In an interview on Sept. 9 with the Spanish news agency Efe, under the headline "Kerlikowske Supports Demilitarization of Counternarcotics Struggle in Mexico" the drug czar said (translated from the original article in Spanish),
"Enforcing the law and policing need to be carried out with the police, not the military. The police need to be professional and reliable, and have the trust of the citizenry."
The next day, the Mexican daily La Jornada ran the declarations on the front page. Demilitarization is a central demand of Mexico's peace movement. President Calderon defends the use of the armed forces in the drug war and even proposed reforms to the National Security Law to create a legal framework for them to operate permanently against organized crime within the country.
Given this face-off in Mexican politics, Kerlikowske hit a hornet's nest--and Washington got the buzz right away.
Maybe it was a call from Los Pinos or maybe from the someone in the massive drug-war structure within the US Embassy here. Whatever the source of the complaints, the response was immediate.
On Sept. 10 the U.S. Embassy issued a communiqué from the spokesperson of the Office of National Drug Control Policy that Kerlikowske leads, saying his remarks were "misinterpreted". According to La Jornada, the spokesperson amended the original statements, saying:
"We understand that the deployment of military forces in missions against organized crime is a temporary and transitional measure and we fully support the decision of President Felipe Calderon to carry out this deployment, as well as his efforts to develop the capacity of the civil justice system to confront the organizations of organized crime."This repeats the State Department, Homeland Security and Pentagon line--the major proponents of the Merida Initiative.
Gil Kerlikowske's declarations really weren't surprising. He's a cop. He was drafted as head of the national drug office after serving as chief of police for Seattle from 2001-2009 and head of police in other cities before that. It's safe to assume that the idea of sending in the army to do the public safety work of the police would be against his principles and training.
What also is not surprising is the instant "damage control" response of the Obama administration. As it digs in deeper and deeper in the bloody quagmire that is Calderon´s drug war, public relations has acquired top priority. Members of both the Obama and Calderón administrations seem to be banking on the power of repetition to convince the public that no matter how bad things get, the drug war is the only answer.
The problem they face is that public support for the drug war is diminishing as the death toll mounts--nearly fifty thousand and counting. The expansion of the Merida Initiative in a time of U.S. budget restrictions and with no positive results to show (arrests of druglords in the absence of signs of improved public safety and with no follow-up on cases is NOT a positive result in itself), has gone on under the radar so far, but citizen groups are beginning to point to the program as another defense boondoggle and a dangerous detonator of violence south of the border.
Kerlikowske probably thought he was merely echoing what both governments have already stated--that deployment of the armed forces is a last resort and the goal is to transfer counternarcotics efforts to police. But in the current political climate, the criticism of the army's role caused agreement from human rights groups and a sharp defensive reaction from the governments.
Although he probably received a slap on the wrist for saying it, Kerlikowske was right. The use of the army in the Mexican drug war is debated by legal scholars, criticized by human rights groups that note the rising number of abuses committed, and feared by pro-democracy movements that see militarization as a means of turning back Mexico's weak democratic transition.
It also appears to be ineffective; the areas where most military operations have been carried out are also the most violent, with Ciudad Juarez/Valle de Juarez being the longest-running--and bloodiest--example. Victims who have spoken as part of the peace movement repeatedly share stories of a lack of security and justice in areas virtually controlled by armed forces.
It's worth noting another part of Kerlikowske's statements that went off script from the adminstration's standard pro-drug war line. To convince taxpayers that organized crime operating in Mexico is a national security issue for the United States, many hawks in the administration, have hyped the supposed dangers of "spill-over violence" and the idea that Mexican drug cartels are running the drug trade in the U.S. Kerlikowske debunked this image of a foreign crime invasion by stating, quite logically, that U.S. drug dealers have always bought drugs from foreigners:
"It's not that the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico is making decisions about command and control in some U.S. city. I think it is traditional supply and demand: drug dealers in the U.S. go to the Sinaloa cartel to get drugs, sell them and distribute them here."He added that police in the U.S. are not seeing U.S. drug dealers operating under direct instructions from Mexico.
Kerlikowske committed the political crime of criticizing a drug war that the Obama administration has decided to unconditionally support-despite its own misgivings, expressed in numerous Wikileaks cables from Embassy staff.
It doesn't matter if it doesn't work, the human collateral damage or the legal violations involved. The commitment of the U.S. and Mexican governments to a military model of attacking illegal drug use and trafficking appears unshakable.
And apparently, it will not allow for diverging opinions on the matter.