Afghanistan and America’s troubled backyard
The United States is spending around $6.5 billion a month on the war in faraway Afghanistan, where a large part of its effort is meant to help the government assert its authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.
Closer to home, the U.S. has allotted $44 million a month to help the governments of its closest neighbours – Mexico and Central America – assert their authority, fight corruption and set up functioning institutions.
The two cases raise questions about American priorities. If money were the only gauge, one might draw the conclusion that it is 147 times more important for Washington to bring security and good governance to Afghanistan than to America’s violence-plagued next-door neighbours — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
In the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez alone, 6,000 people have died in the past two and a half years, a number that dwarfs the military death toll of Afghanistan since the war there began in 2001. Central America, according to a U.N. report, has become the region with the world’s highest murder rate, an average of about 1,300 a month.
Official statistics list 4,635 murders in El Salvador in 2009. Honduras notched up 5,265 and Guatemala 6,498. Mexico topped the 2009 list with almost 8,000. Since President Felipe Calderon declared war on his country’s drug trafficking organizations in December 2006, more than 25,000 people have been killed.
Most of the blood-letting is blamed on drug traffickers fighting each other and the state, and on armed disputes between rival criminal gangs. To help the governments in America’s backyard tamp down the violence, then President George W. Bush signed into law, in June 2008, a three-year $1.6 billion security cooperation agreement, the so-called Merida Initiative. (So named after the Mexican city where it was hatched).
What effect has it had, so far? Virtually zero, largely because very little of the assistance in training and equipment the U.S. promised has been delivered. In July, a report by the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of congress, found that just nine per cent of the agreed total had been “expended.”
“Deliveries of equipment and training have been delayed by challenges associated with insufficient number of staff to administer the program, negotiations on interagency and bilateral agreements, procurement processes, changes in government, and funding availability,” the GAO said. In other words: things got stuck in red tape.
BLEAK MEMORIES OF PAST EFFORTS
But even once all the aid — from helicopters and drug sniffing dogs to X-ray scanning devices and police training is dispensed — there is reason to doubt that the programme will make much of a difference either to the flow of drugs to the United States or to the violence tearing at the fabric of society in Mexico and Central America.
Like most initiatives since President Richard Nixon first declared “war on drugs” 39 years ago, Merida is heavy on equipment and geared more towards tactical victories in suppressing the cultivation and flow of drugs than on the long-term reforms that would make government institutions, most of all the justice systems, corruption-resistant.
The Merida initiative evokes memories of U.S.-Mexican anti-drug efforts in the late 1990s, when Mexico was also torn by a wave of violence as rival cartels fought for dominance. Then as now, the military were seen as less prone to corruption and abuse than the police. Then as now, this is a questionable assumption.
In the 1990s, the U.S. provided a large fleet of helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and other equipment. It trained thousands of Mexican special forces to attack the drug networks. An army general, Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, became Mexico’s drug czar. He was arrested a year later and tried for working for the drug lords he was supposed to fight.
That the latest programme does not quite capture the complex nature of the problem is apparent from its title: The Merida Initiative to Combat Illicit Narcotics and Reduce Organized Crime. Both illicit drugs and organized crime play a major role in the Mexican and Central American mayhem but they are not the only forces.
Common crime is up throughout the region – from robbery and rape to extortion, car theft and kidnapping for ransom. In a climate of criminal anarchy, life is cheap, arrests are rare, and impunity is the rule rather than the exception.
This is not how President Calderon tells it. According to him, 90 percent of the dead are connected to drug organizations – bad people killing bad people. One Mexican army general, Jorge Juarez Loera, echoed the thought and phrased it differently. Reporters covering the killings should refer to “one less criminal” instead of “one more murder victim.”
Charles Bowden, the author of Murder City, a gripping book on the decline of Ciudad Juarez into a killing field, scoffs at such assertions. “Most of the murder victims (in Juarez) are ordinary Mexicans who magically morph into drug cartel members before their blood dries where they fall dead, riddled with bullets.” Is there an end in sight?
Bowden’s reply: “I don’t see any way to put the lid back on.”