It's Our Drug War, Too

Visiting Fellow Roger Noriega
Visiting Fellow
Roger F. Noriega
U.S. and Mexican authorities are nearing agreement on an aid package to support Mexico's courageous new offensive against the deadly drug syndicates that threaten both our nations. The stakes are high for the United States: We depend on Mexico as a cooperative neighbor and trade partner, and most of the marijuana and as much as 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in this country pours over our southern border. If Mexico cannot make significant headway against the bloodthirsty cartels, our security and our people will suffer the consequences.

Since President Felipe Calderón's victory last year, Mexican authorities have stepped up efforts to fight drug sales and have paved the way for increased cooperation with the United States. Calderón has subjected hundreds of senior-ranking police officials to polygraph testing and has dismissed thousands more suspected of corruption. After years of internal legal obstacles, Mexico has captured and extradited major traffickers to the United States in record-breaking numbers.

Conceding the corruption or weakness of some local police forces, Calderón has deployed 20,000 Mexican soldiers to help match the firepower of murderous drug gangs. Mexican officials--as jealous of their national sovereignty as we are of ours--have set aside historical sensitivities and welcomed unprecedented cooperation between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Now is the time to forge a genuine partnership.

If Mexico cannot make significant headway against the bloodthirsty cartels, our security and our people will suffer the consequences.

Certain elements of such a partnership are uncontroversial and are likely to win universal support. Surveillance and eavesdropping equipment, radar for aerial interdiction, aircraft for drug-tracking teams and assorted special training are reportedly already part of the agreement. Under the administration of Vicente Fox the two governments began working together, with U.S. aid directed at database improvements, law enforcement training and material support for border-crossing posts. Increased coordination in these areas should be part of the new agreement.

Other elements will prove to be more challenging to legislate or to implement. Congress and the Bush team will have to set aside feelings of distrust and polarization if they are to forge a deal that can win ample funding and long-term, bipartisan backing. U.S. lawmakers need to be brought into the negotiating process so that they can have confidence in the plan and will not seek to micromanage the fight against drugs in a way that will demoralize our Mexican friends. We must strike a balance between congressional meddling and the oversight necessary to sustain funding and political support. Moreover, waiting for the regular appropriations cycle means an eight-month delay. President Bush should move quickly to request urgent supplemental funds, and Congress should do its duty by acting with the urgency this task demands. Our government must reassure its Mexican counterparts that meaningful help is on the way.

Of course, Mexico is wary of U.S. activity on Mexican soil, and American law enforcement and intelligence officials have been skeptical of their counterparts. But the U.S. government can and should demonstrate its commitment to fostering rather than controlling the program. For their part, Mexican authorities must open themselves to the scrutiny that builds trust. Law enforcement cooperation will prove vital if we are to match the seamless integration with which our criminal enemies operate across our common border.

Both sides will be understandably reluctant to cede jurisdiction over their respective territories. The Europol model, which leaves enforcement responsibilities to national and local police while coordinating information exchange, threat analyses and technical support at a supranational level, may provide a template for successful cooperation.

No less important than a focus on security is aid for legal reform and judicial capacity-building. Now that the political will for serious reform exists, Mexico needs the funding and personnel to properly investigate and prosecute drug traffickers and the corrupt officials who abet them. Fortunately, Calderón's national development plan promotes a culture of accountability, transparency and respect for the rule of law that will strengthen Mexico's institutions against drug corruption.

Felipe Calderón has already demonstrated his commitment to rescuing his country from a criminal drug machine, and he welcomes increased U.S. support. There are few challenges more grave than those posed by the deadly cartels Mexico is fighting. And there are few opportunities more precious than helping our Mexican friends win the battle on our doorstep.

Roger F. Noriega is a visiting fellow at AEI. His law and advocacy firm, Tew Cardenas, LLP, represents U.S. and foreign governments and companies.

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Roger F.
  • Roger F. Noriega is a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs (Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean) and a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. He coordinates AEI's program on Latin America and writes for the Institute's Latin American Outlook series.

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