The 'Dividends' of U.S.-Mexican 'Cooperation' on the Drug War

Openly attacking the cartels just made the violence worse. But it's not clear that institution-building has accomplished much, either.

RTR3790X-615a.jpgInvestigators gather evidence from the road near Mexico City where two CIA officers were shot by Mexican federal police. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

On August 24, plainclothes Mexican federal police opened fire on an SUV that was carrying two CIA agents and their Mexican interpreter, who were likely on their way to a site where U.S. personnel train Mexican security forces. The car, which had diplomatic plates, was riddled with 150 bullets, suggesting that this was something more than a case of mistaken identity, or a friendly-fire incident.

The shooting remains every bit as mysterious more than a month later. It might have been a straightforward case of incompetence -- the Mexican agents might have simply been incapable of distinguishing between a car belonging to a criminal organization and one belonging to a foreign government, even on a road where official vehicles were apparently common. Just as troubling is the possibility that Mexican agents working at the behest of a drug cartel were attempting to undermine U.S.-Mexican security cooperation. It is possible, according to Diana Negroponte of the Brookings Institute, that the shooting resulted from a rivalry between the U.S.-trained Mexican military and segments of the federal police that are still under the sway of one of the country's numerous armed drug-trafficking organizations. "Trust is still so weak that the federal police cannot trust members of the Mexican armed forces being trained by [U.S.] elements," she says. If this is the case, then U.S. agents were caught in the middle of a drug-fueled rivalry between different sections of the Mexican security services -- the same agencies that the U.S. and Mexican governments have been trying to train and reform, thanks to a recent shift in U.S. policy.

According to Vanda Felbab-Brown, also with Brookings, Obama has undertaken "cooperation with Mexico that is unprecedented until this point." But nearly six years into a drug war that has killed an estimated 60,000 Mexicans, the payoff of U.S. engagement remains ambiguous. Now, a U.S. presidential election, and the upcoming inauguration of a new president in Mexico, has further heightened the urgency of the U.S.'s policy dilemmas south of the border. Last month's shooting was counter-intuitive proof of how closely the U.S. and Mexico are cooperating in solving North America's most pressing security challenge. But it raises a troubling question: Just how successful has this policy been if the drug war is continuing unabated -- and if Mexican police officers are shooting at American intelligence agents?

* * *

At the root of the issue is the overhaul of earlier approaches to Mexico's drug war. After his election in 2005, Mexican President Felipe Calderón abandoned what Felbab-Brown called "an essentially corporatist approach to crime" -- the time-honored Mexican policy, mostly pursued by the long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), of co-opting favored drug trafficking organizations though a complex system of clientelism and selective enforcement. But when Calderón used Mexico's military to take on the country's powerful and well-armed drug trafficking organizations, he had little sense of what the consequences of a full-on war would be. "Under the PRI there were tacit agreements. You bribe away officials, you don't engage in turf battles, and so on," said Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies. "This doesn't work in the long run. You have to deal with rule of law and these illegal groups. But that's a long process and [Calderón] didn't have the institutions to do that."

The experience of cleaning up Mexico's notoriously corrupt federal police has revealed just how difficult it is to reverse decades of institutional rot.

By 2009, both Calderon and the newly inaugurated President Obama realized that winning Mexico's drug war meant reforming the country's corrupt state structure and security services. Under the 2007 Merida Initiative, the U.S. provided over $1.5 billion in security aid to Mexico over the following three years, mostly in the form of hardware, including "Blackhawk helicopters, database equipment, speed boats, and other hard equipment," according to Shannon O'Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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