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Outsourcing America’s Drug War

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General Caldwell at the Fort Sam Houston Ceremony

Last week I made the short journey down to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to see Lt. Gen. William Caldwell officially take control of U.S. Army North, a subsidiary of U.S. Northern Command, which has been training Mexico’s armed forces in the drug war, especially Mexico’s navy which has been favored by U.S. officials because it’s seen as less corrupt than the army.

Caldwell has spent the last two years in Afghanistan with NATO training the Afghan national security forces. Prior to Afghanistan, he was the Commanding General for the US Army Combined Arms Center and responsible for the training and education of the Army’s 18 schools, centers and training programs.

So he knows a thing or two about training security forces. He’s also young, ambitious and well respected inside and outside the Beltway. I see his appointment to Army North as a sign that the United States is ramping up its involvement in Mexico. And I was hoping to get a word with the general about my hunch about the expanding role of Army North in Mexico and how he would apply what he learned in Afghanistan.

At the ceremony, cannons boomed. Fort Sam’s resident peacocks squawked in protest. Afterwards, Caldwell’s young sons were presented with “Texas knives” and his wife and daughters got flowers. 

The general takes up his post during a very difficult and rapidly changing landscape in Mexico’s drug war. In the final lame duck year of Calderon’s administration, the chaos created by Mexico’s militarization strategy continues to spread into new territories of the country. The Mexican government, much like the U.S. government, appears to be at a standstill as the presidential elections heat up. Nevertheless, the U.S. military/industrial complex moves at its own steady pace getting further entrenched in Mexico like an iceberg moving under its own unstoppable girth.

At the ceremony for Caldwell, three Mexican generals were in attendance including Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos an envoy for SEDENA, Mexico’s Ministry of Defense.

During the ceremony Caldwell addressed the generals directly: “To the Mexican delegation … This command will continue its unwavering resolve in our mutual fight against Trans-national Criminal Organizations and I personally look forward to getting to Mexico City and building upon our trusted relationship.”

Hmm…that was about as far as I got on my quest for information. I was informed that the Mexican generals would not be available to speak to reporters. But I was promised a few moments with Caldwell. Then that too was scotched. After the ceremony, Caldwell with family in tow was spirited away to a tent where a private party was taking place before I could corner him. Reporters, I was informed were not allowed in the tent.

Such is life. I’ll have to save my questions for another day. I did overhear that Caldwell already has Army North working much harder than in the past. They had 60 meetings in the last year with Mexican military officials. Last month, I wrote about a heavily guarded convoy in downtown Matamoros that caused a stir along the border. It was U.S. military officials and Department of Homeland Security officials on their way to meet with their Mexican counterparts about the ongoing security crisis.

Even more of these meetings will be scheduled for 2012.

But just as I thought I was on to something, it could be that I’m looking in the wrong direction. The BBC’s Spanish language edition reports this week that the Pentagon wants to outsource more of its drug war duties to private security firms such as Blackwater, now called Academi ( and headed by none other than former U.S. Attorney General John “Let the Eagles Soar” Ashcroft), as well as Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

The “no bid” contracts are issued through the Pentagon’s Counter-Narcoterrorism Technology Program Office a murky government shop, started back in 1995, that outsources global counternarcotics and counterterrorism duties to private firms.

In 2009, Blackwater received a $1 billion contract to train Afghanistan’s police, which had been formely handled by the U.S. State Department. This was the same year Caldwell started training Afghan security forces for NATO. According to Spencer Ackerman at Wired magazine, “CNTPO received the funding and chose Blackwater for the contract, even though Blackwater guards in Afghanistan on a different contract stole hundreds of guns intended for those very Afghan cops.”

So perhaps Army North’s duties are going to be increasingly parceled out to private firms. In order for the United States to police the world it takes a lot of cash and a lot of boots on the ground. Sometimes those boots aren’t military issued. So, as we’ve seen since the days of President George W., the U.S. military force has increasingly become a murky, opaque mixture of mercenaries, trained military and private contractors.

Outsourcing allows the Pentagon to move its growing drug war expenses off its books and in to the nether regions of private contracting.They surreptitiously want to reduce the anti-drug budget by transferring it to private agencies,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in the BBC report. “The drug war is unpopular and has no political weight except in an election year like this, so the Department of Defense wants to remove that spending from their accounts.”

Bruce Bagley, head of International Studies at the University of Miami, warns in the BBC report that the whole outsourcing idea is really a bad idea. A lesson the U.S. government has had ample time to learn over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Here we enter a vague area where the rules of engagement are not clear and there is almost zero accountability to the public or the electorate,” he says. Not to mention a violation of national sovereignty that could “generate a nationalist backlash if the public realizes what is happening.”

Outsourcing the drug war. What could go wrong? I am reminded again of the oft quoted line from Albert Einstein about the definition of insanity: repeating the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results.

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. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.