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The Drug War Transformed

by TOM BARRY

“This is a terrorist insurgency,” says Connie Mack, the Republican who chairs the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mack, who introduced the Enhanced Border Security Act in mid-December, believes that the Merida Initiative has failed and that the administration needs to revamp the counterdrug assistance program to include a “counterinsurgency plan.”

Explaining why his Enhanced Border Security bill is needed, Mack said: “The Mexican drug cartels have evolved into what some call the greatest national security threat faced by the United States with the ability to severely damage the U.S. economy.”

Adopting the language of the Obama administration’s new strategy to “combat transnational organized crime,” Mack warns that both Mexico and the United States are facing a “terrorist insurgency” waged by transnational criminal
organizations “along our southern border, with operations across Mexico and Central America as well as in over 1,000 U.S. cities.”

Five years after President Felipe Calderón launched Mexico’s drug war in December 2006 and three years into the Merida Initiative counterdrug assistance program, there is widespread anxiety in Mexico that the government is not gaining the upper hand on the drug cartels and that the drug-related violence, which has left a toll of 50,000 dead, will continue into the next sexenio, the six-year presidential term.

Whatever their politics, most close observers of the drug war in Mexico would agree with the Republican firebrand from Florida that the last five years of Mexico’s drug war have done little to increase governmental security and social stability. Most assessments of the Merida Initiative’s impact on Mexico and Central America are similarly negative.

The basic facts of the drug-related crisis in Mexico are clear enough, but what’s not so evident is its character and identity.

As President Calderón’s sexenio draws to an end and as the U.S. government evaluates its involvement in Mexico’s drug war and its border policy, new questions are being asked about drug threat and about the proper response.

Mack insists that traditional counternarcotics strategies are insufficient and out of step with the changing character of the drug trade in Mexico and in Central America.

What we are seeing in the region is not simply the business and violence of drug-related crime, says Mack. Instead, Mexico and the drug transit countries of Central America are facing insurgency and terrorism that threatens the security of region and of the United States.

Mexico has vociferously rejected Mack’s contention that the drug cartels represent an existential threat to state power.

But the basic facts of the drug war – widespread territorial loss of effective governing power, the involvement of local drug bosses in politics, the massive deployment of the military, the increasing firepower of the cartels, the war-level loss of life, and the use of horrific violence to make statements – seem to support Mack’s contention that Mexico is facing what he variously calls a “terrorist insurgency” and a “criminal insurgency.”

The inability of the Obama administration’s expanded border-security operations to significantly obstruct the crossborder flow of drugs from Mexico also points to the inadequacy of the U.S. response, whether at home or in Mexico.

Mack is, of course, not alone in his characterization of the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) as insurgents and narcoterrorists. Nor is he the only major public figure who is raising alarm about an increased threat to U.S. national security.

Two retired U.S. generals, including the former chief of the U.S. Southern Command, came to similar conclusions in a recent report commissioned by the Texas state government alarmingly titled Texas Border Security: A Strategic Military Assessment.

There’s no disputing the severity of the drug-related violence in Mexico and Central America. Yet the increasing discussion of the security implications of illegal drug trade also relates to the Obama administration’s own attempt to redefine the domestic and international drug problem as a battle against transnational criminal organizations.

The Transformed Drug Threat

The U.S. government has traditionally referred to Mexican and other Latin American drug cartels as drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). But the Obama administration has altered the nomenclature of the drug trade, and the DTOs are now routinely categorized as transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).

By newly designating the Mexican DTOs as transnational criminal organizations, the Obama administration has opened new political room for foreign policy hawks and anti-drug hardliners like Connie Mack to credibly argue that the U.S. needs to respond differently and more aggressively to the evolving drug trade scenario in the hemisphere.

Obama counternarcotics officials have dropped the term “war on drugs.” Instead, the four-decade war has been superseded by the newly organized “combat against transnational crime” and transnational organized criminal organizations – as spelled out this year by the White House in the Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime.

The shift in the terminology to describe the U.S. national and international enforcement of its drug control laws – shedding an embarrassing military metaphor and adopting a more appropriate law-enforcement one – was long overdue.

Wars, after all, are fought to win not to flounder — with nary a sign of victory after four decades of drug war-fighting. In contrast, crime-fighting is accepted as a constant slog where no final victory is ever expected.

President Obama, however, insists, that the combat against the drug-trafficking TCOs is a matter of urgent national security, promising to prioritize the targeting of TCOs that represent a “high national security risk.”

In keeping with new parlance of the administration, Connie Mack, who chairs the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, contends that the U.S. and Mexican governments no longer simply confront drug trafficking organizations but now face powerful transnational criminal organizations that threaten not only the region’s security but also U.S. national security.

In contrast to Mack, other critics, apart from those of the right wing, lambast the Merida Initiative for contributing to widespread human rights violations by the Mexican military and for continuing drug war strategies that are based on failed drug prohibition policies.

Counting on Connie Mack

During his seven years in Congress, Mack has won strong support from his conservative constituency for his hardline positions on U.S. Latin America policy, particularly with his shrill anti-communist critiques of Castro in Cuba, Chávez in Venezuela, and Zelaya (removed by military-backed coup) in Honduras.

As chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, Mack has won a larger megaphone for a view of hemispheric relations in which U.S. hegemony persists. In language reminiscent of the imperial era politics in Latin America, Mack states: “You can count on me to challenge these tyrants wherever they are and always stand on the side of freedom, security and prosperity.”

Mack’s hawkish views on Mexico represent an ideological continuity in that he regards the TCOs as insurgents who challenge the established order. Yet his new focus on Mexico and the border security also have more immediate political origins – including an opportunity to bash the Obama administration and an attempt to assuage anti-immigrant constituents outraged over Mack’s criticisms of the repressive Arizona immigration law as threat to “freedom-loving conservatives.”

Mack may see his hawkish stances on border security and on the Mexico drug war as restoring the trust of his conservative constituents and helping him in his likely bid to to unseat Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.

In a Sept. 16 letter to the State Department complaining about the failures of the Merida Initiative, Mack wrote that “the transformation of drug cartels into TCOs and their attempts to undermine the Mexican government through tactics labeled as characteristics of an insurgency” required an overhaul of the Merida Initiative to address the new security environment.

Mack told the State Department:

The failure of this Administration to set performance measures, target dates or tangible goals to measure the success of U.S. programs has made it impossible to claim ‘success’ on the initiative itself. Meanwhile, the Mexican drug cartels have capitalized on the United States’ sluggish assistance to actively undermine the Mexican state through insurgent activities such as violence, corruption, and propaganda.

Both the Calderón and Obama administrations insist that the battle against the cartels – called drug war in Mexico and combat against transnational crime in the U .S. – is making steady progress toward the goal of reducing the threat of the drug-trafficking organizations.

Responding to Mack’s letter, the State Department wrote:

We believe the [Merida] Initiative is already having a positive impact. Through its bold efforts, with U.S. support, the Mexican government has successfully dismantled drug smuggling routes, seized major amounts of illicit drugs and jailed drug kingpins.

Critiquing the Merida Initiative, Mack says, “If we are unable or unwilling to identify the problem correctly, then we are unable to properly put a policy forward to combat the issue at hand.  The security and safety of the American people depend on it.”

That’s exactly right. But it is not a problem that began with the Merida Initiative or with the Obama administration.  Mack only compounds the problem of incorrectly identifying the issue at hand in Mexico and at the border by introducing new identifiers such as “terrorist insurgency” and “criminal insurgency.” Such terms confuse tactics and methods with objectives and goals, while leading both countries down the path of increased militarization.

The Obama administration also confiscates the drug-related crisis in Mexico by raising the specter of transnational crime as a national security threat and by identifying the Mexican drug trafficking organizations as the cause of the crisis rather than as largely a product of America’s own drug war and drug prohibition policies.

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy and is the author of Border Wars  from MIT Press. See his work at http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com/

Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.

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