Friday, August 17, 2007

Plan Mexico-- What is the proper U.S. role in a U.S.-Mexico Anti-Drug Alliance?

On August 8, The Washington Post and other news papers reported that the U.S. and Mexico are planning a collaboration to assist Mexico in combating the prohibition-related violence that has swept Mexico. The Economist reports that the plan could be unveiled August 20 or 21 when the leaders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico meet in Quebec.

That the violence is rampant is not in dispute. Between January and June 2007, more than 1400 people have been killed -- from innocent civilians to law enforcement chiefs and important drug cartel figures, according to an insightful report from the Washington Office on Latin America.

The United States and Mexico have not always collaborated on the problem of illegal drugs. Mexico had been a well known source of cannabis since before President Nixon ordered Operation Intercept in 1969, after the Special Presidential Task Force Relating to Narcotics, Marihuana and Dangerous Drugs singled out Mexico in its June 6, 1969 report, according to the excellent April 2003 paper by Kate Doyle for the National Security Archive.

Operation Intercept was a crude exercise of American unilateralism, and seen by Mexico as a betrayal of the neighborliness that had characterized the Kennedy Administration's approach.

Now the shared nature of the drug problem is well established. Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (2003-2005), and former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, August 16, 2007, "It's Our Drug War, Too." Noriega, also a former staffer for the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, advises the Administration to bring Congress into the negotiations if it wants to develop a plan that will be politically successful in the U.S. Having congressional "buy-in" could avoid "micro-management" by Congress that "will demoralize our Mexican friends." Noriega suggests a supplemental appropriation, since the FY 2008 appropriations bill has already passed the House. Waiting for the FY 2009 bill would mean no money would be available until October 2008. Noriega notes in passing the importance of "legal reform and judicial capacity-building" which are key points that WOLA made in its June 2007 paper.

I agree with Noriega that the prohibition-enriched criminal organizations in Mexico (and elsewhere in the hemisphere) pose very serious threats to the American people because their capacity to thoroughly corrupt or bludgeon legitimate government is enormous. The consequences of such organizations' triumph would stymie social justice, political reform, economic development in the hemisphere and undermine legitimate trade and exchange. American businesses operating elsewhere in the hemisphere will inevitably be pressured to become partners to the criminals as we have seen in Colombia with the Chiquita corporation.

A role for the American government that does not involve simply pouring money into Mexico's military and intelligence agencies, and providing hardware and software for wiretapping, etc. would be for the U.S. Justice Department to focus its drug investigation capacity on the high-level international criminals that are behind the violence and corruption in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. For twenty years, the laws have been on the books directing the DEA and the Justice Department to focus on high-level traffickers -- the Narcotics Penalties and Enforcement Act of 1986 that created tough mandatory minimums of 10 years -- with up to life imprisonment. But as the latest report on cocaine sentencing from the U.S. Sentencing Commission demonstrates, overwhelmingly the focus has been on low-level offenders operating at the street-level in American cities (see tables 5-2 and 5-3, pp 108-114). These neighborhood drug dealers can be, and frequently are, prosecuted by state and local authorities. There is no law enforcement justification for wasting federal anti-drug resources on crack dealers who are universally local operators.

If the Justice Department were competently run -- and it has not been competently run for decades -- anti-drug cases would not be the plaything of ambitious local federal prosecutors, but coordinated in Washington to focus on the global criminals -- many of whom are responsible for drenching Mexico in blood.

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