Dear President Obama, Re: Your Trip to Mexico…

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Dear President Obama: as you surely remember, your last visit to Mexico City, around April 2009, found us at a pretty bad moment.

Mexico was at the lowest point of a severe recession, with production, jobs, and income all plummeting. We were also in the middle of a nearly unprecedented escalation of criminal violence. In the 18 months previous to your visit, homicides had increased nearly 50 percent (and wouldn’t stop increasing for another two years), kidnappings had doubled and scenes of horror were multiplying across the country: taped decapitations, mutilated bodies hanging from highway bridges, gun battles that lasted for hours outside of nursery schools. To put a finish on things, just days after your departure, a health crisis emerged following an outbreak of an unknown strain of flu, which literally paralyzed Mexico for several days, besides turning the country into a type of international pariah for a couple of weeks.

Yes, Mexico looked bad those days. So bad that a report from an arm of the Pentagon (the United States Joint Forces Command), published around that time, warned of the possibility of a “rapid and sudden collapse,” and signaled that in Mexico, “its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels.” Topping things off, the report discussed the need for US intervention in the case that Mexico should descend into chaos.

Today, things look different. We’ve had four years of more or less robust economic growth. Manufacturing exports have more than doubled since the lowest point of the crisis and Mexican products have gained market share in the US. The government and the principal political parties have committed to passing structural reforms, and there are two (almost) already in the can. Violence stabilized two years ago and began to decrease gradually. Amid all this good news, some in the foreign press call us the “Aztec tiger,” and others, with a great deal more hyperbole, the “dominant economic power in the 21st century.”

Big change, don’t you think? Well, yes, but perhaps not so big if you take a second look. We weren’t on the edge of the abyss in 2009 and we aren’t on the edge of utopia in 2013. Like everything, things are more complicated.

Let me tell you about the things I know. In April 2009, when we were supposedly about to become a failed state, 1,232 homicides were registered. The past month, in the middle of “Mexico’s moment,” 1,624 homicides were reported, 32 percent more than those supposed days of crisis four years ago. But, well, violence is going down now, isn’t it? Yes, but slowly — between June 2011 to November 2012, violent homicides dropped 17 percent, according to seasonal adjustment. Since then, we’ve stayed at the same level. Judging by the current trajectory, the monthly total of violent homicides should drop 10 percent (or less) between now and 2018.

Even still, organized crime is less of a threat compared to four years ago, right? Maybe. The large groups have atomized, fragmented, scattered. The Sinaloa Cartel lost two branches. The Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) became, if not dismantled, much reduced. The Gulf Cartel, Juarez Cartel, and Tijuana Cartel are but shadows of what they once were. The Zetas are living a Cain-and-Abel situation, with the greater part of their leadership killed or captured, and with rebellions brewing within the group.

But organized crime remains. Maybe it no longer has the capacity to threaten the security, integrity, and permanence of the state, but it has the resources, and the disposition, to disrupt the lives of millions of Mexicans, to rob, extort, kidnap, torture, mutilate, and kill with few restrictions. It has become a more local phenomenon, more extractive, more complex.

So no, Mexico is not in a situation in which we can dispense with the cooperation between your government and ours.

Now, the terms of the collaboration need to transform by necessity. In Mexico, there is a new government that has expressed it wants a change, that priorities are different and that a new framework for collaboration with the US is needed. That’s fine: every new Mexican administration has the right, and even the duty, to re-think the relationship with our partners, neighbors, and friends.

The problem is that they’ve been explicit about what they don’t want, rather than what they do want.

Don’t like the Merida Initiative? Very well. What do you propose then to 1.) organize the security relationship with the US, and 2.) ensure that there is a concrete manifestation of the principle of joint responsibility?

Don’t want decentralized contact between US and Mexican agencies? Perfect. Then what should be done about integrating intelligence and operations? How to keep the number of missed opportunities from multiplying, if everything has to go through the Secretariat of the Interior?

Don’t want the bi-national intelligence “fusion centers” or units “vetted” by the US? That’s fine. Then how can one solve the problem of lack of trust and ensure that the relevant information arrives where it needs to go, at the right time?

I am suspicious, President Obama, that these answers are going to take a while. The new Mexican authorities have proved to be very good with generalities, not so good with the details (President Enrique Peña Nieto’s security term can be defined in plenty of ways, but “policy wonks” is not one of them). So, maybe, you and your team could give them a little help. It occurs to me that maybe, perhaps, you could propose some of the following measures:

1- Change the name of the Merida Initiative (to remove echoes of Calderon).

2- Name a direct counterpart to Secretary of the Interior Miguel Osorio Chong for intelligence topics (the Office of the Director of National Intelligence? The CIA director?)

3- Integrate more Mexican personnel in the intelligence fusion centers (i.e., the EPIC, the JIATF) or joint units (i.e., the ICE) on US territory.

4- Create bi-national working groups, led by the Secretariat of the Interior on Mexico’s side, to streamline (without decentralizing) the interaction between US and Mexican agencies.

5- Establish a bi-national planning group, focused on violence reduction and launching pilot programs for focused deterrence in border communities.

6- Steer the Merida Initiative (or however you want to call it) resources towards strengthening the capacity of state and municipal governments (such initiatives already exist, but could be making greater progress more quickly).

7- Carry out a systematic evaluation of the cooperation programs and strengthen those which work reasonably well (i.e., the USAID program supporting criminal justice system reform).

8- Increase US assistance for crime prevention programs (again, this already exists, but more could be done).

9- Accelerate the expansion of border infrastructure, as with the pre-approval programs for travelers and merchandise.

Of course, President Obama, a bilateral agenda of this type would be reinforced if you also bring along concrete measures to reduce drug demand, arms trafficking, and money laundering. On the first front, your recently announced drug control strategy has some encouraging elements, but could also include a commitment to adopt mass programs of coerced abstinence (i.e., HOPE, 24/7 Sobriety). A clarification of your politics regarding marijuana and the legalization experiments in Colorado and Washington couldn’t hurt either.

When it comes to arms, we in Mexico understand the political obstacles facing your gun control proposal. But even with those limits, there are additional measures that can be taken to prosecute cases of illegal exportation, or, for example, to curb certain types of trafficking (i.e., bullets). The same goes for money laundering: cash smuggling and other forms of laundering cannot be stopped completely, but there can be special initiatives for certain specific activities (i.e., trade-based money laundering). 

At the end of the day, cooperation with the US can only go so far as Mexican authorities want it to go. If the new government team wants a relationship that is less close than it was in the past, that’s the way it’ll have to be. And yes, even with goodwill from both countries, there will be moments, and topics and occasions, in which the interests of your country and ours do not coincide. A good relationship doesn’t mean the absence of conflict: it is enough to have the tools needed to deal with such problems. And this perhaps could be one of your central messages: you can change all you want, as many times as you want, but our countries don’t start from zero. The relationship is built upon what has been built before: it is adjusted, it is improved, it is reformed, but without fantasies of tabula rasa.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy spoke memorable words about the relationship between your country and ours: “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder.” Perhaps it would not hurt to include, with your legendary eloquence, a reformulation of the same sentiment.

I wish you a happy visit.

Attentively,

Alejandro Hope

Translated and reprinted with permission from Alejandro Hope*, of Plata o Plomo, a blog on the politics and economics of drugs and crime published by Animal Politico. Read Spanish original here. Hope is also a member of InSight Crime’s Board of Directors.

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