THE MAGAZINE

Cooperation on the Border

By Stephanie Berrong

Mexico has suffered increasing violence, including 5,400 drug-related murders in 2008, twice as many as in 2007. The upswing in violence is due to President Felipe Calderon’s aggressive policies that have successfully cracked down on drug traffickers, according to Manuel Suarez-Mier, legal attaché at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., who made his assertion at a conference at George Washington University on transnational crime organizations. Others say that the government is simply trying to put a positive spin on a worsening situation.

In the first two years of Calderon’s tenure, the Mexican government has confiscated 70 tons of cocaine, 4,000 tons of marijuana, and 43 tons of methamphetamine precursors, which are ingredients necessary to manufacture the drug. It has seized 31,000 weapons, 4 million rounds of ammunition, and 3,200 grenades. It has also detained 56,500 criminals.

These actions, Suarez-Mier said, have led to less potent cocaine at a higher price and significant and bloody in-fighting between rival drug cartels.

Not everyone buys this rosy interpretation. The heightened drug war has led to concerns, expressed in a recent Pentagon report, that Mexico could become a failed state.

Some experts see the situation as less dire, but all agree that the United States’ national security depends on helping the Mexican government turn the tide, and one key is increased U.S.-Mexican cooperation. To that end, Congress approved the Merida Initiative in 2008, a program aimed at combating drug trafficking, gangs, and organized crime by helping Mexico (and other countries in the region). Funds will target the judiciary and military through training and technology.

There was $465 million for Mexico and Central American countries in fiscal year 2008, the first installment of  former President George W. Bush’s proposed $1.4 billion package. President Obama has signaled support of the initiative, but only $300 million was allocated for 2009 in the spending bill that Congress passed in March.

While much of the money provided by the Merida Initiative will be spent on helicopters and speedboats, some of it will be used to purchase better equipment to make information sharing easier, such as national criminal databases, says Shannon O’Neil, a Douglas Dillon fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. That could help address a concern among experts that efforts in the past have been too segregated from one nation to another.

“The advantage that the cartels have is that they’re transnational in nature,” says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re transnational organizations, and the governments tend to be very nation-centric…. We’re going to have to come up with transnational mechanisms that enable us to be much more effective in taking on an enemy that operates in a transnational fashion.”

Peschard-Sverdrup recommends more intelligence to intelligence and law enforcement to law enforcement cooperation, possibly through the creation of a transnational intelligence center. He envisions a small group—to reduce the opportunity for infiltration on both the Mexican and U.S. sides. The group would report to the highest levels of each government. Some of the Merida Initiative funds could go to setting up something like this, O’Neil says.

Other experts say there is a history of cross-border intelligence and law enforcement coordination. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), border sheriffs, and the U.S. Border Patrol are just some of the groups working with counterparts across the border.

“From counternarcotics to…dissemination of information, that appears to be working,” in some places, says Fred Burton, vice president of counterterrorism and corporate security at the geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor.

But those efforts are not coordinated. “There is ATF [the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives ] with their new gun runner program,” Burton says, but he adds: “Well, that’s great, but is that being coordinated with all these other entities that are in play?”

A significant challenge of intelligence-sharing operations is building trust. Several high-ranking Mexican officials have been detained for allegedly having ties to drug gangs, including officials from the Mexican Attorney General’s office, representatives to Interpol, and former drug czar Noe Ramirez.

Mexico is trying to address the problem, but corruption continues to be widespread. Calderon said late last year that approximately 11,500 law enforcement and other government employees had been fined for corruption in the past two years. The fines totaled close to $300 million, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

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