(New York Times)
MEXICO CITY — More than a year ago — before drug cartels killed a gubernatorial candidate and began murdering mayors, before shootings and kidnappings in Mexico’s industrial capital, Monterrey, surged to the point that the State Department ordered children of American diplomats there to leave the country — a Mexican official admitted that the government feared it could lose control of parts of the nation.
At a dinner held by Mexico’s acting attorney general for a visiting delegation from the Department of Justice in October 2009, the comments by Gerónimo Gutiérrez, then a deputy secretary in the ministry in charge of domestic security, suggested that even then a sense of anxiety about the drug war had begun to take hold in many parts of the Mexican government.
In the account of the meeting, which was included in the American diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks and posted on Mexican news Web sites, Mr. Gutiérrez was quoted as saying: “We have 18 months and if we do not produce a tangible success that is recognizable to the Mexican people, it will be difficult to sustain the confrontation into the next administration.”
The summary of Mr. Gutiérrez’s comments, written by the United States ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, continued: “He expressed a real concern with ‘losing’ certain regions. It is damaging Mexico’s international reputation, hurting foreign investment, and leading to a sense of government impotence, Gutiérrez said.”
The documents released by WikiLeaks capture a moment at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010 when Mexican officials were forced to acknowledge — despite their public claims of progress — that their military strategy was not producing the results they had hoped for in the drug war.
The diplomatic cables also show just how entwined the United States has become in Mexico’s drug war. The United States government provides Mexico with intelligence to pinpoint where top drug lords are hiding out, trains elite troops, and American officials discuss strategy to try to quell the violence in Ciudad Juárez, which has become ground zero in the drug war.
But the cables suggest frustration that the military, the police and prosecutors are not up to the task. In a blunt assessment, John Feeley, the deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Mexico City, concluded in January that military officials “share the parochial, risk-averse habits that often plague their civilian counterparts in Mexican law enforcement agencies.”
A year later, there have been some notable successes in capturing or killing cartel leaders and their violent lieutenants. Police intelligence appears to have become more effective. But the military continues to play the top role in the drug war, and the violence that so worried Mexican officials at the end of last year has spread, becoming more entrenched than ever.
The diplomatic cables present a picture of such intense rivalry among Mexico’s civilian law enforcement agencies and its military that little gets done.
In his account, Mr. Feeley said that “Mexican security institutions are often locked in a zero-sum competition in which one agency’s success is viewed as another’s failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of.”
Mr. Feely continued: “Prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal; 2 percent of those detained are brought to trial. Only 2 percent of those arrested in Ciudad Juárez have even been charged with a crime.”
The documents also show how anxious the Mexican government was to contain the bloodshed in Juárez, which has intensified this year.
At the October 2009 meeting with the delegation from the Justice Department, Mr. Gutiérrez and Jorge Tello Peón, who was then President Felipe Calderón’s top intelligence official for the drug war, said that the government “must succeed in Juárez because Calderón has staked so much of his reputation there, with a major show of force that, to date, has not panned out,” according to Mr. Pascual’s account.
The content of the documents elicited angry responses from Mexican officials. Late Thursday, the Foreign Relations Ministry said the reports “reflect some deplorable practices from the point of view of respect that should prevail between nations that collaborate for common objectives.”
Mr. Pascual hastened to assure Mexicans that relations were still strong. Calling the cables “impressionistic snapshots of a moment in time,” he wrote in El Universal newspaper that “like some snapshots, they can be out of focus or unflattering.”
Much of what is in the diplomatic cables are similar to what American diplomats say about the need for Mexican law enforcement agencies to do their jobs more effectively. Indeed, much of it is not all that different from the vigorous debate going on inside Mexico.
The army faces charges of human rights abuses, and efforts to reform the police have failed to generate much confidence among ordinary Mexicans.
But the unguarded criticisms in the diplomatic cables have roused prickly nationalist sensibilities in Mexico, especially candid assessments like one from the United States Embassy that stated: “Official corruption is widespread, leading to a compartmentalized siege mentality among ‘clean’ law enforcement leaders and their lieutenants.”
Another sensitive topic is criticism of the military. A cable from Ambassador Pascual last December offered an inside look at how the Mexican Army failed to move to capture one top drug lord, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, last December.
The United States Embassy initially told the army where Mr. Beltrán Leyva was hiding out, but the army did not act. The embassy then told the navy, and an elite American-trained unit moved into action. Mr. Beltrán Leyva escaped the first navy raid, but the embassy several days later located him in a apartment complex in Cuernavaca, about 50 miles south of Mexico City. The navy unit moved in and killed him when he refused to surrender.
Mr. Pascual concluded that the navy’s success put the army “in the difficult position of explaining why it has been reluctant to act on good intelligence and conduct operations against high-level targets.”