Mexico News and Analysis: November 29 - December 5, 2010


Diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Mexico City to the State Department, released last week by WikiLeaks, reveal a distinct lack of confidence in President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs.  The cables discuss widespread corruption at all levels of the Mexican government, unhealthy competition among federal crime fighting agencies, an Army incapable of obtaining evidence that will stand up in court or respecting human rights, and a government rapidly losing control of certain territories, to the point where the Defense Secretary hoped Congress would declare a "state of exception" allowing the armed forces to act outside the Constitution.  Overall, the cables offer fascinating insight into US-Mexico relations.  They are available in their entirety at or any of the hundreds of WikiLeaks mirror sites (assuming the US government doesn't force the closure of these portals).
A January 2009 cable, dedicated mostly to an evaluation of Calderon's war on drugs, laments a surge in violence along the US-Mexico border, attributing it to "intensified struggle among cartels over a few lucrative land crossings into the US."  The author notes that cartel-related violence affects mostly security forces and those linked directly to the drug trade:  "The civilian population in some urban areas along the border remains bunkered down with some of those who have the money either sending their children to school in the U.S. or relocating entirely to minimize risk. In much of the rest of the country, though, the civilian population not involved in the drug trade remains essentially insulated from the violence..."  Despite many problems, the report notes a 65% reduction in maritime trafficking and a 90% decrease in drug imports by air from Colombia.
An October 5, 2009 cable discusses US-Mexico cooperation against organized crime in sometimes pessimistic and at other times wildly unrealistic terms.  Undersecretary of Governance Geronimo Gutierrez, one of the most powerful figures in the Calderon administration, lamented "we now have 18 months" to "produce tangible success that is recognizable to the Mexican people," as Calderon entered the final three years of his reign.  Gutierrez suggested a bilateral focus on two or three large cities: "If we could turn around Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and one other city such as Culican, it would solve 60% of the violence, and send a signal to the Mexican people that the war could be won."  More than a year later, Tijuana has made some progress on security issues, while Ciudad Juarez remains a violent city occupied by some 7,000 army troops and federal police, and Culican remains a haven for the Sinaloa Cartel.  In an October 10, 2009 cable, Gutierrez "expressed a real concern with 'losing' certain regions.  It is damaging Mexico's international reputation, hurting foreign investment, and leading to a sense of government impotence."  Gutierrez again suggested "fixing" problems in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, a plan that in hindsight appears largely to be a bureaucratic fantasy.
President Felipe Calderon was obsessed with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in an October 23, 2009 cable, accusing him of funding the opposition PRD in the 2006 presidential race.  Calderon warns, "Chavez uses social programs, including sending doctors, to curry political influence, and there are governors in Mexico who may be friendly to him."  This is likely an underhanded way of throwing suspicion on the PRI and PRD, opposition parties that control more than half of Mexico's 32 states.  The cables document repeated efforts by Calderon to curry favor with the US government, to the point of "trying to isolate Venezuela through the Rio Group."  In this effort, he failed spectacularly, as documented in a December 2, 2010 cable: "Mexico's ambitious plan to use its final Rio Group Presidency Summit (Cancun 22-23 February) to create a new more operational forum for regional cooperation failed dramatically."  The summit was, "poorly conceived, inadequately managed, and badly executed."  The rest of the cable is full of gossip about Latin America's leaders: "Chavez was his usual over the top self...  President Morales played the supporting role as Chavez' factotum...  President Correa used the meeting to try and divert money laundering allegations... "
The other four cables deal mainly with US-Mexico plans to combat narcotics cartels.  In an October 28, 2009 communication, Secretary of Defense Guillermo Galvan laments "the lack of legal basis for the military's domestic counternarcotics deployment as key to shaping the public's perception that the Armed Forces lack the appropriate authority to conduct such operations."  Galvan is pressing for a decree that, "could potentially suspend rights guaranteed in the first chapter of the constitution, including freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of passage, or some tenets of legal due process. The military, for example, might be granted broader detention authorities."  However, the Calderon administration is hesitant to provide the kind of blanket cover desired by the army, in large part because Congress would almost certainly not approve it, "indeed, Calderon instead might run the risk of having his hands tied by Congress" if he opens the door to Congressional involvement in decision-making.  Throughout the cables, the Army comes off as an unwieldy bureaucracy under siege from human rights groups, unable to move quickly when intelligence is available on cartel movements, and jealous of other federal agencies, particularly the Navy which has had some success recently in attacking "high value targets." 

A November 10, 2009 cable offers an in depth evaluation of Mexico's intelligence gathering capabilities.  Embassy personnel are most impressed by the Mexican National intelligence Center (CISEN), the internal intelligence organization responsible for much of the country's political repression in past decades, though the cable laments the inability of CISEN to coordinate effectively with other security agencies, especially the Secretary of Public Security (SSP).  The cable is particularly critical of the Secretary of Defense (SEDENA), which "has well-established intel units that develop targeting packages on cartel kingpins. In general, they do not share information or analysis with forces on the ground deployed to fight counternarcotics, like in Ciudad Juarez. These units will share threat information against military components, but also see local military commands as often penetrated by organized crime. Locally deployed SEDENA forces rarely develop or utilize tactical intelligence. In fact, they have no true intel units that collect information, nor do they have professional intel corps. Military units deployed to hotspots operate virtually blind except for anonymous tips.  Particularly given the fallout from the high-level corruption cases uncovered last year, PGR and SSP suffer from similar internal suspicions as SEDENA." 

It's little wonder that the Army has been so ineffective in combating narcotics cartels.  The cable notes, "Institutions are fiercely protective of their own information and equities and are reluctant to share information with outsiders, in part because of corruption fears, but also because they would rather hoard intelligence than allow a rival agency to succeed. They are under enormous pressure to produce results. Moreover, bureaucratic culture in Mexico is generally risk averse, so intelligence entities would rather do nothing than do something wrong.  Corruption fears are well-founded given the number of operations that have been compromised or foiled because of leaks."  The cable is particularly critical of inter-agency turf battles, "between Attorney General Medina Mora -- recently replaced by Arturo Chavez Chavez -- and SSP's Genaro Garcia Luna...   Leadership and personality conflicts may, in fact, be one of the most significant drivers of whether or not agencies set themselves up as rivals or allies in sharing important information. Some observers see the new federal police and PGR reforms as unlikely to resolve the zero sum competition, and it is too early to know whether the Chavez appointment will mitigate the specific PGR-SSP problem."  The cable makes no reference to the widely held opinion that SSP head Genaro Garcia is himself linked to cartels. 

The cable references the US-based National Security Information Center (NSIC), which "runs the Merida Culture of Lawfulness project but also works in the field of intelligence structures in democratic societies."  The NSIC is apparently a defense-related NGO angling to receive some of the US$1.4 billion made available through the Merida Initiative.
From a bilateral perspective, perhaps the most interesting cable, dated January 29, 2010, addresses the inauguration of the Defense Bilateral Working Group (DBWG).  The author first sets the generally negative overall political context, then goes on to describe the pitfalls of Calderon's war on drugs in largely unvarnished prose, before ending on an apparently unwarranted optimistic note:
"It is a challenging moment to address some of the institutional weaknesses that dot the Mexican political landscape and which periodically impede our larger efforts. President Calderon has entered the last three years of his six-year term facing a complicated political and economic environment. His National Action Party (PAN) emerged seriously weakened from a dramatic set-back suffered in the July congressional elections and was unable to recoup any real momentum during the last legislative session. Calderon's bold plan for ten ambitious areas for reform, announced in September, has yet to translate into politically viable initiatives. His personal popularity numbers have dropped, driven largely by massive economic contraction and a public sense that there is little strategy to create new and sustainable jobs..."  This generally negative assessment describes one of the Obama administration's closest allies in the hemisphere, and depicts a President who is often portrayed in the cables as going out of his way to curry favor with the US, especially with US security forces.
"Meanwhile, the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is in the ascendency, cautiously managing its illusory unity in an effort to dominate the twelve gubernatorial contests this year and avoid missteps that could jeopardize its front-runner status in the run-up to the 2012 presidential elections. With a strategy best described as political pragmatism, PRI insiders indicate that the party is unlikely to support any major reform efforts over the next several years - no matter how necessary - that could be publicly controversial. Slow economic recovery and budgetary pressures are reducing government resources and complicating the government's ability to balance priorities and come up with a compelling and sustainable narrative that ties the fight against organized crime to the daily concerns of most Mexicans. Mexico's rapidly declining oil production, a projected six to seven percent GDP contraction in 2009, a slow recovery in 2010, and a 47 percent poverty rate all present difficult challenges for the Calderon administration in 2010..."  While much of this is widely accepted boilerplate analysis, it contradicts the generally positive and upbeat public pronouncements of the State Department.
"Mexican security institutions are often locked in a zero-sum competition in which one agency's success is viewed as another's failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of. Official corruption is widespread, leading to a compartmentalized siege mentality among 'clean' law enforcement leaders and their lieutenants. Prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal; two percent of those detained are brought to trial. Only 2 percent of those arrested in Ciudad Juarez have even been charged with a crime..."  This explains why showy arrests are often broadcast on national television, while trials seldom make the news.
"The failure to reduce violence has focused attention on the military's perceived failures and led to a major course change in January to switch the overall command in Ciudad Juarez from the military to the federal police. The military was not trained to patrol the streets or carry out law enforcement operations. It does not have the authority to collect and introduce evidence into the judicial system. The result: arrests skyrocketed, prosecutions remained flat, and both the military and public have become increasingly frustrated. The command change in Juarez has been seen by political classes and the public as a Presidential repudiation of SEDENA. When SEDENA joins you at the DBWG, it will be an agency smarting from the very public statement of a lack of confidence in its performance record in Juarez..."  Unfortunately, the Federal Police haven't performed better in Ciudad Juarez.  Murders are up since this cable was written, while at least one important local commander is under investigation for links to the cartels.
"Below the surface of military professionalism, there is also considerable tension between SEDENA and SEMAR (Secretary of the Navy). SEMAR succeeded in the take down of Arturo Beltran Leyva [one of Mexico's most violent cartel leaders], as well as with other major targets. Aside from the perceived failure of its mission in Juarez, SEDENA has come to be seen slow and risk averse even where it should succeed: the mission to capture HVTs [high value targets]. The risk is that the more SEDENA is criticized, the more risk averse it will become. The challenge you face in the DBWG is to convince them that modernization and not withdrawal are the way forward, and that transparency and accountability are fundamental to modernization. There is no alternative in today's world of information technology..."  Given recent criticisms of WikiLeaks, perhaps the State Department should take its own advice to heart.
"Military surges that are not coordinated with local city officials and civilian law enforcement, particularly local prosecutors, have not worked. In Ciudad Juarez, a dramatic increase in troop deployments to the city early last year brought a two-month reduction in violence levels before narcotics-related violence spiked again. The DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] are sophisticated players: they can wait out a military deployment; they have an almost unlimited human resource pool to draw from in the marginalized neighborhoods; and they can fan complaints about human rights violations to undermine any progress the military might make with hearts and minds...
"SEDENA lacks arrest authority and is incapable of processing information and evidence for use in judicial cases. It has taken a serious beating on human rights issues from international and domestic human rights organizations, who argue with considerable basis, in fact that the military is ill-equipped for a domestic policing role. While SEDENA has moved to address human rights criticisms, its efforts are mechanistic and wrapped in a message that often transmits defensiveness about bringing a hermetically sealed military culture into the twenty-first century. The military justice system (fuero militar) [Mexican military personnel are tried in special military courts rather than civilian courts, even if human rights abuses involve civilians] is used not only for a legitimate prosecutorial function, but also to preserve the military's institutional independence. Even the Mexican Supreme Court will not claim civilian jurisdiction over crimes involving the military, regardless of whether a military mission is involved. Fortunately, the Mexican military is under increasing pressure to change on a number of fronts. A recent Inter-American Human Rights Court ruling found Article 57 of Mexico's code of military justice, which effectively allows the military to keep all violators within its own justice system, violate Mexico's constitution and mandated improvements in the way cases involving alleged human rights abuses by the military are handled. A report issued by Amnesty International in December noted that complaints to the National Commission on Human Rights against the military increased from 367 in 2007 to over 2000 from 2008-June 2009...
"In this context, it is absolutely necessary that we intensify our efforts to encourage modernization of the Mexican military. General Galvan Galvan, head of SEDENA, is an impressive military man with an appreciation for the uncomfortable, non-traditional challenges facing the Mexican military forces. But he is also a political actor who has succeeded, at least in part, by protecting the military's prerogatives and symbolic role. His experience provides him with little guidance on how to manage change and modernization against a backdrop of criticism and often vitriolic accusations. Historically, suspicion of the United States has been a prime driver of a military bureaucratic culture that has kept SEDENA closed to us. We believe Galvan is committed to at least following orders when it comes to Calderon's vision of a more modern Mexican state and a closer relationship with the United States. Our ties with the military have never been closer in terms of not only equipment transfers and training, but also the kinds of intelligence exchanges that are essential to making inroads against organized crime. Incipient steps towards logistical interoperability with U.S. forces are ongoing related to Haiti relief. SEDENA, for the first time and following SEMAR's lead, has asked for SOF [special operations forces] training. We need to capitalize on these cracks in the door. Any retreat on engagement on our side will only reinforce SEDENA's instincts to revert to a closed and unaccountable institution."
Despite pages of negative assessment of the political and military situation in Mexico, the author ends with hopes for increasing organic links between the Mexican and US militaries.  The reader is left to wonder if, from the US perspective, this isn't the ultimate goal in the "war on drugs."
While the US government tries to criminalize Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, those of us living in an ostensibly democratic society are happy to finally have an inside view on how our highly paid "public servants" are spending our tax dollars and representing (or not) our interests.  The Mexico Solidarity Network encourages a boycott of PayPal, and other corporate entities that buckled under government pressure to block free speech by denying services to WikiLeaks.