MEXICO CITY – Mexicans have long grown weary of their country’s prolonged War on Drugs. Now, with President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto set to take office in December, it appears change may finally be in the offing.
That change, however, may not be what most Mexicans were expecting.
“A transnational phenomenon requires a transnational strategy,” Óscar Naranjo, Colombia’s former director of the National Police and current advisor to Peña Nieto, told reporters last week. “No country can succeed in an insular and isolated manner if it is to achieve timely or definitive victories.”
Far from “re-envisioning” the approach taken by outgoing President Felipe Calderon, credited with having launched the crackdown on the country’s drug cartels in 2006, Peña Nieto is preparing the Mexican people for a major escalation. It is a shift that could draw in military forces from Mexico’s neighbors, including the United States.
Mexico has not had foreign troops on its soil since the U.S. invaded in 1847. The country’s constitution bans foreign troops from its territory. But Mexican officials have been quietly developing strategies for circumventing these prohibitions.
High-ranking advisors suggest one strategy would be to develop a “multinational” military force comprised of American, Colombian and Chilean military advisors to work with Mexican marines and special forces under an international mandate.
“Not only the United States, but the world, must ally with Mexico to help Mexico overcome the challenge of transnational crime,” Naranjo continued.
Still, he insisted, the final “solution to the Mexican problem remains in the hands of Mexicans.” It is an assertion that ignores one crucial fact: the War on Drugs has never been in the hands of the Mexicans. During the recent presidential campaign, none of the candidates were willing to touch the issue.
Josefina Vazquez, candidate from Calderón’s National Action party (PAN), made no mention of it, presumably because she did not want to remind voters that it was her party that first launched the campaign. Peña Nieto steered clear knowing that governors from his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) stood accused of collaborating with drug traffickers, or being corrupted by them. The leftist candidate, Andrés López Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), avoided discussing the War on Drugs simply because he had no new ideas to offer.
Their collective reluctance to broach the subject was cause for much discussion throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
But now that Peña Nieto is well on his way to the presidential palace, he is beginning to reveal his strategy.
For several years Mexico has availed itself of the United States for assistance, including the sending of Mexican marines to the U.S. for Pentagon training in counter-intelligence and special forces military strikes.
“We have learned from American officers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan,” a Mexican marine corporal, who asked that his name not be used as he is not authorized to speak to the media, told American reporters in October 2011. “The Americans suffer from similar types of ambushes in their wars, and have learned how to respond to them in a tight, disciplined way. We apply those techniques to our fight here.”
The training of Mexican marines for Iraq- and Afghanistan-style warfare by the Pentagon is only part of the “transnational” approach pursued by Calderón. Mexico has received intelligence from the U.S. military as well.
“A sea change has occurred over the past years in how effective Mexico and U.S. intelligence exchanges have become,” Arturo Sarukhán, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, confirmed to the New York Times a year ago. “It is underpinned by the understanding that transnational organized crime can only be successfully confronted by working hand in hand, and that the outcome is as simple as it is compelling: we will together succeed or together fail.”
This gradual escalation is set to accelerate once Peña Nieto takes office, with speculation that Mexico might make an appeal to the Organization of American States (OAS) or the United Nations for “help” in preventing the emergence of a “narco-state.”
Under this scenario, Latin American countries and the United States would come to the “assistance” of Mexico with the authorization of an OAS declaration or a United Nations resolution affirming the legitimate need for assistance by the Mexican government.
Such help has already come, albeit in clandestine fashion, from the United States. Last year it was revealed that American drones authorized by the Obama administration had violated Mexican airspace. “Stepping up its involvement in Mexico’s drug war, the Obama administration has begun sending drones deep into Mexican territory to gather intelligence,” the New York Times reported.
For the White House, it was an embarrassing revelation. But what was “embarrassing” in 2011 may now be part of Peña Nieto’s new strategy, one well timed with events north of the border.
As American involvement in Iraq winds down and U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan are scaled back, the additional personnel may allow U.S. military officials to contemplate “limited” and “strategic” operations to assist in a “multinational” effort for other missions in Latin America.
This “transnational” nature of the War on Drugs that Mexican officials are now openly discussing is part of a national conversation swirling through the Mexican capital, anticipating how such an approach might succeed where the current Mexico-alone strategy has failed.
For Peña Nieto, it is clear that had he openly debated this course of action, the presidential election might have turned out differently.