Home The Washington Diplomat June 2009 Mexico Wages All-Out WarOn Drugs, Flu, Misperceptions

Mexico Wages All-Out WarOn Drugs, Flu, Misperceptions


Reports of Mexico’s imminent demise are not only premature, they’re ridiculous. That’s the message from Mexico’s man in Washington, Arturo Sarukhan, who touted his government’s response to the international flu scare as proof that his country is a responsible player on the world stage — one that’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

The recent outbreak of the H1N1 virus sent a shiver across the globe and pushed President Felipe Calderón’s government to act swiftly to stop the contagion from spreading. It shut down schools. It shut down restaurants, and it shut down tourist hotspots. It also alerted global health officials, worked with labs in Canada, and sought expert advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the World Health Organization.

And after five days of the country being ground to a halt, the Mexican government’s checkbook — already reeling from the global recession — had taken a hit. Last month, the government pegged its losses upward of .3 billion, or .05 percent of the 2009 gross domestic product.

But, as the Mexican ambassador suggests, what the country lost in revenue, it may have regained in reputation — silencing rumors that Mexico was on the brink of failure.

“H1N1 is a clear success story,” Sarukhan said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat. “The Mexican government very quickly and very transparently said, ‘This is going on. We have a new strain. This is what needs to be done.’”

Bloodier Battle This “success story” and others — including celebrated judicial reforms passed last year — have been overshadowed by the deteriorating security situation in parts of Mexico, where violent drug trade and corruption has battered the country’s image, economy and quality of life.

Mexico’s murderous drug war has pushed Calderón and former President Vicente Fox to suggest that it may be time to explore whether decriminalization of marijuana or small amounts of drugs is an effective way of de-funding the powerful cartels. (The Mexican Congress recently passed related legislation, but Calderón has yet to sign it.)

Back in Washington, Sarukhan lives in this political bubble. He diplomatically declined to comment on the issue of decriminalizing marijuana, though he said talking about the matter can’t hurt. “There are people with very strong and compelling arguments on one side and there are people with very strong and compelling arguments on the other. Let’s have a debate. I don’t think that saying, ‘Oh no, that’s taboo,’ is a way of seriously addressing the challenges,” he says. “The end result of the debate may be that, ‘Hell no, it makes no sense to deregulate,’ and on the contrary could create other types of problems. But at least let’s have the debate.”

And ever since becoming his country’s point man in the United States more than two years ago, Sarukhan has been vocal on a number of issues. In fact, he’s become one of the most active diplomats in town and a regular on the speaking circuit — from local think tanks to national television networks — where he frequently employs the catchphrase, “like most things in life you need two to tango,” in reference to the symbiotic and all-important U.S.-Mexican relationship. He also often reminds his American audiences that “if we fail, you fail.”

An articulate and polished career diplomat, Sarukhan served as consul general of Mexico in New York and as chief of staff to the Mexican secretary of foreign relations. He was also a top foreign policy advisor and international spokesman to Calderón during the presidential campaign and in the transition team.

Sarukhan’s own diplomatic tango with Washington officials picked up speed after Calderón’s inauguration in 2006. The new president realized the drug cartels had trampled on the country’s often corrupt and dysfunctional police forces, and he responded by mobilizing the Mexican military — deploying 30,000 troops to hotspots throughout Mexico in an effort to “recapture the territories lost to drug traffickers.”

Since then, drug-related killings have jumped from 2,250 in 2007 to as many as 6,200 (including 522 military and law enforcement officials) in 2008. Today, some 45,000 troops patrol drug-wracked areas, mostly along the U.S. border, in a battle that’s taken the lives of roughly 10,700 people since Calderón launched his offensive in 2006. (The cartels didn’t even take a break during the flu shutdown, with 28 people killed in the country’s deadliest city, Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, during the last week of April, along with seven police officers gunned down in Tijuana.)

Like Calderón, Sarukhan says the spike in violence — some of which is spilling into major U.S. cities such as Phoenix — and brazenness of the attacks against the military and public officials show that the crackdown is squeezing the cartels.

Indeed, Calderón’s push has coincided with a reduction in the purity of cocaine in the United States as well as an increase in street prices, according to U.S. officials. And Sarukhan points out that Mexico has seized more cocaine and bulk cash than any country ever has, breaking all kinds of drug bust records, and that the crackdown has forced Colombian traffickers to ship drugs across the Pacific, rather than across the border, into cities such as Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, Canada. Still, the jury is out, at least from an American perspective.

Washington Stops Wagging Its Finger Mexico’s rising body count and rampant violence grabbed Washington’s attention toward the end of the Bush presidency.

In December, the Department of Justice released the 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment that declared, “Mexico drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.” And in January, the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., released a report that said Mexico and Pakistan “bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse.” That same month, outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden predicted that violence in Mexico could pose a greater threat than Iran or Iraq, as rumors swirled that America’s southern neighbor could become a failed state.

Utter nonsense, says Sarukhan. Since taking office, the ambassador credits President Barack Obama with changing the tone toward Mexico. “I was very struck from the very beginning … of how seized President Obama and his team are regarding the importance of the bilateral relationship with Mexico,” he says.

The new message coming from Washington started in January when then President-elect Obama met with Calderón to discuss security, trade and immigration issues. The symbolism of that early meeting was more important than the exchange itself as Calderón became the first foreign leader to meet with Obama following the November election.

The diplomatic outreach continued in March when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico and offered the mea culpa that many Mexicans had been waiting to hear: “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” she said, calling the drug war a “shared responsibility.”

The comments reflected reality. Up to an estimated billion worth of illegal drugs comes into the United States through Mexico each year. About 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States is trafficked through Mexico, and Mexico is the country’s largest foreign supplier of marijuana and methamphetamine.

Clinton also pledged to provide Mexican authorities with three Black Hawk helicopters and other equipment promised under the Merida Initiative to help track drug runners, and to deploy an additional 450 law enforcement officers to the U.S. border.

A month later, Obama traveled to Mexico, where he reiterated Clinton’s message and voiced support for Calderón’s battle against the cartels.

Before those meetings, Sarukhan says Mexico and the United States were stuck in a blame game. “The United States would wag its finger at Mexico and say, ‘Oh, you are a springboard for all drugs that have come into the United States.’ And we would obviously retort, ‘If we’re the springboard, you’re the swimming pool.’”

Trading Barbs, and Bullets Across the Border Perhaps nowhere is the issue of blame more apparent than in the debate over guns. In his April visit to Mexico, President Obama said nine out of 10 guns recovered in Mexico have come through the United States. “This war is being waged with guns purchased not here, but in the United States. More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States, many from gun shops that line our shared border,” Obama said.

His comments echoed those of Calderón, Sarukhan, Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano — all of whom have cited the 90 percent figure as part of their public relations push for more U.S. involvement in the drug war.

But many people say the claim is false because it is based only on guns the Mexican government sent to the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) for tracing. ATF officials have told lawmakers that 11,055 guns recovered in Mexico in 2007 and 2008 were submitted to the United States for tracing. Of those, 9,950 (or 90 percent) came from the United States.

But this calculation is based on the number of arms “submitted” and fails to account for the rest of the 30,000 guns Calderón said his country recovered during the two-year period. In this case, the number of guns that cascaded down from the United States would be in the ballpark of 35 percent.

Professor George W. Grayson, author of “Mexico’s Struggle with ‘Drugs and Thugs,’” calls the 90 percent figure a “wildly exaggerated percentage,” largely intended to boost Calderón’s party in the coming election this summer.

“His few achievements have forced Mexico’s leader to focus his party’s campaign on jamming a sharp pencil in the eye of Uncle Sam,” Grayson charged. “He blames Washington for the economic recession, the consumption of drugs, and the southbound cascade of sophisticated weapons. Of course, there are substantial elements of truth in his accusations.”

Sarukhan retorts that the proof is more than substantial — it’s ironclad. He pointed to additional testimony on Capitol Hill in which government officials also said Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations have acquired increasingly sophisticated and powerful weaponry — largely from purchases made in the United States.

“There are many weapons we do seize that don’t have serial numbers because they have been scrubbed off,” the ambassador explains. “You can’t trace those weapons, so you shouldn’t read anything into the number of weapons submitted to the ATF for tracing and the total number of weapons that we seize.”

Moreover, Sarukhan argues it’s no coincidence that almost all of the safe houses for guns, ammunition and money are concentrated within miles of the U.S. border, not along Mexico’s southern border. “The fact that not all the weapons have a serial number, and not all the weapons can be traced back to the United States, does not undermine the fact that most of the seizures in Mexico are occurring along our northern tier and they are occurring in a way, shape and pattern that explicitly links them to trafficking patterns across the border from the United States,” he says.

“Put aside those you can successfully trace back. Given the total numbers of guns we are seizing and given the places, the modus operandi, and the way we have seized most of these weapons — we are not seizing these weapons on the border with Guatemala. We are seizing these weapons in either border crossing points along the U.S.-Mexico border or in safe houses in cities and towns which are in 10-kilometer to 20-kilometer range from the U.S. border.”

There are some 78,000 gun dealers in the United States — 1,500 in the Houston area alone — and in several southern states, dealers can sell an unlimited amount of rifles to anyone with a license and a clean record, without reporting the sale to the government — making it difficult to track Americans buying guns for Mexican smugglers.

But Sarukhan stresses that he’s not lobbying to change U.S. laws or questioning Americans’ right to own guns — “or whether citizens should be able to buy armor-piercing ammo to hunt deer,” for that matter. “That is a sovereign decision of the United States Congress, of American public opinion and of the administration. We are not seeking to undermine the Second Amendment,” he says.

Rather, he is simply pushing the United States to do a better job of enforcing the gun laws already on the books and closing the so-called gun show loophole, which allows people to purchase guns from private gun dealers without an ID or background check — a system you’d be hard-pressed to find in Mexico.

“We have very stringent gun control laws. You want to buy a gun in Mexico? A: the only caliber you can buy is a .22 and below,” the ambassador explains. “B: there are no gun stores, no gun shows, no FFLs [Federal Firearms Licenses]. The only instance for which you can buy a gun in Mexico is through the Ministry of Defense. You have to have a special permit and you have to have that weapon at home, with you, locked up for personal safety. You can’t carry it in your car. It can’t be in your truck. It can’t be in your glove compartment. It can only be stored at home.

“That is why it is not rocket science to understand why just on the Texas and Arizona border alone with Mexico, we have 7,000-plus FFLs concentrated along that chunk of border with Mexico. It’s not rocket science.”

Whatever the science, Grayson suggests the 90 percent debate could be largely “academic” because the cartels have enough money to buy guns from a number of international arms dealers and through black markets inside Mexico. “Whatever the figure, the cutoff of U.S. arms shipments to the Croesus-rich Mexican cartels would constitute a thorn in their sides — not a 50mm bullet to their blackened hearts.”

Rhetoric Rerun? The debate over America’s guns has touched off nerves on both sides of the aisle, but that’s hardly the only controversial issue between the two neighbors. And although the Obama administration seems to have set a positive tone of cooperation with his Mexican counterparts, it’s easy to see why some worry whether they have heard this kind of rhetoric before.

In 2001, President Bush hailed U.S.-Mexico relations as the most important for his administration. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mexico pretty much fell off the map.

Others note that the bilateral rhetoric has clashed with domestic realities. For example, Calderón touts the partnership as utterly important, but also bashes the United States on several fronts, including the weapons divide, as he prepares for July 5 congressional and gubernatorial elections in which his National Action Party was expected to see significant losses — at least prior to Calderón’s widely praised swine flu response.

Meanwhile, in Washington, many of Mexico’s top priorities are on the back burner.

Immigration reform is stalled, and fewer Mexicans immigrants are coming over anyway because of the economic downturn. Obama also hasn’t fulfilled his campaign promise of reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 — which Sarukhan directly correlates with a surge in seizures of U.S. guns.

Plus, the Democratic-controlled Congress caved to the Teamsters union and canceled funds for a pilot program that had allowed about 100 certified Mexican trucks to haul cargo on American highways. (The Teamsters claim Mexican drivers and trucks are unsafe on U.S. roads.)

Confident the program proved their truckers were not a security risk and that the United States was not living up to promises it made under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico retaliated by slapping tariffs on 89 U.S. products.

So where do the two sides go from here?

“We don’t want another [pilot] program,” Sarukhan says. “We want U.S. companies to be able to deliver door to door in Mexico, and we want Mexican companies to be able to deliver door to door in the United States. That is what we are seeking.”

Sarukhan says the challenge will be ensuring that Congress realizes “what is really at stake and what the Teamsters have been really trying to get at.”

“This is not about the safety of American roads,” he argues. “This is about protectionism, pure and simple.”

Moving Forward: Merida Whether Americans — or Mexicans — like it or not, Sarukhan says the two countries are “joined at the hip for the foreseeable future.” And it is clear the strength of cross-border relations will hinge in large part on the success of the Merida Initiative, which is sure to be the main focus of bilateral policy in the months ahead.

Established under President Bush, the multi-year plan is expected to pump class=”import-text”>2009June.Arturo Sarukhan.txt.4 billion into programs, training and technology aimed at weeding out transnational trafficking and organized crime in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Last year, Congress appropriated 5 million — 0 million of which was earmarked for Mexico — and it is expected to approve a similar amount this year.

Shannon K. O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations says Merida is a move in the right direction, but not a perfect solution. She believes the flaws are that it “focuses primarily on the supply side of the issue, ignoring demand,” and that “within Mexico, the main flaw is that the funds will go almost solely to national-level police and military — ignoring the vast majority of law enforcement [which is state and local]. These are the officers that need training and professionalization if in the long term Mexico is to transform its public security.”

So how should we judge the program’s success? Sarukhan says there are all kinds of measures.

“Do you want your metrics in terms of arrest, seizures? Mexico last year broke every single record for the seizures of cocaine. One single seizure last year in the Port of Manzanillo was 26 tons — the largest seizure ever of cocaine in the world,” he says. “Cash, you want that metric? We seized the largest amount of bulk cash ever and the single largest seizure of cash in one operation — 5 million in one safe house in Mexico,” he adds, slapping his hand halfway up a wall. “A room full of bills that took three days to count.”

But there are many more indicators of success, he says, including the opening of new maritime drug routes in the Pacific Northwest as alternatives to the U.S.-Mexican border.

“Arrests and extraditions to the United States? They are through the roof. Price and purity of cocaine in the U.S. consumer market? Price is at an all-time high; purity is at an all-time low — a 102 percent increase in the price of cocaine, 33 percent decrease in purity of cocaine.

“Now I have been in this too many years to spin that this is the ultimate measure of success. It’s a snapshot. It’s a Polaroid. It’s not a photograph,” the ambassador cautioned. “But what it’s telling you is that what Mexico is doing right now is effecting price and purity in the retail market of the United States.”

Sarukhan says he will also be watching to see if the cartel’s cost of doing business in Mexico goes up and whether the level of violence that drug syndicates are unleashing for the remaining drugs routes into the United States goes down. Perhaps more important, he says, the Merida program will prove a success if Mexico can move “drugs and thugs” from being a national security issue to something that can be handled as a local law and order problem, “like you have in the United States.”

Still, he warns that with some of the biggest drug-producing states to its south, and the largest consumer market to its north, Mexico is a natural middle man — and “if anyone is to suggest we are going to make the drug syndicates disappear overnight, he is smoking too much of what we are seizing.”

About the Author

Seth McLaughlin is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.