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.


Investigators 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?

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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."

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.

Under Obama,"institutionalizing the rule of law," "reforming the police," and "building strong and resilient communities" became the center of U.S. policy in Mexico. In late 2009, the United States increased its efforts to train jurists and police officers, and undertook institution- and community-level projects that included opening a police academy in San Luis Potosí and funding more than a dozen $100,000 community-building grants in crime-ridden Ciudad Juárez.

At the same time, the United States aided and trained Mexican intelligence, as a 2009 embassy cable published by WikiLeaks revealed. "Cooperation, while not flawless, has never been better," the cable reads. "Close collaboration and assistance ... in key counterdrug operations undoubtedly is critical and will pay dividends over time." But in the wake of the CIA agents' August 24 shooting, it's worth asking again: Just what are these "dividends" supposed to look like?

As a 2011 Congressional Research Service study explained, Mexico and the United States have different definitions of "success" in the drug war. For Washington, the seizure of drug shipments and the removal of kingpins -- such as the 2009 killing of cartel boss Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was cornered by the Mexican Navy with the help of U.S. intelligence -- are markers of success. But for Mexico, the drug trade is a "national security threat" rather than an "organized crime threat," and the country's short-term goals might be more focused on "reducing drug trafficking-related crime and violence" than on dismantling the country's criminal organizations, according to the CRS study. This will be especially true after Enrique Peña Nieto -- the president-elect of Mexico who promised a break from Calderón's militarized drug policy -- is inaugurated on December 1. Nieto has emphasized public safety and violence reduction over a Calderón-like assault on drug cartels and their leadership.

"Now it will be a shift away from, 'Can we capture [Sinaloa cartel leader] Chapo Guzman?' to, 'Can we reduce murders in Ciudad Juárez?'" said O'Neil. "And those might not be the same goals."

Progress is elusive even for long-term priorities on which the two countries see eye-to-eye. The experience of cleaning up Mexico's notoriously corrupt federal police has revealed just how difficult it is to reverse decades of institutional rot. In March of 2011, U.S. ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pasquale resigned after WikiLeaks cables revealed the degree of U.S. frustration with Mexico's pace of reform. And the August 24 CIA shooting demonstrates how much work is still needed, even in areas that have received the most attention. Felbab-Brown called the incident "poignant and ironic."

"Calderón has enabled far greater cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico," she said. "But the one institution that was supposedly reformed, and the one that received the most training from the U.S., ended up shooting U.S. agents."

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This hardly means that a reversal in U.S. policy is in store. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has talked about the necessity of building a U.S.-Mexican border fence, while Texas Governor Rick Perry, a one-time presidential candidate, has suggested that the U.S. would have to militarily intervene in Mexico's drug war as a matter of national security. O'Neil says there is little proof of violent blowback in the U.S. from the situation in Mexico, while any attempt to further seal off the U.S.'s southern neighbor would erect additional barriers to lucrative regional trade.

"Illegal and legal goods aren't coming through the non-regulated points, but through the legal points of entry," O'Neil said. "If you really want to harden the border you'd have to slow everything down." "Everything" amounts to more than $460 billion a year in legal cross-border economic activity.

Right now, the U.S. and Mexico are jointly investigating the August 24 shooting, and there is no indication that the U.S. has suspended any of its initiatives in Mexico in the last month. Training and engagement remain the least-bad option as a seemingly intractable drug war rages on.