Monday, February 1, 2016
Cold War Expert Sees Parallels in Mexico's Drug War Struggles
By Patrick Corcoran (InSight Crime)
America's fate has long been tied to the conflicts of the United States, first in the Cold War and now the Drug War. But
what insights does Mexico's experience in the Cold War provide for its current struggles against organized crime?
That was the question
that Renata Keller, an assistant professor of International Relations and Latin American Studies in the Boston University
Pardee School of Global Studies, sought to answer a couple of months ago, in this article titled, "Mexico: From Cold War to Drug War."
In her piece, Keller, who is the author of the book Mexico's Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution, laid out the ways in which the origins of Mexico's security challenges, from tactical missteps and strategic errors to fundamental misconceptions about the nature of
the conflict, lie in the nation's Cold War experience in the second-half of the 20th century.
What follows is a transcript
of an InSight Crime interview with Keller regarding her article, US drug policy in Latin America and at home, and other topics.
also: Mexico News and Profiles
I understand your thesis to be this sentence from your piece: "Understanding the dynamics of
the Cold War in Mexico provides important insights into why Mexico is currently losing its war on drugs." Do you think that's a fair assessment? If not, how would you characterize
I'd say that was the thesis of that piece. Obviously
the history of the Cold War in Mexico doesn't explain everything about the war on drugs, but it does offer insight into some important dynamics.
One of the most elemental aspects of US foreign policy dynamics during the Cold War was the US pattern of strongly encouraging,
one could even say bullying allies into adopting policies that were closely aligned to its own. Do you see a similar approach
Yes, absolutely. I think a similar process happened with
both the Cold War and the War on Drugs, where the United States pressured Latin American countries into pursuing certain policies.
But it is also important to keep in mind that in both cases, some of our allies experimented or are experimenting with different
policies. There's a push and pull. The United States can't always dictate what it wants, and other countries can negotiate
their own positions even within those unequal power relations.
To what degree do you think the
War on Terror has replaced the Cold War as a paradigm driving US drug policies?
see them all as following a similar paradigm. In all cases the focus [from Latin American nations] is on combatting internal
enemies rather than confronting state-to-state problems. All of these so-called "wars" focus on individuals and
groups, rather than states, being the problems. I see each new "war" as growing out of the previous one rather than
there being a huge shift.
Do you think US policies toward Latin America have matured on drugs? The second
instalment of the Mérida Initiative certainly seemed more holistic and less militarized than the original, to say nothing
of Plan Colombia. And the Obama administration has also been silent while several Latin American nations have liberalized their drug laws.
I think US drug policies both domestically and internationally have liberalized and
matured. At home we're seeing more of a turn toward treatment rather than punishment. We're seeing more of a move
toward legalization. And in our foreign policy on drugs, I think we have also seen some limited improvement.
Notwithstanding the negative, the US clearly offers some benefits to Mexican officials charged with security, whether
through its intelligence capabilities (see the Chapo arrest and the tracking of Arturo Beltrán Leyva a few years before
that) or extradition or support for its judicial reform. Given that trade-off, what is the ideal role for the US with regard
to Mexican security? Do you think it's realistic for Mexican policy makers to continue to rely on the US in certain areas
while limiting their role in overall strategy?
I think the ideal role
for the United States would be to continue to exchange intelligence information with Mexico, to continue to be supportive in other ways that the Mexican government sees fit, whether in training or other capacities.
But the United States should also focus on limiting the harm it does. For instance, if we could actually change our gun laws
so that fewer guns cross the border, that would have a positive impact on Mexico as well.
Could you talk about the effect of the Cold War on Latin American security institutions, and their
reliance on force as an early measure?
I think the Cold War
has had a substantial influence on Latin American security institutions and their focus on internal threats rather than external
ones. In theory the military should protect the country from foreign threats, but during the Cold War there was this
idea that the greatest threat came from within. So Latin American militaries focused on their own citizens, and they used
this perception of threat to get funding from their own government and from the United States.
A lot of this
is impossible to guess without access to classified information, but how much responsibility do you think the CIA bears for
helping to set up trafficking routes, arming drug traffickers, and tolerating or even encouraging the worst excesses of its
allies in organized crime during the 1980s?
I think the CIA bears
a lot of responsibility. I don't think it helped set up trafficking routes but I think it turned a blind eye when fighting
drug trafficking was deemed less important than fighting communism. A great example is Manuel Noriega in Panama, who worked with the CIA during the Cold War even though he was helping Pablo Escobar at the same time. The CIA let him get
away with it…. They really undermined the DEA's efforts to hold Noriega responsible.
There were also quite
a few Cuban émigrés who left after the Cuban Revolution, became involved with the CIA, and became involved in
drug trafficking. Thanks to their work for the CIA, they essentially had a free pass for their criminal activities.
One of the overwhelming failures in Mexico and around Latin America has been the inability to address corruption in any enduring, systemic way, at least based on current
evidence. Do you think the Drug War's emergence as part of the Cold War has something to do with that?
I think it could. Because whenever you have power concentrated so much, like it was
in Mexican military and intelligence services, institutions that don't have oversight, that really encourages corruption.
And a lot of those people who gained power during the Cold War became involved in drug trafficking-- just look at the Zetas, many of whom came from the military.
How do you think growing US flexibility on marijuana inside
its borders will affect its approach to Latin American policies?
hope marijuana legalization will increase US flexibility on Latin American drug policies, because it is unreasonable for the
United States now to punish Latin American countries that legalize marijuana. But because marijuana is not one of the bigger
problems at this point, I don't know how much impact it will have when it comes to cocaine or opiates. I think that's
a tougher question.
Returning to the sentence that I cited above, what do you think "winning"
looks like for Mexico's struggles with organized crime? And related to that, is "war" the right paradigm for this?
I don't think the drug problem is anything you can "win," so the war
analogy is a really poor one. That said, I think "winning" would be lowering the levels of violence, having
fewer people die. I think strengthening the rule of law in Mexico would be another sign of winning -- I'd like to see more people held responsible for their crimes, especially those in
the upper levels of government.
This commentary, "Cold War Expert Sees Parallels
in Mexico's Drug War Struggles," by Patrick Corcoran, was first published in InSight Crime on Jan. 29, 2016 and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization. InSight Crime's objective
is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Patrick Corcoran is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and received an MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced
International Studies. He has worked for InSight Crime since 2011.