The Battle to Clean Up Mexico

As if George W. Bush's lame-duck and embattled administration didn't have enough difficulties already, he has just landed himself a new problem. Last week he requested from Congress an additional $46 billion in the military-aid budget for 2008, devoted mainly to pursuing the war in Iraq, Afghanistan and … Mexico. Mexico? Yes, the proposal includes approximately $460 million in drug-enforcement money for President Felipe Calderón and the Mexican armed forces, as part of the Mexican leader's war on drugs, declared hours after he took office last December.

The money would finance the first year of a three-year campaign to supply Mexico with the hardware (helicopters, light troop-carrying aircraft and cargo-inspection devices) and software (phone-tapping, mail-inspection and Web-surveillance programs) it needs to crack down on drug trade. The money would also help pay for training and technical-assistance programs for the Mexican Army and police forces.

It is an ambitious program and one that will undoubtedly generate a great deal of controversy both in the Mexican and U.S. Congresses. The first problem, and possibly the one that will spark the most heated discussion, involves the likely use of American contractors. The technology that will be delivered to the Mexican Army is advanced stuff—not the sort of machinery that a civilian or even many trained military professionals can use without instruction, on-the-job training and follow-up maintenance. It is too expensive to bring Mexican troops north for the training, but sending a contingent of American troops to Mexico is a political non-starter. Mexicans would never tolerate U.S. troops on their soil. The trick then is to send nonmilitary personnel southward, in order to train military or paramilitary personnel.

Of course the whole idea of privatizing military and security operations has proved problematic before, most recently with the Blackwater outfit in Iraq. Closer to the United States, in Colombia, there are now more than 600 private military American contractors, financed by the U.S. drug-enforcement program known as Plan Colombia, including three who were kidnapped or killed by FARC guerrillas several years ago. In Mexico, the Calderón administration has repeatedly denied news reports that it will allow similar private outfits to work on drug interdiction, and it might be telling the truth. But many in Mexico doubt it, and at a time when the entire notion of American outsourcing of military tasks is coming under greater scrutiny and debate, it may be taking the war on drugs too far.

Still, it is clear that a major component of the program must be an effort to train the Mexican military and police. The Mexican armed forces and national police have a mediocre human-rights record. The state and local police have an atrocious one. Though matters have improved significantly over the past nine years (under Presidents Zedillo, Fox and Calderón), the situation remains worrisome. It would be a shame if the Bush administration's general indifference to human rights, and Congress's willingness to give in to his desire to step up U.S.-Mexican military cooperation, eliminates all such considerations for this project. There must be strict oversight, particularly with regard to wire technologies that can be used for dual purposes, like surveillance equipment that could be diverted for internal spying on political opponents.

In addition, to avoid comparisons with Plan Colombia, in which U.S. money meant for stopping drug trade was diverted to antiterror efforts, it should be clear that all these technologies are for drug enforcement—and nothing else. Unfortunately, Bush's rush to get this funding approved has introduced an antiterrorism component into the package. Nothing good can come from this.

There is also enormous concern that the people trained to use these technological goodies will one day use them for nefarious political purposes. It has happened before: in the 1990s, a group of Mexican military officials known as Los Zetas were trained in the use of this kind of sophisticated technology and then became one of Mexico's most dangerous criminal organizations. Could that happen again? Preventing it will require vigilance with polygraph and drug tests (the package includes a bundle of hardware of this sort), as well as ensuring that the authorities in control of the technology enjoy high salaries and societal respect.

To many, President Calderón's war on drugs is long overdue. But even if one is not convinced—like this writer—of the wisdom of such a war, he will need the financial and technological wherewithal to wage it effectively. That's the purpose of Plan Mexico, and it should be supported, with two conditions. First: transparency, so everyone knows what we are getting into. And second: respect for human rights, as Human Rights Watch demanded last week, so everyone knows what we are watching out for.