At tonight’s presidential debate on foreign policy, we can expect questions related to the civil war in Syria, the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, and the broader war on terrorism, including the September 11 Benghazi attack. But I hope that debate moderator Bob Schieffer also asks President Obama and Governor Romney about another war—the one that is currently raging in Mexico and Central America.
This war isn’t between nations. There are no “insurgents,” and no ideologically motivated guerrillas trying to gain formal political power. Instead, it is a war driven by violent criminal organizations fighting to maintain or expand their control of illegal enterprises, most notably the drug trade.
In Mexico, tens of thousands of people have died since President Felipe Calderón began cracking down on the drug cartels in December 2006. There is some evidence that the violence may be starting to decline: Addressing the National Public Security Council on August 2, President Calderón reported that murders linked to organized crime fell by almost 15 percent in the first six months of 2012 compared with the first half of 2011. During that same period, the total number of killings in Ciudad Juárez, once the “murder capital of the world,” dropped by nearly 60 percent (again, compared with the first half of 2011).
Yet the gang warfare is still rampant, and rivalries within the most notoriously violent cartel, Los Zetas, could produce a new series of massacres. The Zetas “are splitting,” Mexican security expert Javier Oliva told Reuters last month, adding that “every time [Mexican security forces] capture a major crime boss, his organization fragments, so the violence increases, and this atomization makes the government’s fight harder.”
Oliva made those remarks shortly after Mexican marines captured a senior Zetas commander named Iván Velázquez. Less than two weeks later, the marines killed the Zetas’ supreme leader, Heriberto Lazcano. Overall, Mexico has now killed or captured 25 of the 37 most-wanted drug kingpins that Calderón identified in March 2009. “Despite it all,” laments the Economist, “the murder rate is nearly twice as high as it was when Mr. Calderón took office six years ago.” Indeed, even with two-thirds of the most-wanted narco bosses now dead or behind bars, drug violence remains a terrible problem.
The United States has an obvious national-security interest in preventing murders and gang-related warfare along the U.S.-Mexican border, and it has an obvious moral interest in reducing violence throughout Mexico. But what many Americans may not appreciate is that their country also has an increasingly large economic interest in Mexican prosperity.
Not only is Mexico the third-biggest U.S. trading partner, it is also the second-biggest importer of U.S. goods. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, Mexico imported $197.5 billion worth of American goods last year. This represented a 20.8 percent increase from 2010, a 76.8 percent increased from 2000, and a 375 percent increased from 1993, when NAFTA was signed into law. Only Canada imports more U.S. goods than Mexico, which in 2011 imported more than China and Japan combined. For that matter, Mexico also imported more American goods than the United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea, and Brazil combined.
“Mexico is rapidly becoming as important to the U.S. economy as China,” writes Financial Times columnist Edward Luce. Indeed, “Mexico is now vying with China as the manufacturing hub of choice for U.S. and other multinational companies—it is as economically integrated with the U.S. as any two members of the eurozone are to each other.”
Given how much bilateral trade and investment has grown in spite of all the drug violence, imagine how much faster it would grow if that violence were permanently reduced. (The Mexican finance ministry believes that organized crime trims roughly 1 percentage point from Mexico’s annual GDP growth.)
If we have reason to be cautiously optimistic about Mexico, the same cannot be said about Central America’s “northern triangle,” which spans El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Mexican cartels, including the Zetas, have moved into these countries and fueled a disastrous rise in drug-related murders. Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world, and El Salvador was close behind until its two largest street gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, declared a truce earlier this year. (On October 11, the U.S. Treasury Department labeled MS-13 a “transnational criminal organization.”) Back in May, conservative Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, a former general, told the New York Times that, “if there are no innovations, if we don’t see something truly different than what we have been doing, then this war is on the road to defeat.”
The Central American drug violence has received much less attention from U.S. media outlets than the bloodshed in Mexico. For example: How many Americans realize that the U.S. military recently set up three forward bases in Honduras? How many realize that 200 U.S. Marines were deployed to Guatemala this past August? At the time of their deployment, Marine Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes told the Associated Press, “This is the first Marine deployment that directly supports countering transnational crime in this area, and it’s certainly the largest footprint we’ve had in that area in quite some time.”
It has been estimated that the Zetas control perhaps 80 percent of the territory in Guatemala’s northernmost state of Petén. They also have a major presence in the neighboring Guatemalan states of Alta Verapaz and Izabal. Along with other criminal organizations, the Zetas have benefited from Guatemala’s weak legal institutions and corrupt police forces. “According to official figures,” notes Human Rights Watch, “there was 95 percent impunity for homicides in 2010.”
Writing in Americas Quarterly, Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue argues that the United States should address the security breakdown in Central America by applying the lessons of Plan Colombia, the aid program launched under President Clinton. “Central America is sliding into ungovernability, just as Colombia was in 2000, and Washington has a similarly high stake in preventing that catastrophe,” Shifter explains. Moreover, “Governments in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are all keenly seeking broader and more sustained levels of cooperation with the U.S.—a fortuitous alignment of interests not seen for many years in the region.”
Would President Obama or Governor Romney support something like Plan Colombia for Central America? Would they favor expanding or revamping President Bush’s Mérida Initiative for Mexico? Do they consider Mexican and Central American drug violence an urgent national-security concern?
It would be nice if Bob Schieffer asked them.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.