WikiLeaks and the War on Drugs
Police stand next to the bullet-riddled window of a hospital in Ciudad Juarez. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas
In September 2006, just days before Felipe Calderón was declared president of Mexico in a disputed election fraught with fraud and corruption, the US Embassy sent a secret report to Washington titled “Strengthening Calderon’s weak hand.” Mexico’s new president would have “virtually no ‘honeymoon,’” the cable stated, so “we will begin vigorous transition planning across the board with the Calderón team.” Without aggressive involvement, US diplomats warned that “we risk stagnation on our highest-profile issues unless we can send a strong signal of support, prompt the Calderón team into a vigorous transition, and reinforce Calderón’s agenda and leadership.”
Now, as he leaves office after yet another disputed election, Calderón will go down in history as one of Mexico’s most discredited and unpopular presidents—in part because of the revelations in the WikiLeaks cables that exposed his “unprecedented cooperation” with Washington. Indeed, as Mexicans know from the documents published in my newspaper, La Jornada, Calderón’s failed agenda and leadership—particularly his top priority of winning the war against the drug cartels and protecting Mexican citizens from the gruesome, intolerable narco-generated violence that has taken the lives of thousands—is a failure he shares with the United States.
The cables struck Mexico like a windstorm, blowing back the curtains of diplomacy and exposing what had not been intended for public view. Through the 3,000 leaked records—some secret, a few ultrasecret, but the majority simply indiscreet, harsh and rude—readers of Mexican newspapers learned the hidden details of our political, military and economic relations with the United States. For the first time, Mexicans could read the US Embassy’s critical judgments of the proud Mexican generals who never open themselves up to public scrutiny, as well as Washington’s candid assessment of its erstwhile ally, President Calderón, who is depicted as weak and condescending, lacking in legitimacy from the start of his tenure.
Beyond the undiplomatic opinions, however, the WikiLeaks cables revealed the astonishing degree to which the United States exercised its power and influence at the highest levels of the Mexican government. In some cases it appears that an essential part of the decision-making process on matters of internal security is actually designed not in Mexico City but in Washington. For Mexicans, the cables have reinforced once again that famous adage “Pobre Mexico: tan lejos de Dios, y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos.” Poor Mexico: so far from God and so close to the United States.
* * *
WikiLeaks initially decided to disseminate the cables to the Spanish-speaking world via Spain’s internationally recognized newspaper El País, one of four European media outlets selected by Julian Assange for the first round of releases on November 29, 2010. Then, starting in late December, the cables were shared with journalists throughout the entire world, country by country. In Latin America, La Jornada became the first recipient of the diplomatic documents in Spanish-speaking Latin America.
My colleague Pedro Miguel Arce, a widely read columnist at La Jornada, obtained the batch of cables related to Mexico. His experience was similar to what other Latin American journalists have described: an unexpected e-mail, a quick trip to Britain, a mysterious contact, and finally a meeting with Assange and his team. They proposed an agreement for sharing and disseminating the vast informational wealth related to Mexico from the 250,000 State Department records given to WikiLeaks.
La Jornada established a plan to take this on: two reporters, two editors, liters of coffee and a stack of English-Spanish dictionaries. We spent almost a month reviewing the collection and starting our reporting. Then, on February 10, 2011, La Jornada announced to its readers that it would begin publishing news articles, features and analyses from the contents of almost 8,000 pages of cable traffic between the US Embassy in Mexico City and the State Department in Washington.
As La Jornada published revelations from specific cables, WikiLeaks would upload the relevant documents to its website. This provided a valuable shield for La Jornada: as the stories generated scandal after scandal—exposing corruption, deception, and other wrongdoing by officials and public figures—angry attempts to deny our disclosures proved difficult. The information came not from anonymous sources, after all, but from cables originating in the powerful and well-connected US Embassy.
The Mexico cables spanned almost two decades, from the end of the 1980s to the spring of 2010. But the majority were contemporary, dated between 2008 and 2010. These documents opened a window onto the private diplomatic relationship between President Calderón and President Barack Obama, at a time when Mexican security was dramatically declining as the drug war violence escalated. By June La Jornada had published more than 100 features, articles and reports based on the WikiLeaks cables. Among the stories were “Hillary Clinton Orders Reassessment of Effects of Stress on Calderón’s Capacity to Run the Country” (February 21, 2011); “US Insisted on Military Withdrawal From Anti-Drug Fight; Cables Reveal Embassy Pressed to Let Federal Police Lead Action” (March 15, 2011); “‘The Army is comfortable letting the cartels fight each other’: Consul McGrath in Ciudad Juárez” (March 16, 2011); “Fast and Furious Scandal: Washington Blames Mexico” (March 28, 2011); “Peña Nieto ‘hardly appears to be cut from a new cloth, different from the old PRI’” (May 23, 2011); and “Mexico Offered US Free Access to Intelligence System” (May 25, 2011).
* * *