Monday, October 25, 2010

US-Mexico Policy Challenges in Combating Organized Crime

The Mexico Institute at the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute held a conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center on October 22 entitled "Shared Responsibility: U.S. - Mexico Policy Options for Confronting Organized Crime." The event coincided with the two organizations' release of a book of the same name, and discussed the U.S.-Mexico security relationship.

The conference was divided into two panels:

Panel I: "Policy Challenges in Mexico and the U.S."
Panel II: "Geography of Drug Trafficking in Mexico, Central America, and the U.S."

and included the following panelists and discussants:

John Bailey on binational strategies for combating drug trafficking; José Díaz-Briseño on Mexican black tar heroin distribution networks in the U.S.; Steven Dudley on organized crime in Central America Dolia Estévez on protecting press freedom in an environment of violence and impunity; Doug Farah on money laundering and bulk cash transfers to Mexico; Daniel Sabet on Mexico's police forces and professionalization efforts;David Shirk on the geography of Mexico's drug trafficking organizations; Andrew Selee the Director of the Mexico Institute; David Shirk the Director of the Trans-Border Institute, University of San Diego; Eric L. Olson the Senior Associate for Security Programs at the Mexico Institute.

The prominent theme of the discussions was the ultra-violent, politically savvy, adaptive nature of the drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Mexico, and their ability to shift and accommodate different political and economic environments. This reality underscores the need for comprehensive policy options from both sides of the border to attack DTO violence at the root causes and methods as opposed to just responding to the spectacular levels of violence that capture media attention on both sides of the border.

Under the larger headings, the panels discussed the major challenges ahead of achieving sustainable reform. These challenges include the inquisitorial vs. adversarial judicial model, a lack of intelligence cooperation, corrupt local police forces, public insecurity, poverty, violence against the press, and ineffective border security.

Another major issue addressed at the conference was the controversial role of the military in Mexico's anti-drug strategy. Some of the Mexican public perceives the military as more trustworthy and aggressive than local police forces, which may increase levels of overall public security in the midst of DTO violence. David Shirk of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute argued that, "The military [and the church] are the most respected institutions in Mexico." Conversely, others argue that increased military oversight in combating drug trafficking has left the institution open for increased corruption and impunity. Abigail Poe of the Center for International Policy (CIP) recently wrote a blog entry on Just the Facts outlining the major details of the Washington Office on Latin America's (WOLA) recent report, "Abused and Afraid in Ciudad Juarez", which details specific accounts of military abuse and human rights violations in Mexico.

The panelists agreed that the Mexican and U.S. governments have already begun to implement policies that adhere to the idea of addressing the cartel violence via the "Four Pillar Strategy" and another binational efforts. The four pillars are (1) disrupting organized criminal groups; (2) institutionalizing the rule of law; (3) building a 21st century border; and (4) building strong and resilient communities.

One of the major topics addressed at the conference was the need to build up Mexico's civilian institutional capacity to combat impunity and corruption within local armed forces. Recently, under the framework of the Merida Initiative, the U.S. government has received the consent of the Mexican government to station at least one U.S. intelligence official in Ciudad Juarez, the virtual epicenter of drug violence in Mexico. According to a Mileno editorial detailing U.S. presence in Ciudad Juarez:

"The goal is to strengthen intelligence gathering and Mexican government agencies to establish links between Mexico and the United States to maximize real-time information and guiding the Mexican strategic and tactical operations, is based on the report."

Despite such efforts, more policy options must be pursued. This includes addressing U.S. domestic consumption issues and improved financial system regulation to stop illicit flows and money laundering.

To see the Milenio article discussing recently increased U.S. intelligence operatives presence in Ciudad Juarez, click here (Spanish). The actual text of the Ciudad Juarez Crime Fact Sheets is available in English at the bottom of the article.

In the end, all of the panelists and discussants agreed that a "spirit of collaboration" between the United States and Mexico will be a major determining factor in how effectively and how soon the influence and violence of Mexican drug cartels can be diminished. They also agreed that the reforms will likely require long-term observation and attention, but that this is the only way to produce sustainable change in Mexico's drug wars.

This post was written by CIP intern Allison Gilchrist