year on the promise of alleviating Guatemala’s poverty woes, admitted to the Guatemalan daily Nuestro Diario that “Our perception failed. We had a plan [for 2008], but on the way we realized that the topic of security is deeper. Our projections did not anticipate the avalanche of Mexican narco-trafficking, which caused a lot of deaths.” President Colom now wants to begin his second year as president by eliminating corruption, and augmenting the country’s security forces. Since he made those statements, he has begun the new year by shaking up his cabinet and appointing Salvador Gándara as his interior minister. With widespread concern that he might take a mano dura approach to the crime issue, Gándara has said that he will produce short-term results in the face of Guatemala’s massive insecurity problems.
The Fragility of the US Border
There is potential for the same spillover phenomenon to occur along the United States-Mexico Border, as the flow of weapons continues with relative ease and the business continues to boom. The fiercest battles have been in the two largest U.S.-Mexican border cities: Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Tijuana has suffered a horrifying 843 violent murders in the past year, most of them attributed to the brutal Arellano-Felix cartel’s efforts to maintain control of the lucrative Tijuana smuggling corridor which runs into California, specifically San Diego. The fight to fill the power vacuum resulting from Arellano-Felix’s waning influence, has contributed to the undeniable insecurity the city has been forced to suffer.
A former lieutenant of the Arellano-Felix cartel, Teodoro Garcia, is trying to wrest control of Tijuana from his former bosses. Garcia, now being joined by Arellano’s rivals the Sinaloa Cartel, has gained notoriety for unparalleled violence by pursuing a brutal new business model for the cartel, one that adds kidnapping, assassinations and extortion in addition to his trafficking activities. Garcia’s henchmen’s acts in 2008, included sadistic torture, beheadings and dissolving victims in vats of acid, which shocked the local and international media. Tony Garza, current U.S. ambassador to Mexico, believes that the struggle against the cartels is going to take a long time to resolve, maybe one of the few times he got things right during his largely, irrelevant and intrusive ambassadorship.
The largest city in the state of Chihuahua, Ciudad Juarez, also gained infamy in 2008 due to fight over the El Paso smuggling route. In the year, violence in Ciudad Juarez spiked to around 1,500, people were gunned down in drug-related crimes. The turf war between the Sinaloa cartel and the Beltran Leyva brothers for jurisdictional control over the profitable Ciudad Juarez’s drug corridor, turned out to be the bloodiest battle ground for that year.
Much like in other parts of cartel-controlled territory, Mexican security forces had difficulties stemming the brutal clashes as decapitation, kidnappings as well as large numbers of accidental casualties of crossfire became a disturbing fact of life. The overwhelming corruption found within all ranks of the local state police has left Ciudad Juarez largely a grotesque and lawless entity. Even though several specific anti-corruption policies have been put into place and 2,000 troops have been performing random raids, available resources have been far too few to disrupt either the violence of the drug trade or increase the authorities’ control of the situation.
Failing State or Failing Policy?
The violence that characterized Mexico in 2008 has continued its escalation during the first two weeks of 2009. The question now is not whether the drug-cartels can be stopped, but how far is their influence going to reach. Central American governments are already being placed under heavy strain due to cartel related crime that can only be anticipated to grow even further. U.S. and Mexican border cities that share deeply rooted cultural ties will undoubtedly share similar social afflictions. This means that as Calderon’s offensive surely expands, the response from the cartel’s riposte will certainly grow as well. Tony Garza, former Bush aide turned Bush appointed ambassador, recently discussed these issues with the Dallas Morning News, “Calderón must, and will, keep the pressure on the cartels, but look, let’s not be naïve – there will be more violence, more blood, and, yes, things will get worse before they get better. That’s the nature of the battle. The more pressure the cartels feel, the more they’ll lash out like cornered animals.”
The issue has gained mainstream attention outside of Mexico, having been mentioned in reports authored by the Joint Forces Command and Gen. Barry McCaffrey. Both underline the same issue: the Mexican state is on the brink of losing control of its territory to the overwhelming power of the cartels. General McCaffrey strongly recommends President-elect Obama to reorganize his priorities and place Mexico at the top, as a failing Mexican state would create catastrophic security and economic repercussions across the region.
Calderon’s actions have revealed his resolve to fight the mounting threat on all its levels, yet it is clear that his administration’s resolve alone will not be enough to take on the cartel’s pursuit for the U.S. markets. Mexican and U.S. officials alike now see that it is only through true collaboration from the U.S. and other governments, as well as a coordinated strategy that addresses all facets of the menace, that regional security and stability will ever be a possibility.
Tomás Ayuso is an analyst with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.