Mexico's Other Security Challenges

As Obama meets the new Mexican president, he'll want to be mindful of efforts to build up Mexico's intelligence forces.

A recent Washington Post expose detailed the close ties that have developed between the U.S. and Mexican security communities. Among the revelations: U.S. military personnel have orchestrated strikes against drug kingpins in Mexico; Since 2009, U.S. drones have plied Mexican skies in order to track suspected traffickers; Mexico City hosted “a CIA-run fusion center”; and U.S. agencies even paid the salaries of Mexican operatives.

But the new administration of President Pena Nieto has evidently balked at renewing the intelligence and security agreements, creating a lull in joint U.S.-Mexican operations. What’s behind the foot dragging?

The prevailing answer, echoed by the Post: Pena Nieto’s PRI party is a bit nationalistic, and the president seeks an alternative to the Calderon approach of defeating the drug gangs through a headlong crackdown that has claimed more than 60,000 lives. While both explanations are generally true, they also ring a bit flat. The oft-cited Mexican “nationalism” dates back to the Mexican-American War. And Pena Nieto’s search for an alternative to the approach of his predecessor—interpreted in some quarters as an impending PRI truce with the drug gangs—also misses the point.

Mexico’s security challenges extend beyond the realm of the country’s drug war, and at some point the government must develop an intelligence apparatus distinct from the United States.

Mexico used to be a spook’s paradise, the sort of place where a real life version of Johnny Depp’s character in the film Once Upon a Time in Mexico could hone his craft against other spies, without much fear of triggering an incident that could escalate Cold War tensions.

In recent years, though, there’s been a steady trickle of arrests of suspected terrorists. Most of the suspects have been charged with ties to Hezbollah, a group whose presence in Mexico is partly camouflaged by the country’s large Lebanese community. Then there’s the case of Manssor Arbabsiar, who claimed to act in the service of Iran’s Quds Force when he allegedly tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in 2011. Arbabsiar’s contact for the operation was an undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent in Mexico whom Arbabsiar reportedly thought worked for a drug gang.

Mexico now has need of its own counterintelligence outfit, and this is likely the logic behind the January creation of a Mexican national intelligence agency to better monitor and combat “organized crime.” Naturally, media coverage portrayed the move as part of Pena Nieto’s wholesale shift away from the policies of his predecessor. But Mexico already has an effective federal police force, and this doesn’t answer why Pena Nieto reportedly went to pains to model the agency on the CIA and other respected spy agencies.

Meanwhile, Mexico faces a Central America freshly rent asunder from drug trafficking over the past decade. But whereas U.S. operations in Mexico offer a study in seamless cooperation, U.S. efforts in Honduras have been riddled by setbacks. A year ago DEA commandos, dispatched from one of three newly built U.S. military bases in Honduras, were involved in a lightning strike operation against drug traffickers that left four civilians dead. Then Washington temporarily cut ties with the Honduran military after the Honduran air force shot down two civilian planes it suspected of carrying drugs. There haven’t been any positive murmurs surrounding U.S. operations in Guatemala and Honduras.

Perhaps U.S. willingness to strike at drug gangs in Central America may have less to do with helping Mexico out than applying “lessons learned” from Iraq and Afghanistan. If so, Mexico stands in an awkward position, especially if it gets lumped in with its neighbors to the south. Because unlike Pakistan and Yemen, or the Central African Republic and Honduras—places where jihadis and gangsters will end up running the country if the United States doesn’t check them—Mexico is a full-fledged democracy. And, should a U.S. operation in Mexico go awry in a public way, the political fallout would certainly halt Pena Nieto’s reform momentum and possibly do much worse damage to U.S.-Mexican relations.

The drug war conveniently masks Mexico’s other security challenges, although Washington and Mexico City are certainly aware. Given this fact, it’s best not to read Pena Nieto’s apparent aloofness to U.S. security cooperation as sign that he is mulling a deal with the drug gangs. Rather, the Mexican president shows a nodding awareness that the U.S. footprint in Mexico should be gingerly reduced as the country builds up its own intelligence capacity.

Sean Goforth is author of Axis of Unity: Venezuela, Iran and the Threat to America.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Aristoteles Sandoval. CC BY-SA 2.0.