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Mexico cools to U.S. security assistance

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto addresses attendees during a joint news conference with President Barack Obama in Mexico City on May 2.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto addresses attendees during a joint news conference with President Barack Obama in Mexico City on May 2.
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“Thanks for all of your help, but we’ll take it from here.” That’s what Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto seems to be saying to the U.S., barely six months into his term.

Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, launched a massive war against Mexico’s drug cartels, sparking six years of violence within the nation, estimated to have left up to 60,000 people dead. Government officials, members of the drug trade and everyday people are counted among the victims. Fortunately, the violence has decreased dramatically within the last year, but a battle may be brewing between the U.S. and Mexico over the drug issue.

During his presidential administration, Calderón allowed U.S. agencies such as the DEA, CIA and FBI to work closely with Mexican governmental agencies and the military to jointly press the war on the country’s drug cartels. U.S. agents and equipment were deployed in Mexico on various levels for surveillance and intelligence purposes. U.S. personnel also were deeply involved in training Mexican law enforcement officials in this effort.

Upon assuming the presidency, Peña Nieto immediately emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. This was evidenced by President Barack Obama’s trip to Mexico on May 2 to further cement ties between the two nations.

However, a dent was put into this rosy facade by Peña Nieto just before Obama touched down in Mexico City, with the announcement of his administration’s new security approach with the U.S. Going forward, Mexico will focus on building a 10,000-member federal police force, and the multitude of U.S. agencies that were operating on a one-to-one basis on security issues with their Mexican counterparts will now have to go through one single Mexican agency, the Interior Ministry.

Various experts on U.S.-Mexico relations expressed concern and bewilderment in reaction to Peña Nieto’s move. Some fear that the new system will curb the effectiveness of the security strategy that already has been put into place. Others fear that Peña Nieto’s overall strategy is to strike some sort of deal with the cartels to decrease their violence and interference in government affairs in order for them to resume their normal business.

However, history also can be reviewed to understand the new administration’s approach. The 1910 Mexican Revolution was a terrible war in which an estimated one of 10 Mexicans were killed and millions left homeless. The war itself was a reaction against the 34-year rule of President Porfirio Diaz, who allowed affluent Mexicans and foreign interests a liberal hand in key economic sectors and the real-estate market. By the start of the revolution, approximately 500 Mexican families controlled 80 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Peña Nieto’s PRI political party was born at the end of the revolution, and because of perceived foreign meddling in Mexico by public and private foreign interests, it adopted a hard line against countries such as the U.S. participating in its political and economic sectors. This ultimately resulted in Mexico nationalizing its petroleum industry in 1938, expropriating all foreign interests.

The PRI ruled Mexico with an iron fist for 71 years before the opposition party PAN won two consecutive presidential elections and held power from 2000 to 2012.

The PRI traditionally has been a left-of-center party that still views U.S. interests in Mexico with suspicion. Starting in the 1980s, the PRI allowed greater participation in Mexico’s economy and the U.S.-Mexico trade relationship became a positive basis by which the two countries would cooperate for the better part of 20 years. However, until Calderón’s war on the drug trade, Mexico was very strict in allowing U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence personnel liberal access throughout the nation. When I worked in Mexico City, I hosted New Mexico Gov. Bruce King, who traveled with his own security detail. Mexican officials refused to allow the bodyguards to bring their weapons into Mexico, and they were reluctant to lend any of theirs. It took days of negotiations and paperwork before this issue was settled.

Another factor in Mexico’s security move has to do with the new president himself. Peña Nieto was not supported by a large portion of the Mexican population, which viewed him as unqualified and unprepared for the presidency. Part of his administration’s decision to pull back on allowing U.S. officials liberal access to the country and its agencies could be due to his desire to show the Mexican public that he will not be a U.S. puppet, and that he is his own man. This allows the PRI to differentiate itself from the PAN, which it has accused of being too cozy with the U.S.

Whether the new arrangement for security cooperation between the two countries will be effective remains to be seen. In the meantime, Peña Nieto and Mexico are kindly saying to the U.S. that their friendship with the big neighbor up north is important, and the two friends will have to work together on a myriad of issues. However, when it comes to security issues with Mexico, the Mexicans will let the U.S. know when it needs this country’s help in the future.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at jerry@nmiba.com.<br>

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