With drug-related deaths on the rise in Mexico, and getting ever more coverage in the US media, Washington has increased its focus on its southern neighbor. Unfortunately, a handful of recent comments suggest deficits in understanding of Mexico on the part of US officials.
The first misstep came from William F. Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, who claimed that the Mexican gangs represent a greater threat to US security than Colombian groups did in the 1980s and 1990s. While danger is a subjective concept, and Wechsler was referring primarily to the degree of penetration by the Mexican groups in the US, there is no reasonable measure by which groups like Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel and the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers' Cali Cartel were less threatening than Mexican groups are today.
At his height, Escobar was open about his involvement with Colombia’s political class, even serving as a deputy congressman into the 1980s. When the federal government turned on him, he orchestrated an attack on the state far more aggressive than that undertaken by Mexican criminals. He planted bombs in the capital, had a presidential candidate assassinated, and blew a passenger jet out of the sky -- an act of terrorism that led to greater attention from Washington, because there were US citizens on board the flight.
The Colombian groups in those days were also more powerful in the drug trade, running a far greater chunk of the supply chain than the Mexicans do now. They controlled everything from production to wholesaling to, in certain cases, retail sales in the US, pocketing the value-added at each step.
Finally, even conceding that the Mexican groups have a greater presence in the US than the Colombians had in their heyday (which is debatable), Mexican drug violence has remained almost entirely on the southern side of the border. In contrast, the Caribbean cocaine route operated by the Colombians turned Miami into one of the most violent cities in the hemisphere in the 1980s. No US city has suffered a comparable security decline because of Mexican traffickers operating there.
In short, if power and aggressiveness are the measure of danger, today's Mexican trafficking networks fall far short of their Colombian forebears.
In a further gaffe, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claimed, following a meeting with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, that 150,000 people had been killed in the war on drugs during the Felipe Calderon administration. Presumably, he heard 50,000 from Mexico's defense secretary and mistakenly remembered the figure with a “1” in front of it. While such a mistake could happen to anyone, the number of organized crime-related deaths has been bandied about endlessly in recent years, and his error suggests that Panetta, notwithstanding the US's increase in military ties with Mexico, is paying little attention to the neighboring country.
A final misstep on Mexico came from William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state specializing in drug trafficking, who recently described Juarez as the most dangerous city in the Americas, if not the world. In fact, while this label arguably applied for the past few years, it is not accurate today. According to El Diario de Juarez, the number of murders in the city during January and February came to a mere 200. This gives Juarez an annualized murder rate of less than 100 per 100,000, and puts it on pace for its lowest number of homicides since 2007. At least two·cities in the Americas, Honduras' San Pedro Sula and Venezuela's Caracas, have registered higher murder rates in 2011 and 2012.
A casual onlooker could be forgiven for overlooking these developments, but Juarez’s dramatic improvement has been one of the most high-profile events in Mexican public security over the past year. The fact that Brownfield is the State Department’s top man on drug trafficking makes his comment more worrying still. If he doesn’t know what is going on in Mexico, who does?
The implementation of the Merida Initiative raises further questions about the US government’s level of understanding and commitment. Unlike the gaffes listed above, these shortcomings have concrete policy consequences. The basic defect of Merida was that supposed hardware shortages, especially of helicopters, were given far more attention than the institutional defects which are the biggest obstacle to a safer Mexico. While the subsequent reforms to Merida have re-oriented funds toward these deeper issues, the initial misunderstanding helped distract the US and Mexico for three years.
A further problem is the aid program's slow implementation. As of August 2011, according to the US Congressional Research Service, just $473.8 million in aid had been delivered, roughly a quarter of the amount allocated for that period. There are myriad reasons for this, but none of them do much to undermine the opinion that, for all the US hand-wringing on Mexico, policy-makers’ attention to and understanding of what the country needs is woefully insufficient.