WikiLeaks and the War on Drugs

WikiLeaks and the War on Drugs

Cablegate revealed just how far the US goes to drive Mexico’s counternarcotics operations.


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.

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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).

* * *

As our team mined the massive quantity of information through the spring of 2011, colleagues, friends and critics would ask if the WikiLeaks cables really revealed something that we Mexicans had not previously known. After all, Washington’s interventionism and pressure on Mexico’s internal affairs are a historical constant—an understood part of our political culture.

To be sure, among the thousands of pages of WikiLeaks material, there was a great deal of gossip, trivial detail and innuendo. But there was much more than that. There was the evaluation of American political officers—“Poloffs”—regarding Enrique Peña Nieto, then governor of the state of Mexico and today president-elect of the country. Peña was seen as the protégé of the disgraced former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. “The PRI bills Pena Nieto as representing a younger, fresher, and more modern party adapted to the new political realities of a democratic Mexico,” stated one cable titled “A LOOK AT MEXICO STATE, POTEMKIN VILLAGE STYLE.” “Nevertheless, the governor hardly appears to be cut from a new cloth.” Indeed, the embassy accused him of protecting a former governor from prosecution on corruption charges. “Made from the entrenched Mexico State PRI political mold,” the cable noted, “Pena Nieto is not known for transparency when it comes to his friends and allies.”

At the same time we learned that, despite the campaign of hatred unleashed by the Mexican right against the progressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador—who was robbed of the presidency by Calderón in 2006 and is now contesting his July 1 loss to Peña Nieto—the US Embassy did not perceive his potential victory as a disaster. “APOCALYPSE NOT,” one cable was titled. Another, sent before the July 2, 2006, election by then-Ambassador Anthony Garza, recommended that the United States “embrace” the winner “early and often” and that “this is all the more important if the winner turns out to be Andres Manuel López Obrador.”

The cables also shed considerable light on the inner deliberations of the Mexican government, particularly relating to the drug war. In a dispatch to Washington on October 28, 2009, and classified “Secret,” Chargé d’Affaires John Feeley reported that the Mexican defense secretary had “raised recently the possibility of [declaring] a state of exception in certain areas of the country that would provide more solid legal grounds for the military’s role in the domestic counternarcotics (CN) fight.” The embassy opposed the proposal: “Our analysis suggests that the legal benefits to invoking a state of exception are uncertain at best, and the political costs appear high.” And as it turned out, even as Calderón militarized the fight against the cartels, a state of emergency was never declared.

The level of US influence and involvement in Mexico’s counternarcotics and security policies is, without a doubt, the most important revelation from the cables. From another report sent by Feeley in early 2010, Mexicans learned that the Calderón government had established a special committee of ministry deputies that met with US officials “every two weeks, and usually more often,” according to the cable, which added: “We have working groups on each of our strategic goals.” The US National Security Council and Mexican officials also created a joint “Policy Coordination Group” to implement counternarcotics and security operations. US diplomats referred to the “unprecedented cooperation” between American and Mexican officers—and from the cables Mexican citizens learned the costs of that collaboration. Another cable revealed a previously untold toll from the counternarcotics operations: between 2007 and 2009, at least 120 Mexicans working as informants or undercover agents for the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI were murdered in Mexico. Ten DEA liaisons, fifty-one close contacts of the FBI and sixty police officers, trained by the United States and answering to senior American officers, were all assassinated.

Revelations of such high-level US involvement in Mexico would come back to haunt both Calderón and Obama. As I wrote in La Jornada on March 4, 2011, the “contaminated cables” poisoned the well of Mexican-US relations. In secret messages to Washington, Ambassador Garza expressed a lack of confidence in Calderón’s ability to defeat the drug cartels. His successor, Carlos Pascual, had written what I called a “brutal critique” of the Mexican military’s “risk aversion” when it came to acting on intelligence provided by the United States on the location of a major drug kingpin. The candid statements revealed by the cables embarrassed the generals and infuriated Calderón. The leaked opinions of these officials did “serious damage” to bilateral relations, Mexico’s president told the Washington Post. On March 19, 2011, Ambassador Pascual was forced to resign, becoming the highest-profile political casualty of the WikiLeaks experience in Latin America.

Looking back more than a year later, it is clear that the WikiLeaks phenomenon had a significant impact in Mexico—in the media as well as in the public mind. Publishing the documents enhanced the presence and authority of La Jornada in national and international media circles. But it also revealed how isolating it can be for an independent newspaper to publish information critical of the powers that be. Few other media outlets picked up the stories. There was not much of an echo chamber to advance public awareness, debate or action in response to the cables’ revelations about the Mexican government—and the ongoing role of the United States in our sovereign affairs.

Even so, the cables revealed Mexico not only as a country that is being controlled but as a country that has surrendered. The dispatches sent by the diplomats behind the large windows of the imposing US Embassy building at 305 Paseo de la Reforma illustrated, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the degree to which the Mexican state has relinquished sovereign decisions and defined who we are today: a polarized country in the throes of a crisis that, for the moment, appears unending.

But at least after WikiLeaks, we have a better understanding of the eternally asymmetric relationship between Mexico and the United States. And most important, we understand that we Mexicans, and perhaps Latin Americans in general, need new visions and new tools so as to achieve a more dignified and equitable dialogue with Washington.

Read this article in Spanish.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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