US Cables: Mexico drug war lacks clear strategy

Mexico's 4-year-old assault on drug cartels lacks a clear strategy and a modernized military, and suffers from infighting among security agencies, according to U.S. State Department cables leaked to WikiLeaks.

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual sought to control the damage, explaining in an editorial published Friday that the cables "do not represent U.S. policy."

"They are often impressionistic snapshots of a moment in time. But like some snapshots, they can be out of focus or unflattering," Pascual wrote in the editorial, published in El Universal newspaper.

The classified and secret memos posted on several news media websites Thursday stand in stark contrast to the public declarations by Mexico and the U.S. about the success of the war on organized crime.

The cables call into question many of the efforts publicly touted by the two countries, from the use of the Mexican army, which is described as outdated, slow and risk-averse; to the United States' $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, which is seen as ill-conceived and doing little so far to fight drug traffickers.

In one cable, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asks about how the stress is affecting President Felipe Calderon's "personality and management style," while a cable by Pascual notes that Calderon has admitted to having a tough year and has appeared "down" in meetings.

"Calderon has aggressively attacked Mexico's drug-trafficking organizations but has struggled with an unwieldy and uncoordinated interagency and spiraling rates of violence that have made him vulnerable to criticism that his anti-crime strategy has failed," reads a Jan. 29 memo called "Scenesetter for Opening of the Defense Bilateral Working Group" that also criticizes competition among Mexican security agencies, corruption and Mexico's abysmally low prosecution rate.

In an interview with Radio Formula hours before the cables were revealed, Calderon was already criticizing "the spying of the Americans, who have always been very interfering in this sense."

Later, one of the cables revealed that Calderon told a U.S. official last year that Washington should step up its political involvement in Latin America to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's growing influence.

In a memo date Oct. 5, 2009, Mexico's then-Undersecretary for the Interior Geronimo Gutierrez Fernandez, who oversaw domestic security, "expressed a real concern with 'losing' certain regions" of Mexico to drug traffickers.

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

"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," the memo quotes him as saying.

Calderon has insisted that the spike in violence that has killed more than 28,000 people since 2006 is a sign that the drug cartels are on the ropes and that the government controls all areas of the country.

U.S. officials stage public ceremonies for the handover of helicopters and other Merida Initiative equipment and talk about Mexico's reform from a closed to an oral trial system a key tool in fighting the drug war.

Privately the U.S. notes: "Prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal; 2 percent of those detained are brought to trial. Only 2 percent of those arrested in Ciudad Juarez have even been charged with a crime."

The Oct. 5 cable says that the U.S. would be willing to provide Mexico more training and technology, particularly in intelligence gathering, but that it will take "the development of strong trust through proper vetting." The cable also says "it would be excellent to get to the point where there is no longer impunity for (Joaquin) Chapo Guzman," Mexico's most-wanted drug lord.

A bright spot in the drug war, according to the U.S. cables, is the Mexican navy, credited by Pascual in one memo for "a major victory for President Calderon:" the offensive a year ago that killed drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva, head of the cartel that bears his last name.

Since then, the marines, "with extensive U.S. training," according to Pascual's cable, have also taken down drug lords Sergio Villarreal Barragan, who was fighting for control of the Beltran Leyva gang after its leader's death, and Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, or "Tony Tormenta," a top leader of the Gulf cartel.

But Pascual also notes that the U.S., which had information locating Beltran Leyva, originally took it to the army, which refused to move quickly.

The Jan. 29 cable notes friction between the army and the marines.

The Mexican Foreign Relations Department condemned the documents' disclosure in a statement released late Thursday, saying their content is "incomplete and inaccurate."

But it also criticized some of the content, claiming that the cables' authors "include a subjective emphasis on what they think is of interest to their superiors and, in some cases, to exalt ... their own merits."

Those reports "show some deplorable practices when considered from the perspective of the respect that should prevail between nations collaborating on common objectives," the department said.

In his editorial, Pascual vowed that relations between the two countries would remain strong.

"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," he wrote. "This will not change as a result of what may be posted on Wikileaks."

An Oct. 28, 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City describes a proposal by Mexican Defense Secretary Gen. Guillermo Galvan Galvan to control the violence with a type of state of emergency, suspending some constitutional rights in several cities, including Ciudad Juarez, a city across the border from El Paso considered one of the most violent in the world.

The cable noted that the Mexican government had not taken such action since World War II.

But then-Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont batted down the idea, and in the cable, then-Charge d'Affaires John Feeley said that U.S. government analysis showed the benefits were "uncertain at best, and the political costs appear high."

An Oct. 5 cable describes a dinner that the Mexican Attorney General's Office hosted for a delegation from the U.S. Department of Justice, quoting Gutierrez as saying the Merida Initiative was too hastily crafted to be effective.

"In retrospect he and other GOM (Government of Mexico) officials realize that not enough strategic thought went into Merida in the early phase," the memo said. "There was too much emphasis in the initial planning on equipment, which they now know is slow to arrive and even slower to be of direct utility in the fight against the DTOs (drug-trafficking organizations.)"

Both the U.S. and Mexico have said recently that Merida money in the future would be directed toward creating more effective institutions.

The Jan. 29 memo notes that military surges in Ciudad Juarez have not worked.

Gutierrez and National Security System Coordinator Jorge Tello Peon said Calderon has to stop the violence in Ciudad Juarez, according to the cable.

"Politically ... Calderon has staked so much of his reputation there, with a major show of force that, to date, has not panned out," the cable said Gutierrez and Peon told U.S. officials at the dinner.