Viewpoints

Ruben Navarrette: Reconsidering support for Mexico’s drug war

SAN DIEGO – After last week’s visit to the White House by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, it’s time to rethink our support for the Mexican government’s war against the drug cartels.

Why? Because something is not right. Thousands of Mexicans in the United States greeted Pena Nieto’s arrival by doing what thousands of their compadres have done in Mexico for several weeks – screaming bloody murder. Protesters say that Pena Nieto is either incompetent or in cahoots with the cartels, and it’s hard to believe anyone could be this incompetent.

The people of Mexico, who have long distrusted their leaders and who have lost their romance for drug traffickers, have come up with an ominous term to describe the two-headed dragon: “narco-gobierno” (drug trafficker government).

While the common view in the United States is that, south of the border, the Mexican government is bravely battling a well-financed web of drug syndicates, many Mexicans have now concluded that these two entities are one and the same.

What if they’re right? What if – while the United States is partnering with the Mexican government to fight the drug war – the Mexican government is also partnering with the cartels?

Not long ago, we wouldn’t have had to ask. During the first six years of the drug war (2006-12) – when more than 60,000 people died and tens of thousands more went missing – President Felipe Calderon seemed to be a straight shooter. His strategy was to win by attrition, arresting or killing cartel leaders and confiscating their drugs and cash, with the help of more than $2.3 billion in U.S. aid allocated by Congress under the Merida Initiative.

But as the bloodshed increased, Mexicans got fed up with Calderon’s war. And so, in 2012, they shifted gears and handed the presidency to Pena Nieto, restoring his Institutional Revolutionary Party to an office that it controlled for more than 70 years in the last century. The PRI promised security through peace. So the idea was to make peace with conniving and murdering drug dealers who, when attacked, essentially act like domestic terrorists. What could go wrong?

Forty-three dead students. That’s what. The revolt against Pena Nieto began in the small town of Iguala, about 120 miles southwest of Mexico City. On Sept. 26, a group of young men, between the ages of 18 and 25, who were studying at a nearby teachers college, traveled to Iguala to hold a protest. Police confronted the students, and some were killed. The rest were, according to witnesses, taken into custody – 43 of them. Some of the bodies were found incinerated and buried in mass graves.

Even for a country like Mexico, which has become familiar with the smell of blood, what happened to “the 43” was too horrific to bear. Government officials tried to spin the tragedy as the work of local officials, but most Mexicans didn’t fall for that trick. Many of them now believe that that federal law enforcement officers and/or the military – even if they didn’t take part in the massacre – at least knew beforehand that it was going to happen and did nothing to stop it.

For his part, Pena Nieto dragged his feet. He didn’t meet with the grieving parents for several weeks. He still hasn’t bothered to visit Iguala, the scene of the crime. Yet he found time to travel abroad in the middle of the crisis.

Mexican officials insist that they have arrested more than 70 people in connection with the students’ murders, but how many of them are low-level patsies taking the fall for higher-ups who remain untouchable and free to create more mayhem?

And that’s why Mexico is in turmoil, with regular street protests demanding Pena Nieto’s resignation – protests that have now spread to this side of the border.

If you think the world is complicated, you should check out the neighborhood. The relationship between the United States and Mexico is incredibly complex. And, as the Mexican people will tell you, things are rarely as they appear.

What is clear, however, is that the relationship – which was never perfect – has gone from dysfunctional to dangerous. We play enabler as our neighbor uses U.S. tax dollars to prey upon its own people through abuse, corruption and possibly even murder.

Our neighbor’s house is on fire. And instead of funneling water, we’re supplying gasoline.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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