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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated Wednesday that Mexico and Central America were facing an “insurgency” that requires the equivalent of a Plan Colombia in the region. Her comments immediately raised the ire of the Mexican government and sparked fears of expanded U.S. military intervention.

“…we face an increasing threat from a well-organized network drug trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico and in Central America,” Clinton said. She added that “these drug cartels are now showing more and more indices of insurgency; all of a sudden, car bombs show up which weren’t there before.”

Ironically, Clinton was responding to a question on what the United States was doing regarding its “responsibility for drugs coming north and guns going south.” Instead of answering the question, Clinton compared Mexico to Colombia and made the boldest statement to date about U.S. intervention, including military support, in Mexico’s drug war.

“[I]t’s looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago,” Clinton said. And Colombia – it got to the point where more than a third of the country, nearly 40 percent of the country at one time or another was controlled by the insurgents, by FARC. But it’s going to take a combination of improved institutional capacity and better law enforcement and, where appropriate, military support for that law enforcement married to political will to be able to prevent this from spreading and to try to beat it back..” Clinton maintained that Plan Colombia worked and added “we need to figure out what are the equivalents for Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.”

Mexican Response

It took no time at all for members of Mexico’s Congress to respond with indignation. In session to analyze President Felipe Calderón’s fourth state of the union report, one representative noted that the U.S. government was “good at criticizing other countries and not recognizing that they are an important part of this dark chain of drug trafficking and organized crime. The Mexican people should reject any interventionist attitude on the part of the U.S. government.” Some members of the Mexican Congress demanded that the secretary of foreign relations send a formal note of protest to the Obama administration.

Secretary Patricia Espinosa stated that she did not “share the judgment” of her northern counterpart and cabinet spokesperson Alejandro Poire rejected the comparison with Colombia.

In Washington, Obama officials rushed in to do damage control. Assistant-Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela corrected his boss, saying that the use of “the term insurgency should not be viewed in the same way we would refer to a Colombian insurgency. Not an insurgency of a militarized group within a society that is attempting to take over the state for political reasons.” Later President Obama discarded the comparison in remarks to La Opinion.

The comment set off a small whirlwind within the Obama cabinet and in U.S.-Mexico diplomatic relations.

The Colombian Comparison

The only thing surprising about Clinton’s concept is that she said it out loud. The Merida Initiative was initially floated as “Plan Mexico,” until the moniker was scrapped. The direct comparison with Plan Colombia was considered a liability. In Mexico, the thought of U.S. military presence riles nationalist sentiment. In the United States, meanwhile, the negligent impact on drug trafficking and the rise in human rights violations of the $7.3 billion Plan Colombia spark concerns about copying it on the border.

By whatever name, the Bush plan for Mexico and Central America has always borne a close relationship to its southern predecessor. Plan Colombia began as a counter-narcotics plan built along the drug war model of enforcement and interdiction and use of the army, with close U.S. participation. Plan Mexico does not include U.S. Army presence but relies on the same model.

Clinton’s willful conflation of insurgency and drug trafficking arises from one of two possible sources—ignorance or malicious misinformation. An insurgency seeks to take over territory to bring about a profound change in the structure of society and, usually, take over the government. Drug traffickers, despite Calderón’s statements to the contrary, do not launch offensives against the state to replace the government. They’re all about protecting and expanding their very lucrative business. In part, the seemingly purposeful misunderstanding of this distinction is at the root of the failed drug war policy.

If this were understood, the obvious strategy should be to attack the business–not its operatives. Hiring cartel replacements is extremely easy in Mexico. The cartels are flexible in structure, with new leaders or rival gangs replacing displaced or weakened ones. There is an inexhaustible pool of young men with few prospects in life in a country where the government has failed to provide adequate educational or employment opportunities.

Attacking the business means going after the transnational financial structures that support it. Both governments have seemed reluctant to do that forcefully since drug money flows through powerful mainstream financial institutions, adds liquidity, and funds outwardly legitimate businesses.

Backwards Policymaking

Shortly before Clinton’s remarks, the U.S. Congress appropriated an additional $175 million for the Mexican drug war with no comprehensive review or strategy analysis of the terrible results the model has had to date. Drug-related violence has exploded south of the border, with nearly 30,000 dead since the launch of the drug war in late 2006. Human rights violations charged against the army had gone up sixfold by last year, and just in the past months Army forces have shot and killed several civilians.

Elected representatives should appropriate our tax dollars based on a careful analysis of how the resources will effectively attain goals related to the public good. When it comes to defense appropriations in general, and Plan Mexico as an extreme example, the modus operandi is spend now, and deal with the disastrous results later—by spending more. A recent report from the General Accounting Office reported that the Merida Initiative does not even contain benchmarks by which to evaluate it.

The supplemental appropriation to Mexico states that the provisions under the heading “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement” require a report from the State Department showing compliance with the requirements of Section 7045(e). These “human rights conditions,” which some legislators and Washington groups pushed reflected serious concerns that funds would be flowing to notoriously corrupt and abusive security forces in Mexico.

In practice, however, Congress watered down the conditions so that they provided a smokescreen to hide deeper concerns about the strategy. Congress ignored criticisms of the Merida Initiative from the AFL-CIO and scores of faith-based organizations and approved five separate appropriations totaling nearly $1.5 billion dollars. The initiative, morphed from a three-year commitment to permanent engagement.

On September. 5, Sec of State Clinton announced that the US government was withholding 15% of the new supplemental based on the human rights conditions. The Mexican government complained loudly and publicly but quietly celebrated. The math is pretty straightforward—we’ll give you $175 million in extra funds but hold back $26 million, for a net gain of $149 million. Both governments made sanctimonious statements. The United States criticized Mexico while ignoring the fact that transnational crime couldn’t function without corruption within its own borders. The Calderón administration protested its neighbor’s fuss over human rights when it has a war to fight. Even the mainstream press noted the contradictions of the numbers game.

By now it would seem that the conditioning strategy for a kinder and gentler drug war would be thoroughly discredited. The most generous interpretation is that it was a strategy on the part of groups and Congressional members that misread the situation in Mexico and the nature of the new Pentagon-led binational relationship that was being forged through the Plan. Immediate rectification should be in order. Instead, the Obama administration plans to request even more public funds for the failed policy while paying lip service to human rights.

Mounting Doubts

The latest controversy over drug-trafficking policy in Mexico comes in the midst of doubts on both sides of the border. Mexican senators of political parties except Calderón’s sharply criticized the “failure” of the president’s war drug war in a review of the administration’s annual report. The Revolutionary Institutional Party noted that the yearly report submitted by President Calderon showed fewer interdictions and no notable rise in arrests from historic levels, with only 1.5 million pesos allotted to prevention of addiction. A member of the Party of the Democratic Revolution decried the equation of “more resources, more deaths,” as the drug war has cost the depleted Mexican budget nearly $7 billion dollars to date.

In the United States, doubts have also grown over the effectiveness of the strategy. Deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Alonzo R. Peña complained that the Mexican government often does not act on U.S. intelligence. Peña noted that at times the reason could be caution but at others “it is completely corruption.” In Washington, the rise in negative consequences have led to concerns over the lack of an exit strategy or a clearly defined path to success.

Particularly with the severe deterioration in the situation in Mexico, no magic formulas present themselves. Nonetheless, Congress should not ignore the violence that has been unleashed under the current policy and cannot accept the murders as collateral damage. Experts in Mexico calculate that at this rate drug-related deaths will reach over 70,000 by the end of Calderón’s presidency, with a rate of some 50 deaths a day throughout the country.

The United States must start by recognizing shared responsibility for the growth of organized crime in Mexico. The United States also faces major challenges within its own borders and shares responsibility for supporting a drug war strategy that has so evidently increased the brutality of drug cartels. There is a dearth of information on the anti-corruption activities in the United States that have failed to prevent, and indeed have facilitated, the transfer of illegal substances across the border for distribution to cities coast to coast. Addiction treatment and drug abuse prevention programs are woefully under-funded. Measures like California’s marijuana regulation referendum could eliminate a huge chunk of cartel income by removing the drug from the black market.

Clinton’s comments reveal the strong currents within government that seek to deepen U.S. involvement in the Mexican drug war. It is never easy to admit a policy failure of this magnitude, or turn back plans like Plan Mexico that involve the powerful lobbies of defense contractors and private security companies. But President Obama has shown the courage to admit errors in the past and seek to rectify them. Both the administration and Congress must show that kind of courage now to profoundly re-orient the out-of-control drug war on the border.

Laura Carlsen is director of the CIP Americas Program at www.cipamericas.org

This article originally appeared in Laura Carlsen’s column for Foreign Policy in Focus.