When U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Thursday, it marked the highest-level discussion of a matter of bitter disagreement between the two countries: Should drug cartels be designated as terrorist organizations?
Barr arrived here just over a week after President Trump said in an interview that he is pushing for that designation, a premise that Mexico’s government immediately rejected as “interventionism.”
For decades, the United States has worked with Mexico to combat drug cartels, helping to develop the very architecture of Mexico’s security apparatus. But with Trump and López Obrador, the dynamic is more complicated than ever before. López Obrador, known by his initials as AMLO, has long rejected a security strategy involving increased militarization, instead endorsing an array of social programs aimed at dissuading would-be cartel members from joining organized crime.
Trump, on the other hand, has been talking about a U.S. role in fighting cartels since taking office. A week after Trump’s inauguration, he told then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto: “You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with, and we are willing to help you with that big-league. But they have to be knocked out and you have not done a good job of knocking them out.”
After Thursday’s meeting, both sides played down the dispute over the terrorist designation, which could potentially have implications for both U.S. security involvement in Mexico and Mexico’s financial sector, if more comprehensive anti-money laundering policies are applied.
“Good meeting with the United States Attorney General, William Barr,” López Obrador wrote in a tweet. “As a lawyer, he understands that our constitution obliges us to adhere to the principles of cooperation for development and non-intervention in foreign policy. This way we can always work together.”
The United States has not been clear about how a terrorism designation would change its footprint in Mexico.
“What we are looking to do is put at the service of the government of Mexico any and all tools we have at our disposal to cooperate on the shared security challenge that the drug trafficking organizations pose,” said Hugo Rodriguez, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Central America, at a news briefing Wednesday.
In a news release about the meeting, the Justice Department did not mention the terrorism designation.
The release mentioned a “shared commitment to protecting the security and safety of the citizens of both the United States and Mexico from transnational criminal organizations as well as how our countries work together to combat drug, human, and arms trafficking.”
It added that Barr and his Mexican counterparts “talked about the importance of targeting illicit financial networks and disrupting the illicit movement of cash, weapons, and drugs, combatting corruption.”
López Obrador took office last December, vowing to end U.S. security assistance that hinged on military programs. He said of the bilateral Mérida Initiative, which has directed more than $1.6 billion in U.S. funds to training and equipping Mexican forces: “It just hasn’t worked.”
Earlier this week, ahead of the meeting with Barr, López Obrador said he would be open to stemming the flow of money and weapons from the United States that emboldens drug cartels.
“Two issues that must be discussed are the introduction of arms and dollars, and of course drugs,” López Obrador said during his regular morning news conference on Wednesday. “There must be cooperation on those issues.”
But López Obrador pointed to the Obama administration’s failed gunrunning sting operation, Operation Fast and Furious, as a sign of what he would not permit.
“It was a flagrant violation of our sovereignty,” López Obrador said.
The question of the United States’ role in fighting Mexico’s cartels reemerged last month when nine American women and children were killed in the border state of Sonora. Relatives of the victims have since been vocal about weaknesses in López Obrador’s security policy and the need for more U.S. assistance.
Mexico has made three arrests in those cases and has invited the FBI to assist the investigation. López Obrador has so far suggested that the families were killed by mistake, while the victims’ relatives insist that the community was targeted.
Experts say that whether or not the United States follows through on the terrorist designation, López Obrador will probably have to accept increased U.S. involvement in Mexican security affairs. As a major trading partner, the United States has significant leverage in shaping the bilateral security relationship. Mexican, U.S. and Canadian officials are in the last stages of negotiations of an accord to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Even if the designation doesn’t happen, the discussion between Barr and the Mexican government will still lead to greater levels of militarization, and that’s the approach that Andrés Manuel didn’t want,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University and an expert in Mexican security issues. “What might happen is he’ll say, ‘Yes, the Mérida Initiative is over, but a new plan or initiative gets launched with an American name.’ ”
In a news release, the Mexican government said both countries “agreed to strengthen the US-Mexico High Level Security Group, integrated on August 27, with the aim of combating organized crime and crime that operates across borders. Both governments will monitor the results through the [security group].”
Still, many in Mexico worry about a further emboldening of security forces in the fight against drug traffickers. Over the past decade, that approach has frequently led to the splintering of armed groups and an uptick in violence.
“The risk is that we could slip deeper into a false understanding of the conflict and misled measures to confront it,” said Falko Ernst, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Trump seems to believe that there is a clearly delineated threat that you could take out by military means, but there is in fact a highly fragmented threat whose boundaries with the state are highly porous.
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