Was it the latest in a string of campaign-trail mistakes, the gaffe of an inexperienced candidate outside the friendly confines of Texas, or a legitimate conversation starter for an issue now too large to ignore?
Gov. Rick Perry’s suggestion over the weekend that he might be in favor of sending the U.S. military into Mexico to help that country quell cartel-related violence elicited a variety of reactions, from outright dismissal to praise that Perry had brought the issue to the forefront of the presidential campaign.
Perry, still fighting accusations that he is soft on illegal immigration because he signed a 2001 bill to provide in-state tuition rates to some college students in the state illegally, told a crowd in New Hampshire he would be open to sending the military to America’s neighbor and third-largest trading partner.
While the governor also said that any action would have to be agreed to by the Mexicans, advocating possible U.S. military intervention would go well beyond the current agreement — called the Mérida Initiative — that provides for equipment, training and intelligence sharing between the U.S., Mexico and Central American governments, says Eric Olson, a senior adviser at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
“I think given the broader, stark context and sensitivities to U.S. intervention, these kinds of statements can create fear and misunderstanding and anger,” he says. “Mexico is in the middle of a presidential campaign, and that kind of collaboration [under Mérida] could falter and be stopped.”
Mexico is less than a year away from a presidential election, and cartel violence is certain to be a paramount issue. Political observers agree that President Felipe Calderón’s Partido Acción Nacional faces an uphill battle to retain power in Mexico City after it ended more than 70 years of one-party rule in 2000.
When asked to clarify what specific involvement he meant, Perry campaign spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said the governor would work with Mexico to do what it takes to keep Americans safe.
“This weekend, he was essentially saying that we need to keep all options on the table when it comes to protecting Americans from these brutal criminals and murderers,” Cesinger said. “Mexico and the United States have a shared goal to put an immediate end to the violent drug war waging along our shared border, and Gov. Perry is committed to ending this escalating threat to America.”
Perry has often cited what his administration calls a “porous” border as one of the biggest threats to U.S. citizens, much to the dismay of elected and appointed officials on the Texas-Mexico border who say the region is as safe as ever. He has repeatedly called for the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the border to help local and state law enforcement prevent spillover violence.
In his weekend trip to New Hampshire, Perry also likened the situation in Mexico to that of Colombia several years ago, when that government accepted U.S. military intervention to battle insurgents and cartel operatives.
Mexican media mogul Alejandro Junco de la Vega, the president and chief executive officer of Grupo Reforma, which publishes newspapers Reforma, El Norte and Mural, says Perry acknowledged something that other politicians have failed to do.
“I think that the governor’s statements indicate that he is worried, and in my view rightfully so, about the violence. The problem is a very serious one, and if this problem continues it is very likely to get out of control,” he says. “He seems to recognize something that the northeastern [U.S.] establishment does not — that the most violent cities in the world are not 8,000 miles away in other continents, they are here at home along the U.S.-Mexico border, a lot of it Texas.”
But Perry’s reference to Colombia, Junco de la Vega says, suggests that perhaps Perry’s staff should look at the issue on a deeper level.
“Maybe they haven’t considered the different dynamics that are driving the cartels" in Mexico, he says. “The different cures that were implemented by Colombians besides military force, were many and they have not been implemented in Mexico yet.”
Those reforms include investments in quality-of-life programs that in turn morphed into a broader campaign to root out elements of organized crime.
“They have had to inspire to fight corruption and the cartels from the street level, from the bottom up, but also from the top down, as apparently the military strategy would indicate,” he says.
Junco de la Vega says that despite well-intentioned officials on both sides of the Rio Grande, the conversation about possible solutions usually does not extend beyond military intervention. Given the U.S. and Mexico’s delicate history, the military-only rhetoric serves to complicate the issue.
“A military-only solution, in my view, adds a risk causing additional and unnecessary turbulence, because of our history and a long history of xenophobic relations,” he says. “The war that we are waging in Mexico is different than the war that was waged in Colombia when the military was there. We don’t have the reality of an enemy like [Pablo] Escobar, who was a clear target. We have multiple wars within the war and not all of them have to do with drugs. And it would seem that by taking out the heads of cartels in Mexico, we have merely succeeded in optimizing the structure of creating more units, more chaos more violence and the cartels have become so many and so sophisticated that many people haven’t even conceived what they are in to.”
Still, he acknowledges that Perry’s remarks will, and in his opinion should, keep the issue at the forefront.
“I think it’s good … that Gov. Perry made this a topic in the race for president because it needs to become a part of the debate,” he says.
Olson also disputes the analogy to Colombia, but more so because of the so-called ideological motives that spurred the rebels there.
“There is a lot of ways in which what has gone on in Colombia is different from Mexico. There was an ideological overlay to the conflict in Colombia that existed from the 1950s even,” he says. “Now, they obviously became very much involved in drug trafficking, as well, so there’s that element but it’s different than the situation in Mexico there is no question. And I think the organized crime groups in Mexico are not organized like an insurgency, there’s not this kind of central military and ideological cohesion when it comes to organized crime.”
For others, including Mexican officials, the issue is a non-starter.
Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, told The Associated Press the idea isn’t being considered as part of the ongoing cooperation between the two countries. U.S. troop deployment, he said, is “not on the table.” Officials with the office of Patricia Espinosa, the country’s Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, declined to comment on Perry’s statements.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, says nothing he’s witnessed while meeting with Calderón or members of the opposition party signal Mexico will accept more U.S. intervention.
“Under the circumstances right now, I just don’t see that at all,” he says. “It’s like the Mexican president saying ‘You know what, there is a huge $30 billion appetite for drugs in the U.S., so why don’t we send our troops over there and see if we can handle the situation for the Americans if they can’t.’ I think the public would go crazy and even the president from that side would do the same, even a candidate. So we have to be smart in how we deal with our neighbor to the south.”
But while a majority of Mexicans scorn the idea of U.S. involvement, a recent study shows more might be open to the idea. A study by the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of Mexicans support deploying U.S. troops into Mexico. That is up from 26 percent in 2010. The majority of Mexicans, about 83 percent, favor using the Mexican military in the fight against the cartels.
Under the Mérida Inititative, the U.S. agreed to supply $1.3 billion worth of equipment and training to Mexico and Central America to fight organized crime. And while the concentration has been on delivering equipment, officials announced in August the U.S. and Mexico will now concentrate on training. At a recent press briefing in Laredo, Ambassador William Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, announced that the Webb County Sheriff’s Department and the State Department have signed a memorandum of understanding that will pave the way for Mexican law enforcement to train with Texas peace officers.
Perry isn’t the only Texas lawmaker who has suggested modifying how the U.S. might fight Mexico’s cartels. In April U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, introduced a resolution that would designate Mexico’s seven cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The resolution would freeze funds tied to the cartels and qualifies persons found guilty of aiding them for 15 additional years of prison time. It is scheduled to go before a House committee later this week.