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As Drug War Rages, What Could Obama, Calderon Do Differently?

Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Eric Olson, senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center, about the White House meeting between President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon and the continued toll of the drug-related violence in Mexico.

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    For more on the fight against the Mexican drug cartels, we are joined by Eric Olson. He's a senior associate at the Mexican Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

    Thanks for being with us.

  • ERIC OLSON, Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center:

    Thanks. Glad to be here.


    All right, so how do we measure this, success or failure? If we started to look at the number of arrests or the number of pounds of drugs seized, it would look like a success, but then those staggering numbers of the people that are killed every year.


    Well, yes, violence and homicide is definitely one indicator. It's not the only indicator.

    But we have seen every year in the last four years, that number increase dramatically. It reached a record level of 15,000-plus last year. Some of the cities in Mexico are now the most violent cities in the world. Ciudad Juarez, one city on the border, has had more murders last year than all of Afghanistan.

    So, it's really a problem. It's not spread entirely across the country. It's very much concentrated in areas along the coasts and along the U.S. border. But the country as a whole is traumatized by this, and it's having a real impact.


    So, what should we believe when we get these status updates?

    I mean, do we believe what's kind of said publicly, that we are fighting very aggressively, we're doing our best, we're getting a handle on this, or do we believe what we have read privately in the WikiLeaks e-mails, which the president, Felipe Calderon, said to the Washington board — editorial board that actually did very serious damage and it undermined a tremendous amount of the confidence that his troops had?


    Well, I mean, I think both countries are trying very hard. There's no question about it. The problem has been one of effectiveness.

    The number of killings, as we said, have gone up. You know, the price and availability of drugs in the United States remains about the same. So, we haven't had a major impact on that. And there's just a host of various criterions that would suggest that, if they were being successful, they would come down or show improvements. And, thus far, it hasn't happened.

    Now, we have to keep in mind this is a very long-term problem. You can't just simply deploy forces and solve this problem. It has to do with the country's education system. It has to do with long-ingrained corruption in Mexico. It has to do with problems of consumption in the United States that we haven't been very successful at dealing with.

    So, it might be inappropriate to, you know, try to judge this within a few years or a couple of months. It's a long-term problem.


    Are there some best practices that we can pick up from other countries who have been through this in Central and Latin America, perhaps Colombia? Are there lessons learned that can be applied?


    Yes, there are some good experiences.

    Italy, at one point, did do a lot to break the power of organized crime in one part of the country. There are other experiences. I mean, generally, people feel like the best approach is a multi-leveled approach. You know, you would have law enforcement that's strong, professional, capable. You have a vibrant economy that provides opportunity and jobs for young people. You have an education system that works.

    Those things take a long time to develop. And the issue now is is there going to be that long-term commitment?


    And speaking of those commitments, the U.S. has pledged about $1.6 billion or so with the Merida Initiative, which came in the previous administration. There's only been about $400,000 or so of those dollars that has been gone out. Why is it taking so long?


    You know, it has been embarrassingly slow, I have to say. There's explanations for it. It's high-tech weaponry that takes a long time to produce and ship and so on.

    But I think the Obama administration, the Bush administration before them, recognizes that it's been an extremely slow and frustrating process. I think it's been an embarrassment, frankly, that, after this many years, they have only transferred $400 million, about a third of that amount of money. They say they're going to have another $500 million by this fall. But it's still very slow.


    What about the possible impact here of Jaime Zapata and his shooting just a few weeks ago? Do you think that this is going to signal any sort of a change in policy??


    Probably, in the end, not. It's obviously a huge tragedy, very, very worrisome, especially if it turns out that the cartels over time are going to begin to target U.S. agents there. There's no evidence of that yet. This is a very unusual — this is the first U.S. agent killed in Mexico in 20-some years.

    But if that were the direction it took, it would be very worrisome. There's a great irony, I think, as they pointed on out in the opening piece, that the actual weapon used in his murder came from a store in Texas or allegedly came from a store in Texas.

    So, again, it's an indication of how intertwined both countries are and how they have to work together to fix the problems in their own country, but also work together to confront organized crime.


    Is there anything that either of these presidents can do, as a policy, to try and restrict that flow of weapons and cash?


    Well, there's a lot they can do.

    In the U.S., you know, obviously, there are a number of laws. President Calderon talked about reinstating the assault weapon ban. There's a lot of things that President Obama could do without going to Congress.

    But you always come up against a very complex political terrain in the United States that makes that, you know, very, very difficult. So, the question is, do we want to value this effort between Mexico and the United States, or do we let it get caught up in the political squabbling in the U.S. Congress or whatever the political debate is in the United States?


    All right, Eric Olson from the Mexico Institute, thanks so much for your time.


    Thank you. Glad to be here.

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