President-elect Barack Obama met Monday with Mexican President Felipe Calderón to discuss bilateral issues of major importance for the two countries. In addition to NAFTA and immigration policy, Mexico's ongoing plague of prohibition-related violence was high on the agenda.
More than 5,400 people were killed in the violence last year, and more than 8,000 in the two years since Calderón ratcheted up Mexico's drug war by sending thousands of troops into the fray. The multi-sided conflict pits rival trafficking groups -- the so-called cartels -- against each and the Mexican state, but has also seen pitched battles between rival law enforcement units where one group or the other is in the pay of the traffickers.
The Obama-Calderón meeting comes as the violence in Mexico is creating increasing concern among US policy and defense analysts. Last month, the National Drug Intelligence Center warned in its National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 that "Mexico drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States."
In a December report to the US Military Academy at West Point, former drug czar retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey warned dramatically that even the $1.4 billion, three-year anti-drug assistance plan approved by Congress and the Bush administration last year was barely a drop in the bucket, noting that it was only a tiny fraction of the money spent on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The stakes in Mexico are enormous," McCaffrey warned. "We cannot afford to have a narco state as a neighbor. Mexico is not confronting dangerous criminality -- it is fighting for its survival against narco-terrorism."
The consequences of US failure to act decisively in support of Calderón's drug war would be dire, McCaffrey warned. "A failure by the Mexican political system to curtail lawlessness and violence could result in a surge of millions of refugees crossing the US border to escape the domestic misery of violence ... and the mindless cruelty and injustice of a criminal state."
This week, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff jumped on the bandwagon. In their report, The Joint Operating Environment 2008, which examines global threats to the US, the Joint Chiefs warned that Mexico was one of the two countries most in danger of becoming a failed state. The other was Pakistan.
"The Mexican possibility may seem less likely," the report noted, "but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state. Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone."
But for all the dire warnings of doom, the incoming president gave little sign that he would do anything other than stay the course. Nor did he suggest in any way that he would make a radical break with US drug policy on the border. Obama has stated publicly that he supports the Mérida Initiative aid package, and Monday he limited his public remarks to generalities.
Noting the "extraordinary relationship" between the US and Mexico, Obama added: "Not only did we talk about security along the border regions, how the United States can be helpful in Mexico's efforts, we talked about immigration and how we can have a comprehensive and thoughtful strategy that ultimately strengthens both countries."
Despite taking his first meeting with a head of foreign state with President Calderón and pledging renewed cooperation, and despite the chorus of cassandras crying for more action, analysts consulted by the Drug War Chronicle said that given the raft of serious problems, foreign and domestic, facing the Obama administration, Mexico and its drug war are likely to remain second-tier issues. Nor is the Mérida Initiative going to be much help, they suggested.
"Obama is busy with other pressing issues," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "He just doesn't have the space and will to take on this other fight in Mexico."
On the other hand, the border violence frightening US policy makers is largely "a self-inflicted wound," Tree said. "Mix together high domestic demand here, prohibition economics, and a tough law and order approach, shake vigorously, and you have a disaster cocktail. It's not like we didn't warn them," he said.
Also, Tree noted, despite the rising alarm in Washington, there is little interest in opening a new front on the southern border. "Who has the stomach to take this on right now?" he asked. "Who is clamoring for this outside of institutional actors who want to protect their budgets? There is a lot of war-weariness and budget shock in this city, and that might leave some openings" for reform, he said.
"Probably not much will come of that meeting," said Tomás Ayuso, Mexico analyst for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "Calderón was pleading for Obama to put Mexico at the top of his list of priorities, but given what Obama is facing, the Mexican drug war is not at the top of his agenda."
Still, the situation in Mexico is serious and could get worse, Ayuso said. "If this isn't addressed now, Mexico could really descend into chaos. The drug cartels have virtually unlimited funding, their coffers are overflowing. The shadow economy in which they operate is booming, their operatives are armed to the teeth, and the next step is to set up a shadow government. It's very easy for them to influence people. They say: 'Accept our bribes or we'll kill you and your family.'" Ayuso said. "It's pretty effective."
"This meeting looked mostly like generalities, but Obama has said repeatedly during the campaign that he supports the Mérida Initiative, and that will most likely continue during his administration," said Maureen Meyer, Mexico analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America. "With more and more reports lately painting Mexico as a security crisis, we are seeing a recognition by the new administration that this is a priority, and it will continue cooperating with Mexico."
But the looming crisis on the border and in Mexico could provide openings for reform, Meyer said. "We hope to have more openings to reopen the debate on US drug policy internationally, and Mexico could give us the opportunity to look at what has and has not worked in the Andean region and Mexico as well," she said.
That debate could include modifications to the Mérida Initiative, which is heavily weighted toward military and law enforcement equipment and training, said Meyer. "Congress has reiterated its support for the Mérida Initiative, but we've also seen a tendency to redirect funding toward arms trafficking going south and demand here in the US. The Congress will also, we hope, start to look away from sending more equipment and toward more support for institutional reforms. Helicopters aren't going to have any impact on Mexico's underlying problems," she said.
The violence in Mexico could help further weaken already eroding support for US drug policy in the hemisphere as a whole, said Ayuso. "In Latin America, where most of the suffering is happening, many countries are asking whether the Washington-led war on drugs is the answer," he said. "That's something Calderón himself has brought up, but Obama is probably not going to budge on that. Still, the chorus is growing. More and more people want to re-evaluate the drug war."