Afghanistan and America’s troubled backyard

By Bernd Debusmann
July 30, 2010

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.”

6 comments

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While I agree that the US support to her southern neighbors is inadequate, I’m not sure I can agree to draw such a linear connection between the expenditure in Afghanistan and what is spent in Central America. Not only is the nature of the conflict vastly different but the potential for danger to American citizens is fairly divergent as well.

To the first point, what we have in Afghanistan is a qausi-invasion force sent in to topple one government and install another as opposed to the Central American policy of support for existing regimes and greater sensitivity to local sentiment towards armed Americans roaming their streets.

To the second point the safe haven for terrorists that was the Taliban controlled Afghanistan represents a completely different sort of danger than the persistent corruption and violence of Mexico. Is that danger 150 times greater? I can’t answer that but clearly someone in Washington believes it to be so.

I think we can all agree that we want our troops out of Afghanistan sooner than soon and that we should have a greater sense of obligation and priority in establishing safety and security in our own neighborhood, but the political reality is that violent crime in Mexico which has a knock-on effect of violent crime in the US doesn’t get nearly as many headlines (and thus not nearly as many demands for action) as a single act of planned large scale terrorism on US property. Until Americans better understand just exactly how Central American instability can have the same effect as a plane flying into the side of a building, they will not make it a priority.

Posted by marknick | Report as abusive

Thank you Mr. Debusmann for letting me know that the United States of America is very generous with its money and with good intentions,like a drunk on a spree. You give in the hope we will control their economy and politics. I think we should learn to recoil our wallets and keep our mouths shut for awhile.
I agree with you, though we should place our military energy and money on the borders of our neighbors, Mexico,El Salvador, Guatemala,etc. with at least 25-35% of our forces in Afghanistan ,just to investigate,and stop, the flow of drugs into our nation;also, use some of that money to educate our children about all aspects of substance abuse and addictions at the earliest age possible, i suspect we have a greater problem with people at the South of the Border,which is a Hispanic manifest destiny. The Americas is their land too. As it is happening now we will become a bi-lingual nation and Major US corporation encourages it.
Governments of the South of the Boarder know it is easier to convince the population to work up north and send the money home. They do not have to deal with a lifetime of free-market economy there, we also will supply the healthcare too.We give them loans while Mexico could care less for their poor, and allow the wealthy never to give them title to any property and water supply. They come here to get that money. The population down there will not work for america business for 50 cents an hour like the chinese, but come here.
O! boy I’m getting out of control here. I gotta go.

Posted by oldnewyork | Report as abusive

hey news flash you want to stop drug related violence on both sides of the border then get ur head out of the sand and legalize drugs bloody cartels wont be able to compete with American Pharms companys will out produce them in a day drugs gangs and dealers will be forced to get real jobs hahaha

Posted by sonomes222 | Report as abusive

The problem with Afghanistan is that our mere presence breeds more violence. Terrorists use our response against us to mire us in a situation where we slowly bleed out of money, lives, influence, and political will. Is it heresy to suggest that maybe we should not have responded to the terrorist attacks on 9-11? Just a hypothetical. . . After all, bin Laden’s stated goals were to lure us into a conflict that would squander our money and blood until we either give up or or economy collapses. He’s succeeded thus far, mostly because we let him. . .

Over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been several troubling developments in our own hemisphere, many of which are not mentioned in this article. Obviously, the narco-terrorism in Mexico is a serious problem — and it’s been spreading. If people think northern Mexico is bad, Guatemala is essentially a failed state. Honduras isn’t much better. Meanwhile, Colombia and Venezuela are on a collision course over Venezuelan-funded terrorists groups operating within Colombia. In Mexico and other Latin American countries, Chinese is starting to replace english as the second language of choice. While we’ve chased an elusive enemy in the deserts of the Middle East, China has stepped into our hemisphere as a major economic player.

I feel that in the post Cold War era, we have neglected a massive opportunity to solidify our relationships in the Americas and create the most peaceful, free, and prosperous region of the world.

We’ve missed that opportunity precisely because we disproportionally turned our attention to the Middle East. I think the author was absolutely correct in drawing a connection between what we spend in Afghanistan and our aid to Central America and Mexico. It is important to recognize, however, that military expenditures alone will not fix the problems in Mexico, Guatemala, etc.

Posted by jayfro21 | Report as abusive

When mexico and central American nations learns to tax their people and use the proceeds to insitutionalize functional government and establish a strong police force to uphold the law, then conditions there will improve. As it is, they give their people a free ride, and rely on the United States to support their institutions. They get what they pay for.

We (the United States) should legalize marijuana and other soft, non-lethal drugs to help ease the pressure on our end.

We love the military industrial complex here. Afghanistan is nothing more than the most recent poster boy for the United States’ post-WWII policy of permanant warfare. The US: Leading the World in Invasions, Killing, and Illegal Warfare Since 1945!

Posted by Soothsayer | Report as abusive

What Mexican president Felipe Calderon has done (mostly as a result of US pressure and bribes) is turn a police action into a gorilla war that he cannot win. His famous quote, that the Mexican Federal government is much stronger than organized crime, may or may not be true, but it is irrealevant. The Mexican government at all levels is completely incapable of protecting its citizens, its police officers, and its newspaper reporters.

There are 150,000 vacant houses in Ciudad Juarez, and so many people are killed each day that the morgue is overflowing, and it is not possible to do any investigations of the deaths, have autopsies, etc.

Most of the people are afraid to answer their telephone for fear that it’s an extortionist, and if they don’t pay their 200 pesos every week, they will be killed. The neighborhood grocery stores are open only a few hours a day, and only through the back door for their neighbors in an effort to avoid extortion.

It used to be that when passing from Juarez to El Paso on foot, one to wait in a line which extended over the Santa Fe international bridge and well down the streets of Juarez, I passed through there a couple of weeks ago, and there was no line–just eight or ten US immigration and customs officials sitting around doing nothing. The Mexicans that worked in El Paso and crossed to work every day with a border crossing pass are either (illegally) are staying in El Paso, or they have moved back to their origins in the interior.

Calderon has also involved the Mexican army in the “war on drugs” and the result has been an uncountable multitude of human rights violations by military parsonal. The soldiers are immuned from prosecutiuon. There is talk about referring these human rights cases to civil courts, but it’s just talk.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. I could also tell you what the average Mexican would tell a US politician what he could do with his dollars, but I won’t do that either. But what US politicians to do is keep their money and stop interfering with internal Mexican affairs. Of course, Mexican politicians say “keep on sending the money–the more, the better”.

But anyway, my point is that in most cases, “gifted” US dollars is often not the solution of the problem, but rather its cause. And more US money will just agravate these problems.

Posted by gAnton | Report as abusive

[...] For Bernd Debusmann’s column, read here. [...]