Ties that bind U.S., Mexico

By Lee Hamilton
May 4 2009


In the past three years, more than 10,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related violence, 6,000 in 2008 alone. The security challenge drug cartels pose, to Mexico and the United States, is not new, but the ongoing battle is deadlier than most Americans realize.

A U.S. Joint Forces Command report published this year sparked controversy by describing Mexico as a "weak and failing" state. Mexico is not a failed state, but it faces grave problems.

While combating the drug cartels is important, it does not and should not define our rich and multifaceted relationship with Mexico. Mexico is the second-largest importer of American goods and our third-largest trading partner overall. We share deep societal and cultural ties. It is a vital partner in our broader engagement with Latin America.

Ultimately, these bonds should serve as the foundation for renewed partnership. But when it comes to drugs, tensions are bound to arise.

America's unparalleled drug consumption enriches the cartels by $19 billion and $29 billion a year — more money than the Mexican government spends to defeat them.

Furthermore, according to the Mexican government, 90 percent of weapons recovered from the cartels in Mexico originate in the United States.

It is time we recognized our contributions to our southern neighbor's security challenges. As President Barack Obama pointed out on his trip to Mexico City last month, we face a common threat: Mexican drug-trafficking organizations already have a presence in 230 U.S. cities.

The much-touted Mérida Initiative, negotiated under President George W. Bush last year, promised $1.4 billion to Mexico to fight the drug traffickers. As of April 5, 10 months after Congress appropriated $400 million of the funds, The Washington Post reported that less than half had been "released" and only $7 million had been spent. We can do better.

Mexico has paid a heavy price since President Felipé Calderón sent the military into violent cities more than two years ago after corruption riddled police forces proved ineffective. Nine-hundred law enforcement officials have been killed.

In Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, 10,000 Mexican soldiers and federal law enforcement officials patrol the streets. The city endured 863 killings in 2008. While the monthly murder rate has declined in 2009, it still topped 50 in March.

Yet over-reliance on a military untrained in police work carries risks. There is no strictly military solution to the problems Mexico faces. Squeezing the cartels out of one area merely forces them into another.

For the longer term, we should support, and prioritize, Mexico's efforts to reform its judicial system and build a police force untainted by widespread corruption.

What else should the United States do? When it comes to guns, protecting Second Amendment rights and curbing weapons smuggling are not mutually exclusive. We need better tracking systems and clearer lines of communications between government and gun dealers, particularly in border states, to help expose smugglers.

Financial weapons will also be necessary. Since Sept. 11, 2001 the U.S. government has sharpened its tools for cracking down on terrorist money-laundering and access to American banking services. We can apply similar tactics to the cartels, and we have begun seizing assets, imposing sanctions and prosecuting cartel members and their business partners.

National Guard troops may have to be sent to the U.S.-Mexican border to curb the flow of cash and weapons southwards, and to prevent the spillover of violence into the United States, but the reluctance of the U.S. military toward law-enforcement activities merits careful consideration. In the long term, the solution will be strengthening the capacity of our civilian agencies — federal, state and local — to work together on these challenges.

But the most valuable contribution the United States could make to Mexican security would be reducing its demand for illicit drugs. This is no easy task. The U.S. government has tried, and for the most part failed, in this endeavor for decades.

It is time to think creatively about ways to reduce drug consumption and remove a major obstacle to a more mutually beneficial relationship with Mexico.


(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)