At the beginning of this month, presidential candidate Rick Perry, in a campaign speech in New Hampshire, seemed to indicate that he would support a U.S. military role in the Mexican drug war.
“It may require our military in Mexico working in concert with them to kill these drug cartels and to keep them off of our border and to destroy their networks,” he said.
He compared potential military intervention in Mexico to Plan Colombia, an effort carried out over the last decade bent on suppressing drug trafficking and related violence in Colombia by way of U.S. military personnel, weapons and vehicles, training and substantial financial assistance.
Perry said, “The way we were able to stop the drug cartels in Colombia was with a coordinated effort.”
Certainly, Plan Colombia succeeded in curbing the drug war in that country, but by no means did it “stop the drug cartels.” Colombia is still the world’s largest producer of cocaine, and its cartels, though weaker, have not faded away.
Adam Isacson, Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy in Washington’s Office on Latin America, is one of many critics of Plan Colombia. Though he acknowledges that the work of the United States in Colombia is “worth learning from,” he also says “it is not a model to be applied in Afghanistan, Mexico, or anywhere else.”
In his 2010 report, investigating the impact of Plan Colombia and similar strategies for other countries, Isacson warns, “Colombia’s security gains are partial, possibly reversible, and weighed down by ‘collateral damage.’”
Even in light of these criticisms, Perry draws the comparison, and he is not alone. Last year, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a similar observation, likening the Mexican drug war to the drug problem in Colombia. The comments were received with scorn from Mexican officials who have, on numerous occasions, refuted the need or desire of a Plan Colombia-like operation in Mexico.
Mexican senator Ricardo Monreal countered Clinton’s statement saying, “Whoever thinks Colombia is a cure-all, and if the United States thinks it is necessary to apply the same model to us they applied to Colombia, they are mistaken.”
Mexican citizens are largely opposed to U.S. military intervention as well. Though the idea has gained some steam of late, a poll taken by the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in August revealed that 38 percent of Mexicans would support US intervention while 57 percent oppose.
At home, with the country already involved in two wars and struggling to wade through an economic recession, many Americans have vocalized their opposition to further expanding U.S. interventionist policy. The leadership of European powers in Libya demonstrates the restraint the American people have been putting on U.S. military involvement in other states. It is difficult to imagine strong support among Americans for sending troops to Mexico. A third war would be a difficult sell, especially given the current political and economic climate.
Although the greatest home-front opposition would almost certainly spawn from the desire to protect our domestic economy and to avoid stretching the military even thinner, there is also the question of the arbitrary nature of U.S. intervention. Why Mexico? Why now?
Because Mexico is a close ally, geographically and ideologically, and because it is the primary gateway for drug smuggling into the United States, it makes sense that we would direct a portion of our resources south of the border. But why not also direct equal resources to other countries even more burdened by drug problems? As noted, Colombia remains the greatest producer of cocaine. Afghanistan, a country in which we are already deeply entrenched, remains the leader in opium production. Peru and Bolivia are huge drug-producing states, and all of the Central American countries — Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize — are drug highways. As such, why don’t we target the drug problems in those countries, where our efforts could have even greater impact? Why don’t we increase resources spent on the drug problem in our own country, which is the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world?
Even if the United States intervenes in Mexico, the demand for drugs in this country and the production of drugs in supplier states will remain. If our aim is to stop the shipment of drugs, why not target transit states like Panama or Costa Rica, which are closer to the primary drug-producing countries and more manageable because of their size? If any presidential candidates are serious about stepping up the fight in the worldwide drug war, military involvement in Mexico is neither the most appropriate nor the most promising option.