WASHINGTON – Drug cartels in Mexico have evolved, and U.S. assistance has not kept up, members of a House subcommittee said at a hearing Tuesday.
Attempts by the U.S. to aid Mexico’s war against drug cartels and secure the border have been a topic of debate since the introduction of the Merida Initiative in 2007. By the end of 2011 the initiative will have provided Mexico $900 million worth of equipment and training.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Homeland Security Committee held a joint hearing to discuss concerns and the progress of the initiative, which has been modified to accommodate evolving terrorism in Mexico.
The Merida Initiative began as a straightforward foreign assistance program to provide specific equipment and training. Today, it also seeks to disrupt the operational ability of organized crime, to improve law enforcement, to create a 21st century border and to strengthen communities.
William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said the cartels are now different – smaller, more numerous, more diverse and with different strategies, moving a step further than just organized crime.
“Mexico is facing a criminal insurgency,” Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, said. “Unfortunately, we face more extreme threats and violence from our border region today than we did four years ago.”
The CIA defines insurgent activities as groups engaging in guerrilla warfare, terrorism, political mobilization, political protest, international activity, propaganda and recruitment, a mirror image of the cartel’s latest tactics.
“The reality in Mexico is that the U.S. assistance has lagged while the traditional cartels evolved into diversified transnational criminal organizations,” Mack said.
In the midst of this criminal insurgency, the Merida Initiative succeeded in increasing the cooperation between the two countries, Mack said. This is an important step for the success of the initiative.
The State Department said on its website that the purpose of the initiative is not to overrule the Mexican government. It is a partnership that seeks to support the efforts of its counterparts to fight organized crime.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., said one concern is that the U.S. might not be doing enough to reduce the demand of drugs.
“If we don’t deal with demand at home, are we treating the symptoms not the disease?” Engel asked.
This issue is much more complicated than that, Brownfield said. Even though the U.S. demand for cocaine declined 50 to 60 percent over the last seven years, he said, production has not declined. Producers have looked for other markets.
“They are in it for the money, and they will create markets if markets are denied,” Brownfield said.
Similar concerns arise from the controversial Operation Fast and Furious, in which U.S. gun dealers sold more than 2,500 weapons that ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was trying to follow the guns as part of an investigation, but the guns ended be being used in crimes. The attorney general has said he did not know the specifics of the operation until recently.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., asked what was being done about Operation Fast and Furious and if other government agencies knew about it.
Brownfield and Mariko Silver, acting assistant homeland security secretary, testified that their departments, as far as they knew, didn’t have any previous knowledge of the operation. Rodney Benson, assistant administrator and chief of intelligence at the Drug Enforcement Administration, declined to comment, saying the agency is working on it.
As the evolution of organized crime in Mexico continues, House members on the committees agreed that to succeed the two governments must continue to reinforce their cooperation and reach basic agreement.
“The people of Mexico and the people of the United Sates have similar desires, and that is for the ideas of freedom, security and prosperity” Mack said.