Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

What Foreign Affairs missed about the Mexican (and American) drug mess

Here’s a comment from our drugs ‘n’ violence reporter, who lately has gone all “old media” and has been moonlighting for the Washington Post’s op-ed page.   By Jennifer Bernal-GarciaBest Defense cocaine cartels correspondent The new issue of Foreign Affairs features an article by former DEA Administrator and former CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner titled “The ...

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Here's a comment from our drugs ‘n' violence reporter, who lately has gone all "old media" and has been moonlighting for the Washington Post's op-ed page.  

By Jennifer Bernal-Garcia
Best Defense cocaine cartels correspondent

The new issue of Foreign Affairs features an article by former DEA Administrator and former CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner titled "The New Cocaine Cowboys - How to Defeat Mexico's Drug Cartels." It provides a great overview of the factors that led to the current situation in Mexico, covering pre-existing corruption but also the incremental efforts of the past three presidential administrations to try to curb cartel influence. It also, however, misses a number of points that would have made it truly timely and therefore falls short of providing a true outline for government success.

Here’s a comment from our drugs ‘n’ violence reporter, who lately has gone all “old media” and has been moonlighting for the Washington Post’s op-ed page.  

By Jennifer Bernal-Garcia
Best Defense cocaine cartels correspondent

The new issue of Foreign Affairs features an article by former DEA Administrator and former CBP Commissioner Robert C. Bonner titled “The New Cocaine Cowboys – How to Defeat Mexico’s Drug Cartels.” It provides a great overview of the factors that led to the current situation in Mexico, covering pre-existing corruption but also the incremental efforts of the past three presidential administrations to try to curb cartel influence. It also, however, misses a number of points that would have made it truly timely and therefore falls short of providing a true outline for government success.

Bonner makes three main assertions. First, Mexico can learn important lessons from Colombia’s struggle against its own cartels in the ‘90s. It is a more apt comparison than the Plan Colombia period, as has been already pointed out by scholars like Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings. Basically, fighting very fragmented cartels requires the skillful use of law enforcement against every level of their organizations.

Second, he notes, the transnational and highly adaptive nature of criminal organizations across the continent requires the concerted efforts of multiple countries to counter them. While this seems intuitive, it is not always put in practice. The U.S. government, for one, has embarked on numerous initiatives with Mexico without pulling strings in other countries in this hemisphere. It seems that governments across the region continue to be caught off-guard when manifestations of the migrating drug trade pop up in their country.

Third, he observes, the U.S. needs to clarify its often-muddled goals and prioritize the dismantling of criminal organizations over simple drug interdiction. While the two are related by the power that cartels derive from drug sales, the problem extends beyond drugs to a myriad other forms of criminal behavior. In this sense, the mission becomes more like counterinsurgency, similar to what we saw in Colombia.

Unfortunately, I was also left with the impression that I could have read this same article a couple of years ago. A number of Bonner’s recommendations are already being enacted; I would have liked to see him mention them and perhaps even weigh in on their likelihood of success.

For example, Bonner calls for the establishment of a command-and-control center for intelligence and communications as part of the Merida Initiative. Mexico and the U.S. used Merida Initiative funds to do just that, opening an intelligence-sharing and coordination center in Mexico City in March. Called the Merida Initiative Bi-national Office, the center currently has a staff of 75, of which 25 are U.S. officials. I have not read much about this center since its opening, and am very interested in hearing the sort of impact it has been having, if any.

Likewise, Bonner’s suggestion for police reform already is being heeded. The Mexican government has started to disband municipal police departments, long riddled by corruption, in favor of integrating them into the (slightly less corrupt) federal police. The decision seems to make sense, but it will be difficult to reconcile with the gradual (and correct) recognition by the government that countering crime-ridden localities will require a greater devotion of funds to community-level programs. It’s causing quite a stir in Mexico and the ultimate outcome is similarly in doubt.

While pieces like Bonner’s are important for people to understand the situation, they make me wonder: What insights are truly new when it comes to Mexico? I think that to be truly useful and innovative, future articles will need to go into far more detail on the current situation on the ground. In that sense, Bonner’s article is kind of a blown opportunity for an influential magazine to lead to a serious step forward instead of simply checking the “Mexico problems” box.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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