Plan Mexico

After months of talks, President George W. Bush finally announced the “security cooperation” plan for Mexico. On October 22, he sent a request for $500 million in supplemental aid for 2008 as part of a $1.4 billion dollar multi-year package.

No surprises there. The Bush administration has been negotiating the package with President Felipe Calderon’s administration for months. In the lead-up to the announcement, both governments marshaled studies and statistics to support the dual –and contradictory– thesis that the drug war in the United States and Mexico has reached a crisis point and that current efforts on both sides of the border have been very successful.

From what’s known of it, the package — officially dubbed the “Mérida Initiative” but more commonly referred to as “Plan Mexico” — contains direct donations of military and intelligence equipment, and training programs for Mexican law enforcement officials. A White House fact sheet lists surveillance equipment, helicopters and aircraft, scanners for border revisions, communications systems, and training programs for “strengthening the institutions of justice.” An additional $50 million dollars is earmarked for Central American countries to support their fight against “gangs, drugs, and arms.”

The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the “Overall Justification Document,” reported that more than a third of the package will be spent on aerial surveillance and facilitating the rapid deployment of troops.

But what has legislators and civil society worried on both sides of the border is not the money involved or the equipment to be sent. It’s the reach of Plan Mexico in recasting the binational relationship, to create what the Bush administration calls “a new paradigm for security cooperation.”

The Politics of Counternarcotics

Characteristic of the “war on drugs” model, Plan Mexico takes a serious transnational problem and casts it in such a way as to promote the specific interests of the U.S. and Mexican rightwing governments.

Following his narrow and questionable electoral triumph, President Calderon has made the war on drugs a cornerstone of his government. After taking office Calderon rapidly built an image of strength in arms. He dispatched over 24,000 army troops to Mexican cities and villages, dressed himself and his children in army uniforms for public appearances, and created an elite corps of special forces under his direct supervision.

The message of a weak presidency bolstered by a strong alliance with the military has not been lost on Mexican citizens. Many have criticized the repressive undertones, increasing human rights violations, constitutional questions, and threats to civil democratic institutions.

For the Bush administration, Plan Mexico has a dangerously misguided political thrust as well. Mexico is one of only two far-right governments among the major countries in the hemisphere. The other, Colombia, has received billions of dollars of U.S. military aid, also originally as part of a war on drugs that soon broadened into an overall military alliance.

Washington officials have been lavish in their praise of the Calderón government and stated explicitly that the National Action Party’s government permits an “historic” level of cooperation in security matters. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon spoke openly about the newfound commonality of interests between two nations with a history of conflict: “The Calderon government has acted with alacrity, with intelligence and with boldness in its fight against organized crime and drug trafficking, and we want to be part of that.”

But Bush administration interests go well beyond aiding the Calderón government in its domestic drug battles. Stephen Johnson, deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Defense Department, recently made the connection between Plan Mexico and Washington’s bid to recover its influence in a slipping geopolitical context.

“While a groundswell seems to exist for greater engagement with the United States, there are challenge states such as Venezuela, Cuba, and to some extent Bolivia and Ecuador. For now, Venezuela and Cuba are clearly hostile to the United States, western-style democracy, markets, and are actively trying to counter our influence. Our challenge is not to confront them directly, but instead do a better job working with our democratic allies and friendly neighbors.”

In this context, Johnson — a former Heritage Foundation analyst — cites Plan Mexico as an excellent example of the direction to move in, stating, “With some 2,000 execution-style murders this year on the part of drug mafias, Mexico is under siege. Yet, this is an historic opportunity for the United States to cement closer ties with its closest Latin American neighbor and encourage a sea-change in law enforcement.”

The concept of a joint security strategy for North America goes back at least as far as the creation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) in March of 2005. Since that time, the Bush administration has attempted to push its Northern American trade partners into a common front that would assume shared responsibility for protecting the United States from terrorist threats and bolstering U.S. global hegemony in the region.

The Bush administration and the right-wing think tanks that have developed the strategy explicitly formulate hemispheric security policy in these terms. The American Enterprise Institute’s Thomas Donnelly calls the Western Hemisphere “America’s third border” and argues that “American hegemony in the hemisphere is crucial to U.S. national security.”

Plan Mexico twists the plot by presenting Bush administration efforts to create a North American security strategy in the guise of a war on drugs. It builds on SPP security negotiations that included expanding the presence of U.S. drug enforcement and customs agents within Mexico, requiring legislation to commit Mexico to fight “international terrorism,” and curtailment of civil liberties similar to those found in the U.S. PATRIOT Act that would legalize increased spying. Although not formally announced as elements of SPP agreements, the Mexican government has complied with all these requests.

Blanket Security

The Mérida Initiative Joint Statement reads, “Our shared goal is to maximize the effectiveness of our efforts to fight criminal organizations — so as to disrupt drug-trafficking (including precursor chemicals); weapons trafficking, illicit financial activities and currency smuggling, and human trafficking.”

According to the terms of the security aid package, there is virtually no difference between an international terrorist, a migrant farmworker, a political protestor, and a drug trafficker. The most unexpected and pernicious feature of Plan Mexico is that it targets all these groups indiscriminately. Lumping together all “transnational threats” and stripping them of any social or historical context creates a broad definition of security in the region and justifies a blanket regional security strategy.

In this way, Plan Mexico goes beyond Plan Colombia, which at least began with close congressional oversight to assure that military aid focused on drug trafficking. Plan Mexico skips the focused stage and leaps right into a wastebasket definition of security so broad that it could encompass an unlimited range of problems and actors.

In her testimony before Mexican Senate committees, Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa cited four target areas of Plan Mexico: counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and border security, public security and administration of justice, and institutional strengthening and law enforcement. The inclusion of anti-terrorist activities “to detect terrorists who might try to attack our neighbor” drew fire from legislators as proof that the U.S. seeks to impose its own security agenda.

Espinosa’s admission that the plan contained a program to digitalize information on migration and apply detection and control measures on the southern border also caused controversy. Mexico has a history of offering refuge to Central Americans and accepting them into its society. That has been changing as the U.S. government has pressured Mexico to intercept Central American migrants before they make it to the northern border.

Plan Mexico advances that process and increases Mexican participation in stopping its own migrants at the northern border too. For Mexican workers thrown out of a job by the U.S.-Mexico trade agreement, being snagged as criminals by their own government at the border is a cruel irony.

Reactions North and South

Both governments have sought to avoid the moniker “Plan Mexico,” which despite their efforts tends to be the media’s favorite in the messaging battle. The name “Plan Mexico” invites comparison to the failed Plan Colombia, which has entrenched violence and corruption in that South American country while failing to reduce drug flows. The “Mérida Initiative” implies that it is an agreement put together by the two nations exclusively to address the drug offensive — Mérida is the name of the Caribbean state capital where Bush and Calderon met last spring.

Despite their efforts, the announcement has been a PR flop. President Bush’s unilateral announcement of the package annoyed Mexican legislators, and the plan lost credibility on its claim to be a binational program.

It also didn’t help that it was tacked onto the Iraq supplementary funding request. Any linkage between Plan Mexico and the reviled U.S. security doctrine as applied in Iraq increases suspicions among Mexican politicians and public. In any case, it appears the Mexican legislature has little say in the matter. Although there was some confusion as to whether the Mexican government would put up funds for the plan, the Calderón administration denied any specific funding commitment. Therefore the aid plan is not subject to congressional review in Mexico.

In the U.S. Congress, meanwhile, it seems lately you can sell anything to the democratic leadership if it has a “security” label on it. House leader Nancy Pelosi was quoted as admitting to not knowing the content of the new plan and in the same breath implying she would support it since national security “is our highest priority.”

Although U.S. troop presence in Mexico has been ruled out, Mexican civil society has begun to react to what they see as forms of interference included in the plan. Members of the judicial system, including judges from the Supreme Court and lower courts, have publicly stated objections to U.S. funds for the court system. Foreign participation in military training is even more questionable and its expansion under Plan Mexico has raised concerns on both sides of the border. The School of the Americas military training program in Fort Benning barely survived a recent vote in the U.S. Congress and Mexican and U.S. citizens have expressed human rights concerns surrounding U.S. training methods.

The role of private contractors in implementing the package remains unclear and a source of dismay. Security analyst Sam Logan says Blackwater will be likely be the major beneficiary, despite its tarnished reputation following its shooting of Iraqi civilians. Corruption in contracts related to both training and equipment purchase seems a certainty given recent experience in Iraq.

But by far the biggest complaint in both congresses is the lack of information. The Mexican Senate immediately demanded that Foreign Minister Espinosa appear to explain the security package negotiated with the United States. In the United States, Senator Robert Menendez protested the secrecy and stated that without details, it was impossible to evaluate the plan.

The Need for a Different Plan

Faced with a real problem—the strength of drug cartels in Mexico and the United States—Plan Mexico proposes solutions that replicate the logic of force and patriarchal control that the drug cartels rely on. Then it applies these solutions not only to a bloody frontal battle with drug traffickers, but to a multitude of complex security threats with roots deep in Mexican society.

The “commitment to a regional security strategy,” which uses counternarcotics as a starting point and moves on from there, also entails a radical break with Mexico’s traditional neutrality in foreign policy. The sheer scope of the package reflects the Bush administration’s military/police focus in international security issues, just when those strategies have hit a low point in popularity within the United States.

While heralded as binational cooperation, Plan Mexico seeds grave divisions within Mexico and in the long-term between the two nations.

It also drives an ideological stake into the heart of Latin America. By scooping Mexico up into a “common regional security strategy” the Bush administration creates technological, military, financial and political dependencies that seal the already overwhelming economic dependency Mexico has on the United States and isolates it from the rest of the hemisphere.

Unless checks and balances appear that have so far not been revealed, Plan Mexico could contribute to the creation of a police state in Mexico.

Laura Carlsen is a program director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy and an FPIF columnist.