General Barry McCaffrey: Much at stake for US in Mexico's battle against deadly drug cartels
September 30, 2010
Author: James F. Smith, Communications Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey has closely followed events in Mexico since he was the White House anti-drug czar in the 1990s, and he has never been so worried. The violence generated by the drug cartels has grown so deadly, McCaffrey says, and the police and prosecutors are under such sustained attack, "that if it were not for the armed forces, Mexico's institutions would be fundamentally at peril."
At a Harvard Kennedy School seminar, McCaffrey described a Mexican government and security services under brutal siege even as the state deploys 45,000 soldiers to combat the drug cartels.
Squad-sized units of soldiers or police are being abducted and tortured, including senior officers. Scores of immigrants have been murdered "for sheer caprice" - among the 29,000 people killed in the past 30 months. Drug cartels are deploying arsenals of hand grenades and heavy machine guns more typical of an Army division.
"The level of violence is unbelievable," McCaffrey said in on-the-record opening remarks to a directors' seminar on Sept. 20 at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
The outcome is critical to the United States given the immigration pressures and the close economic ties between the two countries, he said, but too many Americans are oblivious of the warfare in Mexico.
McCaffrey, now a strategy consultant, says the Mexican government of President Felipe Calderon (a Harvard Kennedy School graduate) is working hard to establish the rule of law and to build credible security institutions. He described the Mexican leadership as "people of immense talent and education and good judgment. But they're dealing with some really severe internal challenges, and the institutions they turn to are unresponsive."
With Calderon's term coming to an end in 2012, Mexico faces tough policy choices that the drug cartels will try hard to influence.
"I think going forward, what the cartels are arguing is, ‘leave us alone, this is a gringo problem. They're the ones using the drugs; back off, the violence will go away.' That's the argument. The Mexican people haven't bought it. They do support Calderon's campaign, they're humble, hardworking, family oriented, spiritually oriented people; they support this program -- but they think the government is losing.... But Calderon has said publicly, ‘no u-turn.' He intends to establish institutions that the Mexican people deserve."
Excerpts from transcript of opening remarks by retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former White House anti-drug czar, to a directors’ seminar on Mexico’s security situation at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, on Sept. 20, 2010.
Ok, let me talk about Mexico. Several of you in the room probably are experts on Mexico and have studied this issue over time. So I offer these comments with a sense of humility that many of them are not exactly breakthroughs on the subject. I've been publicly a friend of Mexico for a long time now. Bill Perry, one of the finest people I ever met in public life, and I were the first to set foot in that country -- as the first secretary of defense in history, and the first 4-star commander -- against the uniform advice of everyone who understood Mexico. We went in with that marvelous President Zedillo, who 100 years from now they will be studying on how he personally was crucial in changing the course of Mexican history. Since then I've periodically gone back. Their current ambassador, Arturo Sarukhan, is a brilliant young guy who will be their next foreign minister. I've tried to stay in touch with them....
And I just have enormous sympathy for the struggle they are going through, and great respect for many of the senior leaders in the Mexican government who as a generalization tend to be people of immense talent and education and good judgment. But they're dealing with some really severe internal challenges, and the institutions that they turn to are unresponsive. It's not just corruption, I would argue. An even bigger challenge they have is the incompetence of these institutions. And an exception, by the way, would be the Mexican armed forces. Particularly, the Navy Marine Corps team which tends to be pretty sophisticated, fairly competent and generally speaking has a sense of institutional integrity. I don't mean to be naïve about it. I'm sure you can penetrate any institution. But as a general statement that Navy Marine team is the most reliable stick that President Calderon can pick up. And the army also, general speaking, has tremendous internal cohesion and self discipline.
Now, what's the situation? What are they doing about it? And how does it affect the United States? ....Mexico is important to us. For God's sakes. If you were to start with what are the most important national security concerns that the United States faces ... it's the NAFTA basket of Canada, the United States and Mexico. And every number you look at supports that assertion. You've got 105 million people living next door to us and maybe six, seven million illegal aliens of Mexican origin, maybe 12 to 16 million foreigners living in this country who are instrumental, central, to our economic vitality. They grow our food, they run the meat packing, run the restaurants, day care centers. Increasingly they're getting green cards and citizenship and buying small businesses and voting. And just play this small thing out. Right now the biggest Spanish speaking country on the face of this Earth is Mexico. In 25 years, reliably, we'll be the second biggest Spanish speaking nation. Pretty good situation. On both sides of the border, the people-to-people relationships are powerful. Americans as a general rule admire that Mexican community wherever they are in the United States. Mexican businesses are easy to deal with. Over the telephone they say they're going to do something, they follow through.
But you're still left with some central problems. One of them is when you look at our government, and normally I'm telling the Mexicans -- the last time I wrote a report on them it horrified my friends in Mexico. Not by name but I was denounced by the president for that report... of course they've got an obvious economic argument. When I talk about their problems, they're worried about foreign investment and tourism. And by the way there is just tremendous national pride. I think Mexico, Brazil and France are all in a trio of hyper-sensitive nations with tremendous pride in their own national being and history, and rightfully so -- balanced by equal levels of ignorance on the side of the United States border. By the way, there is always a public atmosphere bordering on stereotyping out of the US government; Mexico is important to us, economically, culturally, practically speaking.
Second question is, what are the Mexicans concerned about? Probably number one is economic well being of Mexico. But in addition, they're worried about immigration which is related obviously to economic well being; money remitted from labor forces in the United States; telephone calls, for God sake, are a major part of the foreign cash well back in Mexico. And then clearly they're concerned about establishing the rule of law in Mexico. I didn't say the drug war, I said establishing the rule of law. And so to do that one aspect of it, you know, its interesting listening to the internal debate in Mexico in their newspapers, a pretty frank open candid discussion. And I can have the same discussions in private with Mexican authorities. But when you listen to them talk to each other its more than just drugs, more than just institutional development; its also a culture of impunity. And as a general statement, we generally see traffic laws aren't obeyed, a background of crime has been endemic in Mexico. In addition, with an exception of the armed forces, there has been trouble creating law enforcement institutions that work.
And, by the way, I think the US is unmindful of the rare situation which in this country, in general statement, our local and federal law enforcement have enormous integrity, competence, courage; there's huge competition among talented young women and men to join law enforcement. I mean one of the most deeply subscribed institutions in the country is in FBI. They'll run 200 or 300 applicants for every slot they have open. But that's an anomaly. And certainly in most places in the Americans, with the exception of Canada and the US, creating law enforcement institutions that work is the biggest challenge to those societies. The most respected institution in most of these nations is the armed forces, bar none. Maybe the Catholic Church is one and the armed forces is two, but when you look at their viewpoint about law enforcement its down at a level where it's nearly shameful to be joining the municipal police. You're only doing it because of the chance to make money. That's the challenge Mexico faces, and they're facing off to it and they're trying to change the preconditions to having an institution that works. By the way, if you're in the US and you join a police department that has integrity and protocols and training systems; its probably five years before you're socialized into that institution. It's much harder to create a decent police officer than it is to create a marine or an army ranger. And Mexico doesn't have law enforcement institutions that are characterized by integrity and competence; they're trying to build it.
This isn't the first time. I've watched them closely now for 15 years and they'll frequently say we have a defunct institution, we're going to stand it down, build a new one and two years from now we'll have a federal police. I've watched cycles of this go on and of course it's the same guys take off their hats and walk over to that institution and nothing changes. Now, Calderon's developed a real program. He says as an example, we're going to get 4,000 college graduates to join the federal police, which traditionally was 4 percent of the entire law enforcement institutions. ‘We're going to get college graduates, we'll make sure they have life insurance, some health care program to make them less susceptible to bribes ,and they've embarked on that effort. " Now, [Public Security] Secretary Genaro Luna, I think is a first class fellow, as far as we can tell he's absolute integrity and courage. I'm amazed he hasn't been murdered yet. Because in Mexico, like most of these drug related struggles, there's two targets of the public accusation; one are the people who are trying to confront the drug criminals and the others and those who are complicit. So you hear all sorts of rumors of corruption or accusations and Genaro Luna and his senior officers get a big bit of is, but my guess is, as a general statement, these are Mexican patriots trying to establish a rule of law.
What's going on inside Mexico? a couple comments. One is both in the US governments, which tends to downplay the level of violence and its importance to us, as well as Mexico, there's sort of an implication: I saw a bunch of figures floating around that Mexico's crime rate is miniscule compared to many other places; compared to Baltimore and Venezuela, and the murder rate was actually much lower. That is sheer nonsense. That's like an argument that 3,000 people murdered during 9/11 is background noise compared to the 15 to 25,000 people murdered per year in gun related violence in the United States. Whoever heard of ... 72 immigrants would be bound and murdered for sheer caprice. Whoever heard of squad-sized units of soldiers or police being abducted and tortured to death, behead and have their heads thrown into a police station. Whoever heard of seizing on an annual rate as many automatic weapons as there are in a US army division, thousands of military hand grenades and RPGs and and heavy machine guns and Mark 19 grade machine guns; the level of violence is unbelievable.
You know when they say that, ‘well, it's really just a few border communities or maybe just 4 or 5 Mexican states and the rest of it is peaceful,' that's nonsense too. Yes, the cross-border drug smuggling routes are primarily what is causing the struggle among five major drug cartels. But as a general statement there is nowhere in Mexico where you can say categorically we're safe. I mean they abducted army generals and tortured them to death and propped them up along with the guy's aide and driver in one of the tourist area. They've killed a cardinal; in downtown Juarez you've got this unbelievable contrast. El Paso, and many Americans are surprised when I say this, is the second safest city in America. It used to be the first safest a couple of years ago. I wrote the numbers in there; there was one murder in El Paso, 98 in Baltimore for the year cumulative and something over 4,000 in Juarez. There are platoon company sized engagements with the drug cartels. Something like 45,000 soldiers committed to this struggle, primarily in five Mexican states, but I would argue that if it were not for the armed forces that Mexico's institutions would be fundamentally at peril. Huge challenge. There are fire fights in Juarez that will go on for 2 hours. The local police have been done away with. Some municipal police forces have just walked off the job. They're incapable of dealing with this level of violence.
And its not just druggie on druggie, as if that would be an argument for sort of downplaying the significance. It's also killing soldiers, policemen; the media have been significantly impaired in their ability to talk about what's going on. We've got some private person in Arizona, some woman, who is the go-to source for how many casualties there are in Mexico. Newspapers are not reporting people who are killed in these giant fights that are going on. So she's piecing together through Mexican news sources trying to keep a running tab. By the way, that thing isn't updated- we're saying just short of 29,000 people murdered in 30 months. It's immensely more, a higher level; we've seen the beginning of car bombs. It is a very severe problem.
The background also, one has to take into account: the US recession has a multiplier effect when it comes to partners, particularly Mexico, combined with a huge challenge of Mexico's oil production. I think there's roughly 40 percent of federal budget comes out of this monopoly, Pemex. They're not doing very well with the land based operations, production is dwindling rapidly. They've got to go offshore. To go offshore you need British, American, or Russian -somebody knows how to do it --- technology. By the way, the BP disaster will have some impact on that also. So if Mexico can't keep up their oil production down the line one could imagine the consequences could be enormous.
And finally, Mexican politics. You know, Zedillo and his two successors have moved the country from a one party dictatorship essentially to a prototype of an operative democracy. And there are serious divisions in that democracy. And the rules of the game are not --not that US should be boasting about the collegial debate going on in our own political system -- but the rules of the game are pretty rough in Mexico. Calderon is on short final now to leaving office. Who will replace him and what will campaign argument be? ... One of the problems of the cartels is the thoughtful ‘we're just in this for business' people are starting to disappear and the killers are the ones making the calls. The Zetas, started with 70 some odd Mexican commandos who deserted to become their own enforcement arm for the Gulf Cartel. Now across the board, the violence among the cartels has gotten just out of hand. So will they make sensible judgments, yes or no, is unclear.
But I think going forward, what the cartels are arguing is, ‘leave us alone, this is a gringo problem. They're the ones using the drugs; back off, the violence will go away.' That's the argument. The Mexican people haven't bought it, they do support Calderon's campaign, they're humble, hardworking, family oriented, spiritually oriented people; they support this program -- but they think the government is losing. So I think the danger is, the argument will be to the next administration- let's dial this back. Which I think would be bad for Mexico and bad for the United States. And it's not quite clear to me how this will come out. But Calderon has said publicly, ‘no u-turn.' He intends to establish institutions that the Mexican people deserve.
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