Are We Bilateral Yet?

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Under the Obama Administration, there’s been a renewed push by the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies to take a more bilateral approach with Mexico on fighting narcotrafficking. So far our efforts at bi-lateralism mostly include using the words “Mexico” and the “United States” side by side in Power Point presentations.

Along these lines, the Southwest Border Sheriff’s Coalition, which encompasses every border sheriff from Brownsville to San Diego, extended an invitation to the Mexican Attorney General’s office to speak at their conference in Yuma last week.

Ariel Moutsatsos, an adviser to the Attorney General of Mexico, gave a presentation about his country’s efforts to fight narcotrafficking. (Actually it was more about the United States but I’ll get to that a little later.) In the 33 months since President Felipe Calderon had taken office, Moutsatsos said that more than 230 high level government officials had been arrested for working with the drug cartels.

In his fight to root out corruption Calderon was having to build his state and local police forces from scratch as well as some of the higher levels of government, Moutsatsos said.”We are flying the plane while we build it.”

As he was talking about this corruption, I thought of the recent arrests on this side of the border of drug and immigration officials. Just two weeks ago, Richard Padilla Cramer, the former U.S. attaché for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Guadalajara was arrested for working as a consultant to drug dealers.

Before his talk, Moutsatsos told me that the U.S.’s insatiable demand for drugs had turned Mexico into hell. “First it was Colombia, now it’s turned my country into hell and the United States could be next,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure about that. But he elaborated on this theme during his presentation by showing a slide called “The Monster in the U.S. Basement.” It turned out this monster in the basement, as he put it, is the one million gang members living in the United States. That coupled with the U.S.’s lax gun purchasing rules and the ability to buy assault weapons could convert our cities into something like what’s happening in Juarez. (He didn’t make the Juarez analogy I did.)

What could prevent this from happening? He asked rhetorically. I heard a deputy behind me mutter through clenched teeth “Two million armed law officers.” He and his partner smiled at their joke.

Moutsatsos then made the point that there are 7,000 authorized gun dealers along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Much of the arsenal owned by Mexican narcotraffickers comes from the United States.

“The same argument about Mexico supplying drugs needs to be applied to the U.S. as well with arms,” he told the sheriffs.

Moutsatsos suggested that the federal ban on assault weapons be reinstated.  “It would be a hell of a good start and helpful to Mexico in its fight against crime. Don’t tell me Americans need an Ak-47 to feel safe?” he joked.

I looked around the room. No one was smiling. You could practically hear the wind whistling under the doors of the conference room it was so quiet.

Next he suggested that the United States government create a civilian firearm ownership registry. “I think it’s crazy that guns sell like pancakes in the United States and the government doesn’t know who has them,” he said.

Imagine if Obama tried to start a civilian firearm ownership registry? The entire country nearly ran out of ammo a few months ago because someone said that someone said that he might reinstate the ban on assault weapons.

Anyway, I digress. The next statement was guaranteed to be an even bigger crowd pleaser. He made the point that 50 percent of narcotraffickers’ profits come from marijuana. “You’ve already legalized it in 13 states,” he said referring to medical marijuana laws. “You’ve legalized the consumption but not the production.”

I think the man is on to something there.

Moutsatos says he doesn’t see Mexico’s battle against narcotraffickers as a war at all. “In a war you are killing the enemy, but our objective is to bring the enemy to justice and strengthen the rule of law in our country,” then he added. ” A war is something you can win or lose. We’re never going to have a clear victory this is going to be a continuous pursuit.”

With that he wrapped up his presentation. In the end it was more about what the United States could do to help Mexico in its fight against narcotraffickers than it was about Mexico’s efforts. In most presentations by U.S. officials they do just the opposite, they harp more on what Mexico can do to help the U.S. fight the narcos.

It struck me that Mexico and the United States are like two siblings with different fathers who keep hurling blame at each other for the bloody narcotrafficking mess. The long and complicated history between our countries makes it difficult to foster trust or to work together on coordinated law enforcement and intelligence efforts. We have so much in common yet we see things so differently.

Until we can get past the distrust and long held grievances we’re not going to make much of a dent in the problem.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.