Mexico's Drug War: A Cops and Choppers Story

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Guillermo Arias / AP

A police officer picks up seized guns after presenting them to the press in Tijuana

Mexican law-enforcement triumphs always seem to greet visits by top U.S. officials. When U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder arrived in Mexico City this year, a major drug-cartel kingpin was suddenly arrested. As President Obama met with Mexican President Felipe Calderón this month in Guadalajara, an alleged narcoplot to assassinate Calderón was foiled. Such spectacular collars are laudable, of course, but they're also timed to impress lawmakers in Washington who control hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. antidrug aid for Mexico.

But with nary a gringo dignitary in sight, Mexican officials carried out a less dazzling — but nonetheless remarkable — operation last weekend that should have grabbed Washington's attention. All 700 of Mexico's federal customs agents, a club notorious for corruption and a less than robust devotion to duty, were booted and replaced with a new force that's two times larger and apparently many times more professional. The 1,400 new agents, said a government statement, passed "a strict selection process that included psychological and toxicological tests, as well as the necessary investigations to ensure they have no criminal record." More than 70% are college educated, compared with less than 10% of the old group.

That's good news, because the agents' responsibilities include ferreting out the thousands of weapons smuggled into Mexico each year — most, by far, from the U.S. — that fuel the country's horrific drug violence. But it's also a reminder that the U.S. needs to channel far more of its antidrug aid not at short-term, headline-grabbing hardware like Black Hawk helicopters but at longer-lasting, if less sexy, institutional reforms like Mexican customs overhaul. If the U.S. can help Mexico revamp its hopelessly venal and dysfunctional police forces in similar fashion — better vetting, training, pay and intelligence infrastructure — experts believe it will do much more in the long run to reduce the tons of drugs that flood the U.S. and the narcobloodshed that threatens to spill across the border as well.

Unfortunately, less than a third of the U.S.'s main antidrug aid program for Mexico — the three-year, $1.4 billion Mérida Initiative — focuses on repairing that nation's law-enforcement and judicial systems. A chunk of this year's Mérida installment (the second) has been held up in Congress because of Senate concerns about human-rights abuses by the Mexican military — the 40,000 soldiers Calderón has had to rely on in his offensive against the drug cartels precisely because Mexico's cops are too corrupt and ill trained to do the job. That money should be released by the end of August. But when U.S lawmakers come back to Mérida next year for its final disbursement, many feel they need to shift its priorities toward police reform.

A new study by the California-based Rand Corp., a leading policy think tank, joins that call. It notes that while Mexico has 370 police officers per 100,000 people, the U.S. has only 225 — but enjoys a far more effective and trustworthy police culture. "Security in Mexico: Implications for U.S. Policy Options" recommends that since Calderón's military crusade can only be a short-term drug-war strategy, the U.S. must "engage in a strategic partnership with Mexico that emphasizes reform and longer-term institution-building." One goal, aside from reining in police corruption, is to bridge the chaotic gaps between federal, state and local police that let Mexico's drug cartels divide and conquer the country's cops so easily. Says Agnes Schaefer, lead author of the Rand study: "Congress needs to realign the distribution of Mérida's resources if it's serious about increasing security for the U.S. in the long run vis-à-vis Mexico."

Schaefer says U.S. dollars would be better spent helping Mexico develop more sophisticated antidrug intelligence agencies and databases — particularly in areas like money-laundering, where law enforcement worldwide often cripples organized crime more than conventional interdiction does. "One of the best things the U.S. can do is help Mexico institute international policing protocols that just don't exist there now," says Schaefer. "Transparency is the key."

Most Mexican-security experts agree. What's more, says Arturo Alvarado, a security analyst at El Colegio de México in Mexico City, "Programs like Mérida also need to direct more resources at curbing demand for drugs in the U.S. This has to be more about getting at the root causes of the drug war, not flashy short-term gestures that benefit U.S. helicopter manufacturers."

Schaefer applauds Calderón and Mexico for the fledgling reform efforts started so far, which she urges the U.S. to do more to promote — especially since Calderón has dropped Mexico's hypernationalist, antigringo guard for a while to let Washington take a more active role. "Mexico is on the right track," she says, "but we have to take better advantage of this window of opportunity that Calderón has given us before he leaves office in 2012."

Pedro Canabal, spokesman for Mexico's Tax Administration Service, which oversees the customs agents, seemed to echo policy recommendations like Rand's last weekend when he emphasized the importance of more sophisticated training and detection equipment — of better cops rather than better copters. "We need more than just a body with a weapon," said Canabal. He gets it. And if the Mexicans get it, it's about time the Americans did too.