Andrew Selee is director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He spoke with Mexico Bureau chief Alfredo Corchado about Mexico's drug war and consequences for Texas and the United States. Here are excerpts:
How concerned is the Obama administration about the situation in Mexico?
The Obama administration is quite aware of the situation in Mexico.
They are not concerned about a collapse of the state, as with Colombia in the 1990s, but rather worried about the strain of ongoing violence on a country so important to the United States and right next door.
There is a general confidence that Mexico will pull through this, but awareness that it may take years.
Officially, everyone touts cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico as the best ever. What needs to be done to further that cooperation to ensure results?
Cooperation is actually better than ever before, more spread across different departments, and with a sense of greater partnership, but it's not always clear if there is an overarching strategy to deal with organized crime or address the other many issues on the U.S.-Mexico agenda. There is some evidence they are working on this, but it's still a long way off. There is also a greater need to coordinate with state and local governments and nongovernmental actors who have their own cooperation efforts across the border.
The Woodrow Wilson Center just completed a trip along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border. What lessons did you come away with?
It was startling to see some of the cross-border cooperation going in between agencies in Tijuana and San Diego. Not just federal government agencies, but also city and county police departments, nongovernmental organizations, and business networks. It gave us hope. In Tijuana, they seem to have limited the role of the military to pursuing high-value targets and worked on strengthening courts and police to make it harder for criminal organizations to operate. I'm not sure that's the magic bullet, but it seemed like there were lessons there that might work well elsewhere along the border, especially in Juárez and some of the other cities along the Texas border.
From your perspective, what else should Mexico be doing to make President Felipe Calderón's strategy work? The Mexican government – and Mexican society – deserves credit for realizing what a big problem organized crime is and beginning to address it. There is no long-term effort that will work without strengthening police, prosecutors and courts and rooting out corrupt officials who aid and abet organized crime. They are already doing much of this, but it's about establishing a strategy for rule of law more than attacking the drug cartels.
What should the United States be doing to help Calderón? Is enough being done?
Our drug problem in the U.S. is the root of Mexico's problem with organized crime. We're sending 15 to 25 billion dollars from narcotics sales in the U.S. back to Mexico each year, and that's what fuels the violence. The best thing we could do is get a handle on our obsession with narcotics and take efforts to reduce consumption. In the meantime, we can also do more to interrupt the flow of illegal money back. We can also keep helping Mexico go after the criminal groups and build rule of law, but our greatest contribution would be in undercutting the market for drugs here.
The focus is often on the border, but how are other communities, say Atlanta, Dallas, or even New York City being impacted by the situation in Mexico?
Dallas, Atlanta and even New York are all major transshipment points for illegal narcotics coming into the United States – hand-off locations where drugs pass from these Mexican-based traffickers to U.S.-based distributors. Fortunately we haven't seen as much violence on the U.S. side, because traffickers are afraid of the police and the courts, but in the end, the biggest narcotics market and the biggest profits are here. I don't expect us to see a rise in violence on the U.S. side, but anything could happen in this business. It's worth remembering that all these groups we're talking about in Mexico operate in Dallas, Atlanta and New York, and they have U.S.-based partners in crime.