WikiLeaks cables reveal U.S. concern over Mexico's ability to fight drug cartels

By William Booth and Nick Miroff
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:45 PM

MEXICO CITY - As U.S. diplomats publicly praised "unprecedented cooperation" from Mexico in the fight against the drug cartels, they privately worried that poorly trained Mexican soldiers and a federal police force hobbled by corruption were failing to slow the surging violence.

In a package of secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks to media organizations Thursday night, the ambassador and his second-in-charge at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City commended President Felipe Calderon's aggressive U.S.-backed stance against the powerful drug organizations but lamented his over-reliance on military forces to do the job.

"The military was not trained to patrol the streets or carry out law enforcement operations. It does not have the authority to collect and introduce evidence into the judicial system," wrote deputy chief of mission John Feeley in a Jan. 29 cable. "The result: arrests skyrocketed, prosecutions remained flat, and both the military and public have become increasingly frustrated."

The memos described the Mexican army leadership as "risk averse," insular, overprotective and wary of U.S. offers of help. The writers also accused the army of being slow to react to U.S. intelligence about the locations of drug cartel leaders.

The Mexican army, according to one memo, "has taken a serious beating on human rights issues from international and domestic human rights organizations, who argue with considerable basis, in fact, that the military is ill-equipped for a domestic policing role."

U.S. diplomats also lamented that there is zero coordination between Mexican security forces - the army, marines, federal and state police, and prosecutors.

"Mexican security institutions are often locked in a zero-sum competition in which one agency's success is viewed as another's failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of," one January assessment read. "Official corruption is widespread, leading to a compartmentalized siege mentality among 'clean' law enforcement leaders and their lieutenants."

The cables pointed out that "prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal," with only 2 percent of those detained ever brought to trial.

Meanwhile, the U.S. diplomats and law enforcement personnel at the embassy summed up the drug-trafficking organizations as "sophisticated players: they can wait out a military deployment; they have an almost unlimited human resource pool to draw from in the marginalized neighborhoods; and they can fan complaints about human rights violations to undermine any progress the military might make with hearts and minds."

The memos asserted that some Mexican officials were equally fearful about the direction of the drug war.

One dated Oct. 5, 2009, warned that a top security official had "expressed a real concern with 'losing' certain regions" of the country and warned that "pervasive, debilitating fear" was settling into the countryside.

Former Mexican undersecretary for the interior Geronimo Gutierrez Fernandez, in charge of domestic security, told U.S. officials in private, "If we do not produce a tangible success that is recognizable to the Mexican people, it will be difficult to sustain the confrontation into the next administration."

Gutierrez worried that the drug violence "is damaging Mexico's international reputation, hurting foreign investment, and leading to a sense of government impotence," according to the memo.

In another cable from Washington to the U.S. Embassy here, State Department officials asked for more insight into Calderon's "leadership style" and wondered how he was weathering the "great stress from the drug war, economic collapse and his party's midterm losses."

One memo from the embassy described Calderon as "down" at recent meetings.

U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, who wrote some of the leaked memos, said Thursday night that he is consulting closely with Calderon's government about the illegal disclosure of information. "We have underscored our appreciation for the genuine partnership that has been strengthened as a result of our increased bilateral cooperation," Pascual said.

The diplomat pointed out that cables are frank assessments of day-to-day events and that they are quickly superseded by new information.

"The Mexico-U.S. partnership will remain rock-solid," Pascual said. "There simply is no other bilateral relationship between two sovereign nations that is as intense, broad or vitally important as that between Mexico and the United States. This will not change as a result of what may be posted on WikiLeaks."

Officially, the Mexican government agreed. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement Thursday night deploring the leaks.

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