Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies has long had a reputation for being the forum of choice for angry men with bed sheets and magic markers. When Austin and I visited in September last year, flashing a couple of fake press passes we’d done up on the computer and being ushered in past security to witness a special joint session of congress, no one seemed very surprised when one opposition member, Domingo Rodriguez, interrupted a speech by Secretary of Education Josefina Vázquez Mota by holding up a banner proclaiming that even after 200 years of independence “the indigenous people are still in oblivion”. While to our eyes this appeared a scandal, to those in more official sockets it was clearly nothing special, and an exaggerated roll constituted the extent of their response.
Perhaps that’s because the banner in question was stating something everyone already knew and nobody much cared about, because when an opposition member last week held up a banner proclaiming President Felipe Calderón an alcoholic the response was nothing short of furore. “Would you let a drunk drive your car?” Gerardo Fernandez Norona’s banner read. “No, right? So why would you let him run the country?” Adorned as it was with a picture of the president, the banner’s implication was clear. Had anyone hazarded an answer to its question, it is certain that they would not been heard over the cries of indignation.
Although the chamber’s session was suspended, those cries echoed beyond it for several days and predictably took on a life of their own. A question about Calderón’s intake of fermented agave juice quickly transformed into one about freedom of the press after a respected journalist and media personality, Carmen Aristegui, was dismissed from her drive-time radio show for insisting that the president address the accusations. (The station said she had violated its code of ethics by giving credibility to a rumour.) Calderón’s office insisted in turn that the president would not dignify the accusations with a response. Which didn’t stop the president’s private secretary, Roberto Gil Zuarth, from dignifying them with one. Evoking his boss’s “physical strength” and “strength of character”, Gil’s defence was heartfelt and loyal, though anyone who has ever seen the technocratic president up close could hardly be blamed for wondering who the young man was talking about.
Strength of character, of course, is the least of the president’s worries. Calderón may not have a drinking problem, but he certainly has a drug problem, and to the extent that the latter grows worse each day one could almost forgive him for having developed the former. With each passing week, or so it is beginning to seem, Calderón faces some fresh denunciation of his strategy in the war against his country’s drug cartels — cables released by WikiLeaks in December had US officials praising his commitment but fretting over his execution — or else some fresh debunking of his government’s various excuses for why it isn’t working.
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This week has been no different. Appearing at a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Thursday, US National Intelligence director James Clapper described the abilities of the Mexican armed forces and federal police as inadequate against the cartels that act with impunity and ostentatious brutality along the country’s northern border. (The same border, coincidentally, that Arizona just countersued the federal government for the right to police on its own terms, which is another way of saying with extreme prejudice.) While admitting that Calderon’s military strategy had yielded results in some areas — most notably by capturing or killing four of the country’s eight cartel kingpins — Clapper said the country still faced “enormous challenges” and was being hamstrung by “resource constraints, competing political priorities and bureaucratic resistance”.
Earlier in the hearing, Maryland’s Rep. C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the committee, drew comparisons between the Middle East and Mexico, claiming the US should invest more resources in the country in the interest of national security. Clearly of a piece with the subtly shifting rhetoric of some in the international media, who have started referring to narco-trafficking as narco-insurgency, it is comments like these that have many inside Mexico not so subtly shifting in their seats. Hillary Clinton’s comparison, in September last year, of Calderon’s Mexico to the Columbia of the early nineties had a similar effect. The White House later played down Clinton’s suggestion that Mexico and Central America could do with a version of Plan Colombia, but the nationalistic canary in salt mine was already dead. Both sides of Mexican politics came out in fierce denunciation of the suggestion. The idea that the US military could intervene in Mexico — after taking over half a million square miles from it at the conclusion of the US-Mexican War in 1848 — was too much to bear or remain silent about.
Motivated by these concerns — which, although understandable on an emotional level, are unlikely to ever be realised — many have found it necessary to remind the US that it bears some responsibility for the war on drugs itself and should not be so quick as to think it can win it. But if Clapper’s testimony on Thursday provided the week’s denunciation of Calderon’s strategy, then STRATFOR’s report on Mexico’s gun supply, released the same day, provided the week’s debunking of precisely this kind of blame-shifting excuse.
One of the most interesting stories to have come out of the war on the cartels thus far is that of the growing sophistication — and, worse, the growing number — of illegally imported firearms in the increasingly bloodied theatre. Mexican and US politicians alike like to claim that 90% of these weapons come from the northern side of the border, a statistic that, paired with the unfortunate reality that the trade is being driven by demand on that same side, makes it easier to blame the more powerful neighbour for not only causing but also enabling the violence.
The oft-quoted percentage was derived from a June 2009 US Government Accountability Office report to Congress, which claimed that, of four thousand guns seized by Mexican officials and traced by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in 2008, 87% were found to have come from the US. As the STRATFOR report makes clear, however, those 4000 weapons came from a much larger sample: Mexican authorities seized some 30,000 firearms from criminals in 2008, with information pertaining to only 24% of them submitted to the ATF for tracing. Of that much smaller number, only an even smaller one — the 4000 from which we get our final figure — could be successfully traced.
In other words, only 12% of the weapons seized in Mexico in 2008 were ever traced back to the US. While it is certainly true, and even probable, that a larger percentage might have come down through the border states, and while it is just as true that arms smuggling between the two countries remains a genuine problem, there is nothing to suggest the majority of the the total guns seized began their journey north of the Rio Grande. Indeed, the report goes onto suggest that precisely the opposite is true: a great many of the illegal weapons being used by the cartels — in particular the military-grade ordnance that lead Clinton to make her controversial comments about insurgency, such as South Korean fragmentation grenades and the M60 machine guns common to several Latin America militaries — are not even in the US arsenal. More likely they have been sourced through the international arms market — China is singled out for special mention — and from corrupt elements in the militaries of Mexico and its Central American neighbours.
None of this is to play down what the US actually is responsible for, of course. It is true that American demand keeps the cartels in business and that American legislation keeps the business illegal. If the weapons being used in the course of doing this business aren’t American as well, however, it serves little end to claim that they are, except to the extent that the end in question has been determined by your public relations department. Of course, your public relations department shouldn’t be coming up with excuses for drug-related violence anyway, especially when Héctor Murguía, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez — where, I learn as I write this sentence, another eight people were gunned down in a bar late last night — is out there blaming “lack of opportunity, lack of education [and] lack of justice” just as often as he’s blaming “the [world’s] biggest consumer of drugs” and its proximity to the city he runs. What that sort of thing suggests is an unwillingness to take responsibility for the ones you might actually be able to do something about. Next thing we know you’ll be struggling to walk in a straight line and blaming the fact on a case of illegally imported Budweiser.