Securing Mexico with US Aid

(International Relations and Security Network, 15/08/2007)


At the 20 August presidential summit of NAFTA partner countries, international observes expect an important announcement that has more to do with security than trade.


Since March, Mexican and US law enforcement leaders have maintained secretive talks about deepening cooperation between the neighboring countries to combat organized crime and illegal trafficking. A firm agreement remains elusive, but some indication of progress is expected during the summit.


After seven months of taking the fight to Mexico's drug trafficking organizations, President Felipe Calderon has gained some popularity and support in a divided Mexican congress. But in terms of combating organized crime, he has proven one sobering fact: Mexican organized crime has the arsenal and financial resources to take on the state. Calderon's one remaining option is to solicit international help, and the US is a logical partner.


Many in Washington are impressed with Calderon's nearly immediate offensive on organized crime. In seven months he has deployed some 24,000 troops around the country. He has demonstrated a no-nonsense attitude, proving that he is capable of and willing to meet the US halfway to do what it takes to make Mexico - and by extension the US - a safer place to live and work.


But some challenges stand in the way. Mexicans are very sensitive to any direct assistance from the US. In one poll conducted by the Mexican daily Milenio in mid-June, some 77 percent of those polled said they were opposed to US military assistance. The same percentage said they were against financial assistance. Sovereignty is clearly at the center of this concern.


Sensitive to this public sentiment, Mexican leaders, when speaking of the plan anonymously, have emphasized that the talks focus on deepening cooperation. There is absolutely no plan for US military involvement, they've told local media. Not including the military, however, is the just beginning of a long Mexican wish list.


The nuts and bolts of this plan would likely include training for Mexican police, with funding for advance surveillance equipment and other spying technology. There has also been talk of centralizing Mexico's intelligence functions into one large datacenter.


Meanwhile, Calderon repeatedly has expressed his expectations that the US provide more than training and money.


As many as 2,000 weapons cross the border from the US into Mexico every day, according to Cuauhtemoc Sandoval, a member of Mexico's national defense committee. Even if this number is inflated, most agree the US must do more to stymie illegal gun smuggling.


Bulk cash smuggling is also a problem. Money laundering controls are much looser outside the US, so smuggling bulk sums of cash has been a tactic that to date appears to be an unexploited weakness in Mexican drug smuggling cycles.


Perhaps more important, however, is the call for the US to focus on drug demand - a long-standing request from a number of Latin American nations as well as media outlets, NGOs and other organizations in the US.


Simple economics dictate that demand for drugs in the US drives black markets in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Colombia.


Despite the make-up of any package to assist Mexico, President George W Bush will find Congressional support lacking. Any assistance package for Mexico will have to pass through Congress, already rankled over large spending bills for the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Once the framework of the plan solidifies, Bush will have a small window of time to push it through for Congressional approval before the US presidential elections take over national attention.


Calderon knows Bush is his best shot at securing a comprehensive security agreement. He too would like to have positive results to point out to the Mexican electorate well before the mid-term Congressional elections in 2009.


The political will for both leaders is in place, as are a number of working relationships between the leaders of Mexican and US law enforcement officials. What remains is to nail down the details and convince legislators on both sides of the border that there were be a return on investment in terms of improved security.