Mexico should call in the Marines

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Friday, November 26, 2010;

National pride is a good thing - until the water reaches your chin and your nation is still sinking. Mexico is not in that deep yet, but parts of the country are. Seven criminal cartels effectively control most cities and the drug trafficking lanes near the U.S. border, as well as their bases and production centers in the interior.

The Mexican government announced on Wednesday that it will send more troops and federal police to its northeastern corner near the U.S. border.

Yet the Mexican elite class and military remain too proud to do what they immediately should: Call in the Marines.

I say this a bit tendentiously to get Mexicans out of their nationalistic stupor. They, in fact, should call in the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force, too. But not in large units. Rather, Mexico is in dire need of American military specialists stationed within its borders to help the country build powerful electronic intelligence systems and train modern military and police forces to replace its suffocatingly hierarchical, outdated ones.

My saying this will insult many Mexicans, but I speak out of love for the country and its people. Mexico is neither a "failing state" nor a totally corrupt society, as - curiously - American nativists and humanitarians in the immigration debate claim (one wanting to wall off Mexico, the other to save Mexicans and invite into the United States anyone who wants to come).

But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was right when she said the cartels are "morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency." Mexican officials and media erupted in protest, and President Obama apologized.

He shouldn't have. The United States and Mexico have to recognize that cartels in Mexico and other parts of the world represent what a growing number of clear-eyed specialists are calling a new form of "criminal insurgency."

"They are attacking the state from within through corruption and violence and seeking to establish areas of influence in which they can operate without restriction," Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal wrote in a just-released study for the Center for a New American Security.

Where it interests them, the cartels have cowed the local police, politicians and the press through intimidation, executions, massacres and coerced bribery. More than 200,000 people have fled Juarez; the border maquiladoras that were a national growth engine are struggling; and many business leaders from Monterrey, the modern industrial center of Mexico, have moved to Texas.

President Felipe Caldern has bravely tried to break the cycle by going to war with the cartels; but after about 28,000 deaths, most Mexicans think the cartels are winning. Caldern's term is up in two years, and Mexico will face the choice to keep fighting or return to an older policy of live and let live with one or more of the cartels. The latter is looking ever more attractive.

Mexico thus needs military and police help now. Yes, more fundamental matters such as drug demand in the United States and weak institutions in Mexico need addressing, but those are long-term concerns. Not even legalization of drugs - which I favor - will make the criminal cartels go away. They are in many businesses now, and they have tentacles throughout the hemisphere and in every large and medium-size U.S. city.

What is getting in the way of deeper cooperation with the U.S. military is that the Mexican military, political and intellectual leaders, abetted by U.S. intellectuals, still have their heads in the Mexican and American wars of the 19th century and the Cold War of the 20th. They talk of imperialism and hegemony - which are irrelevant today.

Though Mexico is our neighbor and supposed longtime ally, the Mexican army has never - never - participated in a joint military exercise with the U.S. military, as Roderic Ai Camp notes in a recent study for the Woodrow Wilson Center.

The Merida Initiative funds some police training by Mexicans in Mexico; Mexican military officers are increasingly studying in the United States; and Mexico has recently asked our Northern Command for help in setting up a joint intelligence center. But that's not nearly enough.

Plan Colombia, a U.S. initiative to thwart drug smuggling in Colombia, has been a success because several hundred military trainers and intelligence operatives have worked hand in glove with Colombians inside that country. More than just teaching officers, they empower sergeants and enlisted men from the working class, something the Mexican military, like the Mexican elite, has yet to do.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is

© 2010 The Washington Post Company