Friday, September 16, 2011

Connie Mack wants Merida Initiative scrapped for counterinsurgency strategy towards Mexico

Outspoken Republican Representative Connie Mack, head of the House’s Western Hemispheric Subcommittee, has called for the U.S. to adopt a “counterinsurgency strategy” in Mexico, declaring that, “while Mexico doesn’t want to admit this; there is an insurgency taking place in Mexico along the U.S. border.”

In a subcommittee hearing on the Merida Initiative, a U.S. aid program focused on Mexican security, Mack said that the program had failed to make an impact on the “well funded criminal insurgency raging along our southern border,” which some call the greatest national security threat faced by the United States.”

Citing delays in delivering funds, and the dire state of Mexico’s security, Mack vividly described the U.S. response as “showing up to a burning house, late, with a half assembled hose.”

Mack’s argument that the Merida funding has not halted drug violence in Mexico is hard to deny, but it is not clear that his proposed measures would manage to do so. He proposes that the U.S. work with Mexico “to secure one key population center at a time,” and bring all government agencies together to “aggressively target” the cartels. The Florida representative also repeated his call for the U.S. to double the number of border agents, and said that there should be “lawfulness” training in Mexican schools, presumably as part of a Mexican government counter-move to win "hearts and minds" and support for the war on drugs.

It seems unlikely that increasing the military component of U.S. aid, or indeed sending U.S. troops into Mexico, would make a decisive difference in the country’s struggle against organized crime. The Merida Initiative, which has delivered some $1.5 billion to Mexican counter-drugs efforts since 2008, has generally been criticized for being overly focused on the military response to the cartels, prioritizing aid to law enforcement bodies over strengthening institutions like the justice system, or implementing anti-corruption measures. Likewise the Calderon government’s aggressive deployment of the army to secure those parts of the country worst hit by organized crime is generally perceived as having failed to reduce violence in those areas.

The State Department rejected Mack’s comments, saying that it “would strongly disagree with any attempt to label the Merida Initiative as any kind of failure.” Spokesman Mark Toner stated that the initiative had achieved better coordination between the two countries in terms of intelligence-sharing and training.

Mack argues that the Mexican drug cartels qualify as insurgent organizations because they aim to undermine the government and to gain popular support. This goes against the position of the Mexican government, which responded angrily when Hillary Clinton described the drug cartels in the same terms last year, causing President Obama to issue a swift counter to her statements.

However, the argument that Mexico is facing an insurgency is given weight by some of the actions of its criminal groups, such as the recent murder of 52 people in an arson attack on a Monterrey casino. This week, independence celebrations planned for Thursday night in the small town of Querendaro in the western state of Michoacan had to be cancelled after a group of gunmen armed with high-caliber weapons took over the main square. The ability of drug trafficking organizations to cause this scale of disruption with such blatant actions counts in favor of the idea that the criminal groups constitute an insurgency with the power to challenge the Mexican government.

See video of the hearing.

News Briefs

  • In more news on U.S. drug policy, the White House added El Salvador and Belize to its list of major drug producing and transit countries. This means that every country in Central America is now included on the list, underlining the increasing importance of the region for the drug trade. Bolivia and Venezuela were again classed as countries which failed to adhere to international anti-narcotics agreements. Bloggings by Boz comments that the inclusion of Bolivia on this list is not clearly justified, in the absence of evidence that the Bolivia government is tolerating organized crime, or facing more of a problem than Colombia or Peru -- U.S. allies who are not classed in the same terms.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff suffered another loss from her cabinet as a fifth official in three months, Tourism Minister Pedro Novais, resigned Wednesday amid allegations that he had misused public funds. He is the fourth whose resignation is linked to corruption allegations. The stream of departures does not appear to have weakened Rousseff, however, but rather to have bolstered her image as a president who will not tolerate corruption, according to the Financial Times’ Beyond Brics blog.
  • The New York Times reports on conflict between landless farmworkers and palm oil plantation owners in Honduras. The Bajo Aguan valley, in the north of the country, has been the site of at least 15 murders in recent weeks, some of which took place when locals clashed with plantation security guards. The Times relates the turmoil to the violence and social divides laid bare by the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya. At least 1,400 families have been left out of the latest attempt by the government to broker a solution, according to the newspaper.
  • A piece on the Economist’s website discusses growing concern in Panama over President Ricardo Martinelli’s “power grab,” with some fearing that the pro-market president could follow the trend of Latin American leaders and try to change the constitution to allow himself run for office again after his five-year term ends in 2014.
  • On Cuba, the New York Time reports that former Governor Bill Richardson, who returned from Cuba empty-handed after attempting to negotiate the release of jailed U.S. contractor Alan Gross, had been authorized to offer concessions to Cuba in exchange for Gross’ freedom. Richardson was reportedly able to offer to begin the process to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, and to allow one member of the “Cuban Five,” a group jailed for 13 years in the U.S. after being convicted of spying, to return home when his sentence is completed in October, instead of serving probation in the U.S.
  • Following the WSJ’s recent report on the “dark side” of Brazil’s economy, as noted in Tuesday’s post, Foreign Policy has a gritty photo essay on Rio’s favelas, accompanied by reporting on the rising epidemic of crack cocaine use, which it says has has been driven in part by the country’s economic development in recent years.
  • Meanwhile, the Miami Herald reports that more than 20 Cuban dissidents were jailed while trying to stage a protest march across the island. Human rights defenders told the newspaper that there had been 200 such arbitrary detentions this month, likely the highest total since Raul Castro came to power in 2006. Those arrested in the latest round included Angel Moya, a prominent dissident who served eight years in jail before being released this year. The latest detention is his second in a week, after he was arrested Friday, September 9, and held over the weekend.
  • The Washington Post reports on how Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has provided an inadvertent boon for the oil industry in neighboring Colombia, purging thousands of people who work in the Venezuelan industry in the years since 2002. Many of these have moved to Colombia, where vigorously pro-market leadership under the last two presidents, and the improving security situation, have helped the oil sector to grow fast.
  • Human Rights Watch included Mexican journalist Luis Horacio Najera and Venezuelan Carlos Correa among the 48 recipients of their 2011 Hellman/Hammett prize, which supports writers who are committed to freedom of expression in the face of persecution. Najera works for Reforma newspaper in the border city of Juarez, the location worst-hit by the country’s drug violence, while Correa has reportedly suffered a smear campaign carried out by Venezuelan state television.