Today, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador marks the one-year anniversary of his administration. He has high approval ratings (68%, according to the Oráculus poll of polls). His Achilles’ heel has been the economy and security. The latter has brought the bilateral relationship with the United States to a new low. This past week, President Donald Trump said in an interview with Bill O’Reilly that for three months, he has been thinking of designating the Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations. This opens up the possibility of incursions by U.S. troops or attacks involving the use of drones.
Are the Mexican criminal groups terrorists? The answer is simple: No, they are not. Terrorist organizations have political objectives. And though the criminal organizations in Mexico represent a threat to the state monopoly on the use of force, they are co-governing large areas of the country. They have murdered candidates, politicians and public servants in the interest of entrenching themselves in bureaucratic and governmental structures. Their objective is not regime change or an ideological transformation. Their ultimate goal is to get hold of more financial and material resources.
The possibility that U.S. troops could carry out military operations in Mexico opens a new chapter in the bilateral defense relationship, even though the CIA and other intelligence agencies have always had a presence, which has been documented in a systematic and organized manner since the postwar period. The CIA helped create the Mexican Federal Security Directorate, and the case of Enrique S. “Kiki” Camarena revealed evidence that U.S. government agencies were participating in undercover operations in Mexico.
In “A Tale of Two Eagles,” Craig Deare outlines the bilateral defense relationship between the two countries. He traces it back to the administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari,* with the emergence of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in the Mexican state of Chiapas and the purchase of equipment by the Mexican Army. During the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo,** William Perry visited Mexico, and the Bilateral Working Group was established.
The relationship suffered its first setback in connection with the purchase of more than 70 Huey helicopters, which had to be returned because they were in poor condition. During the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox Quesada,*** the military relationship cooled after Mexico withdrew from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the Rio Treaty) and offered only halfhearted support following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Between 2009 and 2015, Mexico received more than $265 million. In 2018, funds for training for the Mexican army from the International Military Education and Training program came to $1.5 million. In addition, U.S. Department of Defense anti-narcotics support in Mexico totaled approximately $63.3 million in 2018.
The new paradigm established by Trump opens the door to interventionist action and subverts the spirit of solidarity that has permeated the bilateral relationship on defense issues. This point of inflection merits a change of direction in security strategy and a clear statement that the government of President López Obrador will defend democracy and the rule of law.
*Translator’s note: Gortari served as president of Mexico from 1988 to 1994.
**Translator’s note: Zedillo served as president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000.
***Translator’s note: Vicente Fox served as president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006.