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Is Mexico Our Ally or Our Enemy

Is Mexico Our Ally or Our Enemy

Former Mexican president Vicente Fox’s dramatic declaration last Friday that his nation should seek a truce with vicious narco-trafficking gangs draws attention to a critical issue as Mexicans consider what kind of country they want to leave their children.

Fox’s suggestion also should serve as a wake-up call to our country that we should not take for granted the extraordinary sacrifice of Mexicans who are fighting the same transnational crime syndicates that threaten U.S. security and well-being.

His provocative words may also ensure that Mexico’s 2012 presidential campaign will include a healthy debate on whether its citizens are committed to building a modern, law-abiding society or prefer to tolerate drug corruption that stunts its economic and political growth.

Vicente Fox is no radical. He is the charismatic democrat who led his center-right National Action Party (PAN) to a historic victory in 2000, ousting the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that had held power for over 70 years. Indeed, at the outset of his mandate, Fox battled the powerful narcotrafficking syndicates that control the transit of cocaine and other illegal drugs through Mexican territory to insatiable consumers in the United States. However, he backed off quickly as he realized that his security forces could not go toe-to-toe with the bloodthirsty criminals.

Before Fox, a succession of PRI governments tolerated or sanctioned truces between local narcotraffickers and local political bosses. In some cases, otherwise respectable state governors chose to prevent rampant violence by striking unsavory deals with criminals. In other jurisdictions, notorious politicians were silent partners with the cartels. Political leaders, police or judges who refused such arrangements risked violence against themselves or their communities – and they could not rely on federal authorities for any help. Fox ended his term insisting that his government would make no deals with narcos, he had to accept the fact that de facto truces kept some measure of peace on the streets even as it corrupted Mexico’s institutions.

Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderón would have none of that. He came into office declaring narcotrafficking a national security threat. And he insists that Mexico cannot thrive as a modern nation unless its laws are applied without fear or favor. The effect of his anti-narco campaign – in which he has deployed military units and federal social agencies to back-up local authorities in drug-ridden communities – has been a blood-letting of staggering proportions.

Although the 35,000 persons killed since he launched his offensive are mostly criminals caught up in gang violence, hundreds of security officials have given their lives and too many innocent civilians have been caught in the cross-fire. Moreover, bloody reprisals and turf wars have spread into Mexico City and affluent communities, and splintered gangs have taken up new violent criminal enterprises that menace millions of Mexicans. Fox’s desperate suggestion of an open truce comes on the heels of a casino bombing last week that claimed 52 lives in the well-off northern city of Monterrey.

It is fair to say that Calderón’s offensive should have been preceded by greater preparation by security forces and more robust social development programs to fortify communities against lawlessness. Indeed, launching a frontal assault has provoked a vicious backlash whose toll could not have been predicted. And, only now is Mexico beginning to build the professional police forces and effective courts that can gradually reduce drug criminality to manageable proportions.

Calderón’s critics tend to ignore altogether the corrosive effects of the past policy of tolerance and truces on Mexico’s institutions and social fabric. It is healthy for Mexicans to decide whether or how they want Calderón’s successor to continue his policy of imposing the rule of law, because such a battle requires the commitment of a nation, not only its president.

American politicians are too quick to criticize Mexico, neglecting the fact that it is our most important ally in the drug war and that its government and people are carrying more than their fair share of the burden piled high by U.S. drug abuse.

Although we have provided $1 billion in material support and training in the last five years, it is not enough. Additional funding and political solidarity – from Republicans and Democrats alike – are essential to reassuring beleaguered Mexicans that we will accept our shared responsibility.

If Mexicans elect a leader who sees narcotrafficking as the United States’ problem, that nation, in the long run, will pay a very dear price. But, so will ours. If we consider that possibility we might then demand that our leaders do more – alongside Mexico – to confront a common threat.

Roger F. Noriega was ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001 to 2003 and assistant secretary of State from 2003 to 2005. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and managing director of Vision Americas LLC.