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/CORRECTED REPEAT*/US-MEXICO: Clinton Visit Has Aura of Drug Intervention

Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Mar 26 2009 (IPS) - The Barack Obama administration announced this week that it will augment already massive foreign aid to its southern neighbour in a bid to help Mexico fight cartels smuggling drugs into the U.S., as well as sending a series of high-level U.S. officials to Mexico to consult with their counterparts.

As part of the effort to respond to what has been regarded here as something of a crisis, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced Tuesday that the U.S. will purchase two U.S.-built helicopters for the Mexican military, and spend about 180 million dollars to shore up the U.S. side of the border.

Some critics, while acknowledging that violence in Mexico is a problem, fear that the Obama administration may be continuing a militaristic build-up – in Mexico and on the border – driven by hype over how dire the situation in Mexico is.

The U.S. border plan and helicopters are in addition to monies already allocated under the Merida Initiative, an aid package aimed at helping Mexico – and, to a lesser degree, Central America – curb drug smuggling into the U.S.

The initiative was signed into law last June and calls for 1.4 billion dollars over three years, with some 700 million budgeted, much of it for military and law enforcement training and equipment, including lucrative deals for U.S. hardware and training contactors.

The Merida Initiative is aimed at supplying technology and training, encouraging reforms in what is widely perceived as a corrupt judiciary; providing information technology to aid prosecutions and communication; supplying aircraft to increase the mobility of Mexico’s army; and, overall, stemming the flow of drugs, money, and guns across the border of the two countries.

The new programmes fit into the paradigm of what many analysts now agree is a failed drug war waged by the U.S. Particularly affecting Latin American countries, the U.S.’s policies are seen as having damaging effects throughout the region, such as complaints about human rights violations by the Mexican military.

The helicopters will ostensibly help Mexico in its war against the cartels, which have escalated violence in Mexico’s north, with at least some of the money being drawn from the Merida Initiative.

The announcement about the U.S. border-tightening and helicopters are also being bolstered by a high-level diplomatic offensive into Mexico this week and next by Obama administration officials, followed by a trip to Mexico for Obama himself in the middle of next month.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived Wednesday in Mexico, where she is visiting both Mexico City and Monterrey. The latter has seen an increase in violence over the past year – both among the cartels themselves and with the Mexican military. Next week, both Napolitano and Justice Department chief Eric Holder will visit the country in order to facilitate the efforts between their respective bureaucracies and the Mexican government.

For example, the Justice Department is preparing to help Mexico crack down on money laundering. Billions of dollars flow into Mexico every year after drugs are smuggled into the U.S., offloaded, and sold. Much of the money comes as physical cash over the border, but it is also common to make wire transfers.

The Obama administration is taking these bold moves in order to deal with what has increasingly been hyped in the U.S. as an escalating crisis on the southern border.

The violence in Mexico has been ongoing for some time. President Felipe Calderon began heavy assaults against the drug cartels nearly two years ago. The well-armed cartels have been fighting back since, leading to a protracted conflict that has had a high death toll for over a year.

But that up-tick, despite having been noted long ago by many Mexico observers and analysts, has been played up by reports and statements from U.S. officials that have, in turn, yielded media reports using the same alarmist language.

The first such report to raise eyebrows and garner attention was a November 2008 report from the U.S. Joint Forces Command, a conglomeration of several military leaders, which said that Mexico was on par with turbulent Pakistan in terms of their risks of “a rapid and sudden collapse.”

“Mexico is not a failed state,” shot back the country’s exterior minister, Patricia Espinosa, in the New York Times.

But the onslaught of negative assessments of Mexico’s situation would soon snowball into a chorus of doomsday predictions by military analysts and media outlets.

“Mexico is on the edge of the abyss – it could become a narco-state in the coming decade,” said former U.S. drug czar and retired General Barry McCaffrey in mid-January, calling for increased aid and saying that the Merida Initiative was “a drop in the bucket.”

The same week, the former influential Republican lawmaker Newt Gingrich appeared on television promoting a theory about potential “spill-over” violence into the U.S., a call that has become a common – though mostly unsubstantiated – claim.

After the hubbub created by the statements and reports, a string of Congressional hearings addressed the topic. The story of what for months had been high levels of – fairly routine – violence in Mexico was suddenly featured in major U.S. newspapers and on network television shows as a major development.

A Lexis-Nexis search of the terms “Mexico”, “drugs” and “cartel” throughout three of the most influential and widely-read newspapers in Washington (the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal) showed that the story became hot in early 2009, after the alarmist statements, rather than in 2008, when the sharpest escalation of violence was actually occurring.

The search turned up 97 stories in the first three months of this year, up nearly 50 percent from the last quarter of 2008, and more than twice as much as the third quarter of 2008.

The trend is the same for network television news. An estimated 23 million U.S. residents watch the 22 minutes of news the three networks broadcast on an average weekday evening, and the audience for the network news is still roughly 10 times larger than its cable T.V.-based counterparts.

The Tyndall Report, an authoritative study of topics covered by the nightly network shows, shows that the last six months of 2008 saw only five reports on Mexico’s drug war or border-related stories. In half that amount of time since the start of 2009, however, there have been 12 reports from the three nightly newscasts about the Mexican drug war.

“The most remarkable thing about [the reports from both U.S. officials and the media] was that there was no factual trigger whatsoever,” said Mexico City-based analyst Laura Carlsen, of the Americas Policy Programme at the Centre for International Policy. “There was an uptick in violence. But we knew about this.”

“The U.S. Mexico relationship is increasingly being designed as a security issue,” she told IPS. “The bilateral relationship is becoming militarised. The people who define this crucial relationship to both countries are increasingly in the Pentagon and the military.”

Carlsen noted that the Merida Initiative is essentially the centrepiece of those bilateral relations, and that its effects have been counterproductive. “It’s an initiative that militarises the drug wars even more, which is what has caused this violence in Mexico in recent years,” she said.

She also pointed to the fact that most of the guns seized from the cartels in Mexico can be traced back to the U.S. Part of the effort announced by Napolitano Tuesday is to keep weapons smuggling into Mexico down and pursue those cases where weapons can be definitively traced back to the U.S.

(*The story moved Mar. 25, 2009 contained an error regarding U.S. aid to Mexico. The 700 million dollars is part of, not in addition to, the Merida Initiative.)

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