Foreign Policy Blogs

Mexico's 'Insurgency' Triggers Diplomatic Furor

Wordplay is an important skill for politicians and diplomats, who routinely solve dilemmas by substituting one phrase for another, replacing ‘hot-button’ words with language that may not change reality, but which invariably gives players the ‘wiggle-room’ they need to back-off, rethink, renegotiate, regroup, or retreat from battles plainly lost.

Not in this case.

The diplomatic furor over Hillary Clinton’s use of the word ‘insurgency’ to describe the current situation in Mexico, and the speedy rejection of the term by President Felipe Calderon and the Obama Administration, has only added fuel to a fire Mexico appears unable to put out.

In remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations (9/8/10), Clinton said:

“We face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, a drug-trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency.”

Don’t Rock the Boat

For the past two decades, Washington’s take on the trafficking situation in Mexico has been fairly simple and straightforward: according to the US government, Mexico’s drug cartels are in it for the money, for the buck, for profit alone. We know their kind.

The solution (including the Merida Initiative) has been to offer the government of Mexico millions in support of various counter-drug initiatives that officials in both countries swear are effective in combating drug-trafficking, eliminating  money laundering, and in curbing the power and influence of regional drug cartels.

It’s the US and Mexican governments versus ruthless, greedy narco-traffickers, and in this ‘bad-guys/good guys’ scenario, the two governments work mano-a-mano toward common goals–eliminating drug trafficking and nurturing trade relationships (Mexico is our second-largest trading partner, a priority in tough economic times).

The US supplies financial support for counter-drug programs and technical expertise. Mexico continues to report progress–ongoing arrests of traffickers and significant encounters between police/military and cartel gangs.

The Plot Thickens

Some big names are taken down (“La Barbie” the most recent), and the arrest stats and seizures sound spectacular.

But billions of narco-dollars continue to move into legitimate off-shore or US bank accounts. Tons of cocaine still move into the US from Mexico; growing quantities of heroin travel the same pathways, and there are growing reports that criminal/terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are also penetrating Latin America via Paraguay (Cuidad del Estes)–a notorious Tri-Border (Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil) region known for the scale and audacity of its money-laundering (millions on behalf of mid-eastern account holders), counterfeiting, drug-trafficking, and arms smuggling operations.

Other reports challenge the simple ‘Mexican government versus the cartels’ equation as well: Hugo Chavez pays billions for small arms and other weapons (attack jets, tanks, armored personnel carriers, S-300 missiles, and surface-to-air missiles) imported from Russia, China, Iran and Cuba; the FARC trades coke for Venezuelan guns; Venezuela and Nicaragua sell arms to Mexico’s cartels.

An expert on global crime once said that nations, governments and even the ordinary man on the street are inclined to overlook white-collar crime,  especially financial crimes, as long as these illegal activities do not become triggers for political upheaval or violent conflicts that threaten to undermine the stability or security of the state–when they do not support insurgencies.

In other words, drug trafficking and money laundering would be far less newsworthy, and certainly less important politically, if  the Calderon Administration and the Mexican military were merely able to ‘maintain order’ among the cartels–if they succeeded, not even in eliminating trafficking, but simply in keeping the players under control–referees, so to speak, capable of settling disputes in ways that preclude palpable US involvement in Mexico’s internal workings, or the attention of the international press.

Obama and Calderon Deny ‘Insurgency’

President Calderon’s repudiation of an “insurgency” at work in Mexico is clearly meant to keep US intervention at bay, and to preserve trade benefits provided by NAFTA. Cynics might also say Calderon wants to keep the government’s family skeletons where they belong–locked tightly in Mexico’s closets.

It has long been the contention of law enforcement officials in the US–officers with Customs and Border Patrol (DHS/CBP)–that the Mexican government and its military have, indeed, played the role of referee for many years, and played it well.

Enforcement insiders will tell you that government and military involvement in the billion-dollar business of narcotics trafficking has provided many of Mexico’s policymakers with compelling incentives to tamp down cartel rivalries and  preempt open and ongoing warfare.

The last US investigation into drug trafficking and money laundering in Mexico, Operation Casablanca, was a bottom-up operation that eventually led federal agents to high-value and highly-placed targets within the Mexican government.

Mexico claimed that the US had failed to provide Mexican authorities with a pre-brief on the aims and methods of the investigation, and demanded that the US shut down the investigation.

Mexico’s outrage was resolved only after then-Attorney General Janet Reno and her Mexican counterpart signed what is known as The Brownsville Agreement, a pledge on the part of the United States to fully inform the Mexican government prior to the initiation of any US investigations that might involve Mexico or threaten its “national sovereignty.”

Mexico Polices Itself

The practical and little-discussed result of the Brownsville Agreement has been to shut down any covert US investigation into drug trafficking and/or money laundering that might implicate or embarrass prominent government or industry executives in Mexico–the US pledge to alert Mexican authorities that an investigation is on the way allows important principals and lesser criminals as well to cover any tracks well in advance.

The Mexican government, consequently, has been operating on ‘the honor system’ since the Brownsville Agreement went into effect, a situation that would certainly change if Clinton’s diagnosis of ‘insurgency’ were to replace the idea currently underpinning US-Mexico relationships: that the violence in the streets of Mexico cities is an internal matter, that the reported 28,000 deaths so far represent collateral damage triggered by cartel rivalries, and that this is a matter for Mexico to resolve, with financial assistance from the US, on its own.

The Merida Initiative, which has pumped millions of US dollars into counter-drug efforts designed by the Mexican government and its military, is viewed, in some quarters, as both a reward and a form of compensation to Mexican officials capable of  ‘containing’  criminal activities in ways that have, until recently, supported Washington’s vision of able governance in Mexico.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Now, after 28,000 deaths over the last four years–and despite President  Felipe Calderon’s protests to the contrary–the Department of State appears to be questioning not only the ability of Mexico’s leaders to rein in cartel violence, but also the long-held notion that cartel violence (crime-for-profit), issuing from discrete, specific, and easily identifiable sources, can be targeted and surgically removed.

The term ‘insurgency’ speaks to a larger problem, and to responses  neither the US nor the Mexican government is eager to discuss.

To ascribe the root cause of violence in Mexico to the growing influence of ‘insurgents’ suggests that the mayhem on Mexico’s northern border signals the unfortunate arrival of larger, more flexible, adaptive criminal networks, syndicates which allow garden-variety drug traffickers (interested only in profit) to join forces in ad hoc, short or long-term alliances (sharing routes, logistical and operational cooperation, adopting similar strategies for laundering money) with individuals and groups driven by profit and ideology, or by ideology alone.

This is the new face of global organized crime–a criminal smorgasbord in which players energized by shifting motives still cooperate at intersections in their operational journeys, ‘hooking up’ for a day or an extra dollar when there are benefits all around.

This is how criminal gangs and terrorist outfits leverage their resources–opportunistically.

This is how terror piggybacks its way towards a target, hitching piecemeal rides with coke dealers and human ‘mules’ smuggling bulk cash across borders, or buying a plane ticket with funds generated via an unexpected opportunity to get in on a ‘side deal’ providing arms to the FARC or counterfeit copies of Disney’s DVD, “The Lion King,” to a retailer who just happens to be ‘on the way.’

Nexus between Illicit Trafficking and Terrorism

There is strong evidence that leftest groups across Latin America, ‘insurgents’ for whom money is only an end to a larger ideological goal (the destabilization of US allies in Central and South America) are linked at many levels and in many ways to Mexico’s cartels.

Cartels adopt terrorist methods, car bombings, kidnappings, civilian assassinations.

Chavez and Ortega sell guns to Mexican gangs.

Venezuela trades guns for coke which travels through Mexico to the US.

Hezbollah uses trafficking routes established by Mexico’s cartels.

In 2008, the US, in cooperation with Colombian investigators, identified and dismantled an international cocaine smuggling and money laundering ring based out of Colombia. This operation, which was made up of a Colombian drug cartel and Lebanese members of Hezbollah, used portions of its profits–allegedly hundreds of millions of dollars per year–to finance Hezbollah.

The kinship between Chavez, Ortega, the FARC and foreign allies that include Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba, and the reciprocal trade between them–drugs, guns, money–openly reflects an anti-US agenda for which Hugo Chavez continues to be a voluble spokesperson.

In the end, Chavez and his cronies are preaching revolution.

Are Mexico’s traffickers and money launderers inherently immune to Hugo’s socialist pitch? Do their eyes never leave the prize?

Of course, they must. Both history and logic tell us that it is impossible to quarantine criminal activities, or to argue that drug trafficking gangs in Mexico occupy cloistered quarters in the criminal world, never crossing paths or stopping to parlay with colleagues along the way. Bureaucracies stovepipe–criminals know better.

There are accounts of drug traffickers forsaking profit for ideological passion, and jihadists abandoning a better deal in the after-life for a five-bedroom house in this one, a place with a pool on the Florida panhandle.

You just never know.

What we do know is that criminal activities across the world are interconnected, and that insurgents whose goal is to destabilize a state or region invariably use criminals and criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, as intermediate tools to weaken a target, or as Trojan horses, with the darker threat hidden within.

Insurgents also depend on corruption, ‘the taste’ as Tony Soprano might say, which belongs to  even the most distanced collaborator in the criminal process. It isn’t difficult to hijack a nation already in a state of self-induced dissolution.

And Mexico has it all.

Right now, Felipe Calderon is scrambling to admit ‘the ferocity’ of the drug violence in Mexico, coming clean soon enough, he hopes, to head off any impulsive proposals the US State Department might conjure up as a remedy to an ‘insurgent threat’ in Mexico.

President Obama is on the same train, assuring America that Mexico does not, in any way, resemble Colombia twenty years ago.  We don’t need a ‘Plan Colombia,’ requiring big investments and significant US intervention, in Mexico.

With enough time and money, we are told, Mexico’s government and the military can take care of the problem themselves.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.