Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stratfor Geopolitical Diary: Obama's Mexico Challenge

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Mexican Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez Mont on Wednesday criticized a report from the U.S. Joint Forces Command that warns of the potential for the Mexican state to collapse, and says a devolution of control in Mexico would require U.S. intervention. Gomez Mont’s statement, along with rising concern throughout the United States over Mexico’s stability, serves as yet another reminder of the challenges that face the Mexican government — and the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.

At a time when violence in Mexico has soared to record highs — with over 5,700 people killed in organized crime-related violence in 2008 — the U.S. government has gradually begun to take notice of the severity of the situation. While the United States certainly has been waiting for the transition to a new administration, there has been a shift in the way Mexico is being discussed in policy circles. This shift has included the release of a Joint Operating Environment 2008 report from the U.S. military warning of the possible “sudden collapse” of Mexico. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and National Security Council have all, in one way or another, expressed similar concerns that either Mexico will collapse under the strain of the violence, or that there could be significant spillover of violence into the United States.

Some of this rhetoric is tuned at a pitch designed to alert the incoming Obama administration to the dangers of failing to address the storm brewing south of the border. And to some extent, the Obama team is listening. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has been the only foreign head of state to meet with Obama prior to his inauguration next week, and the two expressed hopes for mutual cooperation in coming years. And in a statement during her confirmation ceremony yesterday, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton said the new administration will pursue a more involved relationship with Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

Crafting a Latin America policy from whole cloth will be a challenge for the Obama administration, as the region’s relationship with the United States has wallowed in a certain degree of neglect from the outgoing Bush administration. Clinton promised that the Obama administration would use energy partnerships to secure a close relationship with Latin America — a particularly important policy goal given that Venezuela and Mexico are among the top five suppliers of oil to the United States. Obama’s administration also plans to do away with travel and remittance restrictions Bush has levied against Cuba.

But Mexico’s volatile security situation remains perhaps the most significant potential challenge to the new administration, and it is not clear whether there is a great deal more that can be done to face the issue. With connections strengthening between U.S. street gangs and Mexican cartels, the problem of Mexican violence is by no means limited to the Mexican side of the border.

This is not to say that the U.S. government has been idle in facing the issue; the Merida Initiative allocated hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars to enhancing training and equipment for Mexican law enforcement. But Merida is just the highest-profile of a series of initiatives the Bush administration has been quietly implementing with Mexico over the last few years, including record increases in extraditions, expansion of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) administrative presence in Mexico and increased intelligence sharing. Boosted funding for local U.S. law enforcement and border patrol has facilitated operations along the U.S. side of the border and helped to reduce some arms smuggling into Mexico, and has had a major impact on border traffic patterns. This means that the low-hanging policy options available to a U.S. president have already been implemented — and what remain are the more difficult policy decisions.

For example, one of the Mexican government’s top complaints is over the flow of illegal weapons from the United States into Mexico. The United States is the No. 1 source of illegal weapons in Mexico (although there is a significant flow through Central America), and many of the weapons smuggled into Mexico are purchased legally and untraceably at gun shows inside the United States. Sources within the Mexican government consider greater funding for programs like Operation Gunrunner, which funds arms interdiction on the U.S. side of the border, to be one of the main areas in which the Obama administration could deliver significant changes for Mexico. However, the chance that substantial revisions to the way the United States approaches gun and weapons regulations will be made in the name of a partnership with Mexico appear to be low.

But inflexibility is not limited to the United States. The degree to which Mexico is unwilling to allow any sort of operational freedom for U.S. law enforcement, or the presence of U.S. military advisers, prevents any serious help from U.S. agencies such as the DEA, which have proven to be highly effective at combating organized crime in countries like Colombia. Mexico remembers well the U.S. invasions of its north in 1914 and 1916, during the Mexican Revolution. Many blame the United States for breaking the back of the Mexican government by forcing the military to split its deployment into fighting Zapatista rebels in the south and Pancho Villa to the north. Thus Mexico, as a whole, is loath to allow U.S. troops to tread on Mexican soil in the new century.

The possibility of genuine U.S.-Mexican cooperation in combating the horrific violence plaguing Mexico raises more questions than it answers. But without a notable change in the patterns of violence (for instance, a shift to targeting civilians on either side of the border, or the assassination of major leaders in Mexico) to provide greater urgency and impetus for a policy shift, there seems to be little that can be done without expending a great deal of political capital. With the Obama administration facing challenges from a resurgent Russia to a chaotic Pakistan, major shifts in policy toward Mexico do not seem likely in the near future.

See also:

The drug war in Mexico - Reuters

The Merida Iniatiative - US Department of State

Mexico Media on High Alert

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