TOPICS > Politics

Drug War Casts a Shadow on Mexican Bicentennial

September 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan talks with Ray Suarez about Mexico's bicentennial celebrations amid the backdrop of ongoing drug war violence and economic woes.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to a two-part look at Mexico on a troubled anniversary. Tonight, Mexicans begin several days of parades and street festivals to mark the 200th year of their independence from Spain. Ray Suarez begins our coverage.

RAY SUAREZ: As Mexicans are observing the holiday, their country is fighting a vicious drug war. Violence between the Mexican government and the drug lords and among the cartels themselves surged after President Felipe Calderon deployed 45,000 army troops and federal police to fight the drug trade in 2006.

Since then, at least 28,000 people have been killed in the fighting. Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likened the violence to an insurgency, the strongest language yet from the U.S. government.

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: We face an increasing threat from a well-organized network, drug trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency, in Mexico and in Central America. It’s looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: At the height of the Colombian violence in the 1980s and 1990s, rival guerrilla armies and drug gangs killed political figures and civilians. The U.S. has poured billions of dollars into the military effort to quell the violence there.

Mexico is also struggling to recover from its worst economic recession since the 1930s. Tourism, a major driver of the Mexican economy, dropped off first because of last year’s outbreak of swine flu, and then because of the mounting drug violence. Those problems were high on the agenda when I spoke to the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, yesterday.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to the NewsHour.

ARTURO SARUKHAN, Mexican ambassador to the United States: It’s a pleasure to be with you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: You know, birthdays are — we associate them as times of celebration and good cheer. Is this a happy birthday for Mexico, or a country really in crisis that is not paying attention to this momentous day?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: No, I think that the circumstances which Mexico faces, this year in particular, certainly aren’t peachy and rosy, simply because of the challenges that we face, whether it’s picking the economy up from — from the bootstraps as a result of last year’s huge recession, which hit all of us very hard, but Mexico’s recovering very nicely, whether it’s the issue of the fight against organized crime, how do you take on transnational organized crime plying its trade on both sides of the border.

There are important challenges. But this shouldn’t subtract, Ray, from the very important fact of where Mexico has come in these 200 years of independent history. I don’t have to go even back 200 years. Look at this country 20 years ago, and there’s been a huge political, social, cultural changes which is taking afoot in Mexico, which is making Mexico an extremely diverse, a — country, a maturing democracy.

Certainly, everything isn’t linear. There are some issues, political debates, political decisions, policy debates, which — which do frame a context of a profound discussion of what Mexico needs to look like and how you get there.

But I think that, despite the challenges that Mexico faces, I think that the mood should be celebratory, simply because of what Mexico’s achieved, the amazing richness of its culture, of its history, of its traditions, and, most importantly, Ray, the resilience of its civil society, and how mature the civil society has become in the last 20 or 30 years.

RAY SUAREZ: On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, the 200th anniversary of the struggle for independence, there are Mexican troops in the streets of major cities.

Is this a country that’s getting a grip on its problems? As we mark this 200th birthday, can you say that you have turned a corner?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: I think we have, Ray.

And let’s not miss one very important issue. Troops on the streets are not there because the troops made the decision to be on the streets. They are there because they have been mandated by the president, by the government, as a stopgap measure to take on organized crime.

The United States, for a good reason, has the Posse Comitatus Act, which prevents the armed forces from being put into law enforcement roles, for a very powerful reason. Armed forces are not trained to do law enforcement issues, the same way that the Mexican armed forces are not trained to do law enforcement issues.

But it is clear that, given where we were in the fight against organized crime, the degree of penetration that organized crime had achieved, especially at the state and local level with municipal police forces, the only instrument that we had available to push back and create the breathing space where socioeconomic programs, where the strengthening of the judiciary could flower was by using the army to push back.

So, one of the distinguishing facets of Mexico, as we celebrate, with other Latin American countries this year, our bicentennials of independence, is that Mexico is one of the very, very few countries in Latin America that never saw a military coup since the revolution in 1910.

RAY SUAREZ: During the past week, the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, compared Mexico’s current problems to those of Colombia at the height of its internal civil war over drug dealing.

Is it an apt comparison? Does it capture the degree of challenge to your state and its future?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: The secretary has been undoubtedly the driving force behind the vision that we have established with the U.S. administration as to how we deepen this bilateral relationship and how we work together in the fight against drugs.

She stated very clearly — and she’s done so in the past — how these two countries, Mexico and the United States, need to work co-responsibly, that, as Mexico seeks to down the flow of drugs moving north, the United States needs to step up to the plate and shut down the flow of weapons and cash moving south. So, she fundamentally understands this important challenge. The issue of — of what makes Colombia and Mexico similar or dissimilar is an ongoing debate. I think both countries certainly face the challenge of, how do you create and enhance the rule of law?

I think Colombia 20 years ago, Mexico today, are facing the same challenge. How do you push back and how do you ensure the empire of liberty and the rule of law?

Now, there are certainly differences. In Colombia, you had and you still have a three-pronged challenge to the state: organized crime, insurgents, insurgencies, groups that are determined to topple the government, whether it’s the ELN or the FARC, and paramilitary groups. Mexico has none of this. What we have in Mexico is basically very sophisticated, very brutal, but organized crime. We don’t have that similar challenge that Colombia faced and has been facing for now several decades.

RAY SUAREZ: Have these problems inside Mexico pushed the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States in uncomfortable directions? Are there tensions now between the two countries that no one was anticipating?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: Look, this relationship, by virtue of the 3,000 kilometer that we share, will never be 24/7 peachy and rosy. The challenges that both countries face, the 3,000 kilometer that we share, there are probably only two countries on the face of the Earth that have the complex challenge of what we call “intermestic” policy.” That is where domestic policy and foreign policy become one, where, to move the foreign policy agenda, you have to take on the domestic constituencies in both countries, and where domestic policy in one is foreign policy for the other, or vice versa.

That’s the case with Mexico, certainly. But, having said that, I don’t think that we have seen such engagement by a U.S. administration and a Mexican government in understanding the road map that we need to draft, how we develop a strategic partnership than the one that we have today.

Does this mean that everything is OK and there are no problems and there are no glitches in the visions that we’re designing? Of course not.

RAY SUAREZ: These decades of high levels of immigration, both legal and illegal, have created something new in the United States. And that is Mexican communities, not just in the places they have always been, in Los Angeles, and Dallas, and San Antonio, and places like that, but in New York, in Washington State, in Chicago.

Is there something new and different for Mexico about this large, now newly prosperous and politically engaged Mexican, and Mexican-American population in the United States?

ARTURO SARUKHAN: I think there is.I still remember when I was a diplomatic tadpole here at the embassy in the ’90s, in the 1990s, when we were negotiating NAFTA. There was this sort of perception in Mexico that, somehow, the Latino community, the Hispanic community in the United States should be a natural ally of the Mexican government in lobbying for NAFTA.

And many people didn’t understand in Mexico that, A., the Latino community is not homogeneous in the United States, and, B., that they don’t necessarily reflect the agenda of the Mexican government.

And so there’s been a very important change that has occurred over the last 10-15 years, in which Mexico and Mexicans understand that the name of the game is different. It’s how we can work with those communities in the United States to enhance their integration into the fabric of American society, how we can help to empower them culturally, socially, economically, how can we be a force for good in how that community interacts with a country that is their home today.

So, instead of asking, “What can you do for me?” there’s been a lot of, “How can we help you?”

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Sarukhan, thanks for joining us.

ARTURO SARUKHAN: Thank you, Ray.