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Felipe Calderón’s Two Faces

MEXICO CITY – Mexican President Felipe Calderón has finally gotten what he wanted: the resignation of United States Ambassador Carlos Pascual. Calderón shot the messenger for delivering bad news through confidential cables released by WikiLeaks. Pascual’s harsh assessments of the “war on drugs” that Calderón unleashed four years ago infuriated the president.

The revelations also annoyed the Mexican army, for they pointed out that the military frequently doesn’t act on intelligence provided by the US, and displays a strong aversion to risk. Moreover, Pascual’s candid assessments described a dysfunctional situation in which Mexican security agencies fight each other more than they fight organized crime. Essentially, Pascual was forced to leave for describing a reality that Calderón does not want to face, and that his government would prefer to ignore. In other words, he lost his job for doing it properly.

But the stubborn truth revealed by the US diplomat emerges every day, despite the impact of drug kingpins who are arrested, the number of weapons discovered, or the amount of cocaine seized. Mexico is not winning the “war” against drug trafficking and organized crime: Pascual’s forced resignation cannot hide the 34,000 dead, the growing number of Mexicans addicted to drugs, the surge in kidnappings and executions, and widespread impunity.

The official narrative is that violence is an inevitable consequence of taking on the drug cartels. But other countries have managed to prevent drug gangs from unleashing their fury on innocent civilians. And, while Mexicans are told that the violence is only between rival gangs, executions transcend the realm of drug trafficking. Citizens are exhorted by their government to denounce criminals, though 98.5% of criminal investigations are never solved. A recent poll showed that 59% of Mexicans believe that the government is losing the war that it declared, while only 23% support the government’s current course.

As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, all wars entail deception. Mexico has become its latest victim. The Mexican government has not been sufficiently honest about the scale of the challenges that it faces, the measures that it has taken, and the level of US support, involvement, and collaboration that it has sought.

Therein lie the contradictions, evasiveness, and lack of transparency regarding the terms on which Calderón’s war is being conducted. Everyone on his team demands that the US devote more attention and resources to Calderón’s effort, but publicly denies doing so when evidence of heightened US presence in Mexico becomes public.

In recent weeks, the Calderón administration has twisted itself into knots trying to explain how and why it authorized US drone planes to fly over Mexican territory for intelligence-gathering purposes. And yet, while Calderón insists that the US assume its bilateral responsibilities, he also demands the US Ambassador’s head for revealing his own tactical and strategic mistakes in the war he insists on prosecuting.

Calderón’s contradictory stance is rooted in the reflexive habits of a Mexican political class trained to gain points by kicking the US. Calderón, too, has sought refuge behind the folds of the Mexican flag and in diatribes about sovereignty under siege.

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In other words, Calderón accuses the US of intervention, even as he assiduously seeks it. He criticizes the US for meddling, after his government promoted that meddling. Pascual is accused of behaving like a “Proconsul,” after Mexican authorities – due to incompetence or irresponsibility – assigned him that role. In a recent interview, Calderón lambasted Pascual for his “ignorance,” after the ambassador sent incontrovertible cables describing the real situation on the ground. They’re painful to read, but difficult to refute.

Rather than shooting the messenger, Calderón should reflect on the message itself, and rethink not only the war but the terms on which he has decided to wage it. The cables should lead Calderón to rectify a strategy that so far has increased the level of violence without decreasing drug trafficking. The “success” of the war needs to be measured by the reduction in its toll of violence. Moreover, Pascual’s conclusions should force Calderón to redefine Mexico’s relationship with the US in a more honest fashion. Because if all of this does not happen, Calderón’s ability to force out the US ambassador, and any short-term political gain he obtained in doing so, will be irrelevant.

Indeed, after the “ugly American” has packed his bags, Ciudad Juárez will still be the most dangerous city in the world. The homicide rate in the country will continue to soar, and public security agencies will remain incapable of preventing, detecting, or punishing the vast majority of violent events that have placed the country on edge. The Mexican government will continue to request US aid in a surreptitious fashion, and deny doing so when it becomes public.

The message is clear. If we Mexicans don’t end this war – so ill-conceived, so poorly executed, and so badly explained – it will end us. One does not have to read Carlos Pascual’s leaked cables to understand that.

Denise Dresser is Professor of Political Science, Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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