The Mèrida Initiative was planned by the U.S. and Mexican authorities as a program that would satisfy all skeptics. It was expected that the Initiative would please Mexicans who see the “new U.S. expansion” in everything; and the representatives of the Washington establishment who want to justify these fears at the expense of humanitarian intervention; and those who strongly believe that the drug trafficking is the exclusively Mexican internal problem that the USA should not intervene into. However, after four years the Mèrida Initiative failed to meet these expectations. It neither became the tool in the fight against drugs nor promoted the public consensus.
Besides the obvious problems with the implementation of the Initiative, even its initial concept appeared to be doubtful. First of all, it seemed strange that the fight against drug trafficking targeted only its source, absolutely ignoring the demand for the Mexican drugs that existed in the USA. This was noted, for example, by Dr. Hal Brands from the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. In his study he mentioned the rampant corruption in Mexico and the high demand for drugs in the USA as the key issues that are not covered by the Mèrida.
However, at the beginning of 2009, the U.S. authorities made quite contradictory statements. It was announced that the consumption of drugs in the USA had reduced by 70 per cent during the recent twenty years, but had doubled in Mexico since 2002. And it was not only an attempt to disclaim all the responsibility. The information of this kind has become a part of the broad discussion that was initiated by the report of the United States Joint Forces Command at the end of 2008. In particular, it was stated in this report that the situation on the southern U.S. border could worsen suddenly and drastically, and that the United Mexican States could become a failed state.
Of course, such conclusions caused resentment of the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, the reaction of Washington was much more interesting because the Mèrida Initiative term was coming to an end, and it was required to decide what to do further and how to present it to taxpayers.
The brief official report was followed by the thorough preparation of the public opinion by the “non-official” people. These duties were carried out by Barry McCaffrey, a retired U.S. Army general and the former Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy of the Executive Office of the President of the United States until 2001. His public speeches were generous with such terms as “a drug state”, “at the edge of the abyss”, “chronic use of drugs” regarding to Mexico. In his opinion, the Mèrida’s budget was very tiny in comparison with expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan and urgent measures were needed to save the situation.
General McCaffrey’s opinion was supported by Joel Kurtzman, the researcher from the Milken Institute – an independent economic think tank. In his article in The Wall Street Journal, he added that the USA was under the threat of a mass influx of refugees. However, both Kurtzman and McCaffrey have never questioned the President Calderon’s competence or the necessity of involvement of the Mexican army. On the one hand, it could mean that the U.S. authorities were preparing the public opinion for the prolongation of the Mèrida Initiative and for the growth of its budget (as it happened in early 2010). On the other, there are reasonable grounds to suspect that there’s something more significant hidden behind it.
The first official who joined the wave of criticism was Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He called for the total revision of the anti-drug strategy, describing the situation in Mexico as a war. Earlier, the U.S. establishment representatives tried to avoid this term. In support of his words, Gingrich noted that in 2008 the number of casualties in Mexico exceeded the number of victims of the Iraqi campaign during the same period. It was not absolutely true: in 2008, only the number of civilian casualties in Iraq was at least 8,315, while in Mexico the death toll reached 5,612, including criminals and officers from security agencies. After such a manipulation with the information, there are almost no doubts that some hidden agenda exists behind the expanded media campaign. The preparation by the Texas authorities of some kind of an emergency plan in case of a collapse of the United Mexican States, as it emerged in February, 2009, became a finishing stroke.
Thus, already by the end of the first quarter of 2009 the specific tone was set in the anti-drug dialogue between the USA and Mexico. The first stage of this media campaign provided an opportunity for the two countries to eliminate the criticism, targeted directly against their governments and the Mèrida Initiative and prolong and expand the latter. However, the subsequent events have demonstrated that this was not an ultimate goal for Washington.
The second stage was launched in September, 2010. There key role in it was played by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Thomas McNamara, the former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia. By a series of public speeches and press releases they reframed the Mexican situation in a queer way. First, the Colombian drug mafia and the left-wing radical rebels from The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were described as the same. However, FARC, though suspected in drug trafficking, was a completely autonomous organization in 1980s, and it was at war with the most odious drug cartels of Colombia of those days from Medellin and Cali. By equalizing them, the U.S. Government within the framework of the Plan Colombia succeeded in attacking the radical leftist movement in the context of the fight against drugs, and labeled later all the participants of these events as “rebels” instead of “drug guerillas”, completely removing the emphasis from the drug trafficking. This was used as a ground for the false interpretation of the acts of intimidation committed by the drug cartels. For example, a murder of a Mexican judge is considered now as a constitutional violation and an attempt to overthrow the existing regime (although the drug cartels are not interested in it and their acts of intimidation are committed, as a rule, with the purpose to change the current state policy, for example, to stop extraditions of drug lords to the USA).
From the very beginning of the drug war drawing parallels between the events in Colombia and the current situation in Mexico was quite a popular topic for the media. However, the White House managed to modify slightly the benchmark information, redirecting the attention of journalists and researches in the desirable for the USA way. As a favorable coincidence for this, the Maoist movement, Popular Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Popular Revolucionario, EPR) reminded about its existence in 2007 by the series of explosions in the central and southern regions of Mexico, mainly directed against the facilities of the state-owned oil company Pemex. Together with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberaciòn Nacional, EZLN) for Washington they became a kind of substitute for the FARC. While not able to pose the similar threat, these movements were found to be appropriate for confusing the terms of “drug mafia” and “guerillas”. In addition, there were rumors that ERP had been providing training for drug cartels’ militants since 2006.
But why is it beneficial for Washington to equalize drug cartels and extremists?
First, it became possible to consider the drug war as a civil war aiming to overthrow the democratic constitutional order. Ironically, this is not that far from reality. Now only two presidential terms keep Mexico apart from its authoritarian past, as far as it’s the conflicts with drug cartels that have prevented the terms of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon in office to become showpiece examples of consolidation of the achievements of democratic transition in Mexico. In this regard, the drug war is a real threat for democracy, only this threat is not so clear to talk about in public. Therefore, the media support is necessary.
Second, the Colombian precedent has become applicable for Mexico, and therefore theoretically opened the way for the U.S. military operation in coordination with Mexico. There should be no objections against such a development after the before-mentioned information campaign, at least in the U.S. Though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her speech has assured that Mexico, unlike the Central American countries which have the same problems, was capable to solve the problem on its own with the proper financial and expert support.
Third, as far as the Party of the Democratic Revolution, the Mexican left-of-center organization, and Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, are suspected in cooperation with EPR, Washington, having no fellow feelings towards them, got an opportunity to discredit them.
Lastly (and this is not an opportunity but a reality already), the new media campaign against the continental drug trafficking has helped to prevent the marijuana legalization in California, though the decision came very hard - the difference between pros and cons was less than 7 per cent. Otherwise, the status of this light drug could be revised in many countries, including Mexico, where the similar initiative was already proposed in 2006.
It should be noted that the social consequences of this reform are difficult to predict and the forecasts vary. However, from the economic point of view, it is obvious that the transition from the fight against marijuana to taxation of the marijuana traders (or the governmental monopoly for marijuana purchase and trade) would release huge funds for the fight against heavy drugs. Even the UN has recognized this fact in its recently published recommendations for the international community. However, it’s likely that there was another reason for the rejection of this initiative by Washington. Legalization of the prohibited substance by one of the states, moreover, by the universal vote, which means indisputable legitimacy, would contradict the federal laws, arising complicated questions for the federal authorities.
In general, this purposeful preparation of the public opinion may have two reasons. In terms of the long-term strategy, it’s quite possible that Washington considers the recent rapid grows in criminal activities (not only in Mexico but also in Central America, Colombia and Brazil) as the third wave of the anti-state actions (the first and second waves took place in 1960s and 1980s respectively). In this sense, it becomes understandable that Mrs. H.Clinton did not substitute the terms when she used the word “rebels” referring to the drug cartels, but attempted to deliver to the public the idea that organized crime really replaced the guerillas of the XX century in the anti-state struggle and destabilization of the political situation.
It is interesting that so far this world-view is not rejected by the Latin American gangs and mafias, at least when and where it is beneficial for them. For example, the Colombian drug lord Pedro Oliviero Guerrero, killed in December, 2010, called his organization “Popular Revolutionary Antisubversive Army of Colombia” (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Antisubversivo de Colombia, ERPAC). As many other leaders of similar organizations, he took advantage of the characteristic common mentality of Latin American governments. Since most of them - in one way or another - have grown from the successful revolutionary movements of the past, therefore, any gang that publicly declares the presence of the ideology which it is allegedly fighting for, can expect the dialogue with the authorities instead of an unconditional prosecution.
In other words, now, at the time when this article is written, in Latin America the attitude towards guerillas, revolutionaries and extremists (but with “ideology”) is much better not only among the population, but at the governmental level than towards organized crime groups. It seems like the Mexican drug cartels have not still fully realized this opportunity, and also, it may be difficult to rebrand the existing organizations. However, it is clear that in the process of disintegration or splitting of the existing drug cartels, which leads to the introduction of new “brands”, some of them may try to use this trick for the sake of their safety. But the Mexican drug mafia must remember that the USA not only have no sympathy towards the rebels of any kind, but as a rule view them as an additional cause for military intervention. Due to the abovementioned statements of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this trick will be even beneficial for Washington. Now, the U.S. Government, looking for the enemy symbol for a new anti-drug strategy (similar to Osama bin Laden, who symbolized the international terrorism) has to be satisfied only with Los Zetas, a group of former army and police task force officers, who are most similar to the guerillas in comparison with other drug traffickers, and to whom the media and authorities pay special attention.
At the same time, Washington rules out the possibility of the full-scale humanitarian intervention in Mexico. Taking into consideration the history of embittered relations between the countries, the public opinion on both sides of the border must be carefully prepared even for the minimal involvement of the USA in the fight against drug cartels in Mexico. This is the second cause of the media campaign, carried out by the U.S. Department of State at the beginning of 2011. It seems that the two countries managed to achieve some success in this regard. For example, after two officers of the U.S. Immigration Service in San Luis Potosì were attacked and one of them killed, the U.S. special services got the unprecedented freedom for the investigation on the Mexican territory since the Camarena case. The success of this form of cooperation was consolidated in April, 2011, with the joint operation during the crisis in Tamaulipas, where the mass grave of 145 victims of Los Zetas drug cartel was found.
As a conclusion, it should be noted that, though having failed in the fight against the drug trafficking, the Mèrida Initiative has become the first step made by the USA and Mexico towards each other, the step that was so necessary after the diplomatic failures of the 20th century. Some external signs make it possible to think that the two countries have already negotiated the gradual flexible and potentially unlimited physical involvement of the USA in the Mexican conflict. And it’s most likely that these agreements were encouraged not even by the threat for the security of both countries, posed by the drug war, but by the risks of restoration of authoritarianism and taking power by the leftists in Mexico on the wave of the crisis. This can be confirmed by the fact that the social component of the fight against drugs at last is taken into consideration, but only within the Mèrida Initiative that is being implemented too slowly. Thus, it seems like both governments, apparently in anticipation of elections, have decided to bet on the special operations, arrests and other activities that draw attention, but are not always effective. If this plan proves to be successful and the National Action Party retains power, it will be possible to think about the full-scale anti-drug strategy.