The intricacies of the Mexican drug war suggest that former dictator Porfirio Diaz was onto something with his memorable lament: “Poor Mexico, so far from God – and so close to the United States.”
On a recent weeklong trip south of the border, I found plenty of Mexicans who believe Americans are making a bad situation worse.
Some of that is just the familiar and tiresome Mexican tendency to blame their problems on their northern neighbors. But, this time, the Mexicans are not entirely wrong.
The Mexican tourism industry, which usually takes in more than $12 billion annually, is suffering. The spring break crowd has been light this year at coastal resorts, with Americans cautiously avoiding even the safe parts of Mexico due to the violence on the border.
The timing couldn’t be worse. Mexico also is experiencing declines in other sources of foreign income: exports, oil revenue, and remittances from Mexicans living in the United States. As the Mexican economy flounders, expect more folks to enter the drug trade.
The drug war has caught Washington’s attention. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Mexican President Felipé Calderon to show support for his war against drug traffickers.
This week, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder are due to attend an arms trafficking conference in Mexico. And in a couple of weeks, President Obama will meet with Calderon to discuss how the United States can help defeat the cartels.
The White House also has released a plan to send 500 more agents to the U.S.-Mexico border. It intends to crack down on the large quantities of guns and ammunition being smuggled from the United States into Mexico.
Tapping into $700 million of funds approved by Congress to aid Mexico under the Merida Initiative, the Obama administration said it would provide five helicopters for the Mexican army and air force, and a surveillance aircraft for the Mexican navy.
That’s a good start. But the administration could also deploy the National Guard to help patrol the U.S.-Mexico border to keep drugs from coming in and guns from going out.
It could even – as a U.S. naval commander told me recently – authorize U.S. special forces to go beyond training the Mexican military and engage in combat operations if Calderon requested it.
If only the American people were taking this as seriously. We should stop using illicit drugs and then romanticizing the drug lords who supply them.
At the moment, Mexican officials are fuming over the fact that Forbes magazine listed Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the reputed head of the Sinaloa cartel, as the 701st-richest person in the world. Forbes claims Guzman is worth about $1 billion – at best a “guestimate,” since drug lords aren’t known for their bookkeeping.
Calderon criticized the U.S. media for “not only attacking and lying about the situation in Mexico, but are also praising criminals.”
Americans are not innocent bystanders in this crisis. “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” Clinton said last week on her way to meeting Calderon. “Our inability to prevent weapons from being smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.”
Calderon is fighting a brave and lonely battle against long odds. And contrary to the impression one might get from the U.S. media, there is some evidence he is winning. Law enforcement agencies have made more than 20,000 arrests. They’ve cut into the profit margins of the cartels by seizing tons of drugs and cash.
The criminals must be feeling the pinch. Why else would the drug lords be terrorizing the Mexican population with one hand and bribing it with the other – all in an attempt to undermine support for the government?
As with all Mexican presidents, Calderon can serve only one six-year term. So the political strategy of the cartels seems to be to deal the president’s party a crushing blow in the July midterm elections in the hopes that a divided Congress will curtail Calderon’s crime-fighting for the rest of his term.
Good luck with that. Those of us who know Calderon – and I have since we were graduate students together a decade ago – understand that he won’t quit.
He will dig in and fight on. And so should his friends and allies on this side of the border.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org