Las Americas

War on Terrorism Mexican Style


On September 7, 2001, President Vicente Fox went before the Organization of American States in Washington, and startled the White House by announcing Mexico’s withdrawal from the 1947 Rio Treaty on Reciprocal Assistance, a bulwark of U.S. cold war policy in Latin America. Labeling the TIAR (the treaty’s initials in Spanish) as “obsolete,” Fox argued that extreme poverty, human rights abuses, environmental degradation, and natural disasters now present a greater threat to the continent’s security than Communist revolution. The Mexican president’s timing could not have been worse. Not a hundred hours later, Islamic terrorists flew three hijacked jetliners into the Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Towers slaughtering thousands of U.S. citizens, and George W. Bush proclaimed the War on Terrorism–in which the TIAR would have a role to play. Last month, during a meeting in Bridgetown, Barbados, the OAS transformed the reciprocal assistance treaty into an anti-terrorism pact.

Since 9/11, President Fox’s vision of continental security has taken a 180-degree turn. The Mexican president quickly digested the Bush doctrine that “you are either with me or with the terrorists” and cast Mexico’s fortunes with Washington, despite cries from political opponents that Bush’s war was not Mexico’s war and that Washington has a long list of enemies that are not the enemies of Mexico. Collaborating with Bush’s war on terrorism makes Mexico vulnerable to similar attack, warns Marti Bartres, the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) leader in the Mexican congress.

Nonetheless, Fox and his foreign minister Jorge Castañeda have attached themselves to Washington’s anti-terrorism strategies–although at each step of this slow march to subservience, they have vehemently denied doing so. One area in which Mexico’s role in Washington’s terror war has been particularly evident has been the integration of its military assets in a common security plan. This past April, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced the creation of NorthCom, the Northern Command, the first military command ever initiated to defend the United States inside its own territory. Not only will NorthCom be responsible for defending the continental United States from terrorist attack, but its protective shield extends to Washington’s “perimeter of security” or “confidence zone,” which takes in Alaska, Canada, 500 miles into both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, the Caribbean and Cuba–and Mexico.

Although Rumsfeld and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow rushed to point out that formulation of the Northern Command did not necessarily mean the military annexation of Mexico’s armed forces, the prospect of the U.S. and its two NAFTA trading partners integrating land, sea, and air capabilities in a single military command under the Pentagon’s direction has concerned Canadian and Mexican citizens fretting about national sovereignty. If this scenario flies, Mexico and Canada will become the 51st and 52nd stars on Washington’s flag, writes Carlos Fazio, a transplanted Uruguayan whose book The Third Link is a basic text in understanding U.S. plans for Pan-American military integration. In a series of recent articles published by Mexico’s left daily La Jornada, Fazio expanded on that basic text.

Item: In November, just two months after 9/11, Mexico became a member of the Conference of Latin American Armed Forces, another U.S.-directed Cold War mechanism designed to facilitate interchanges between Latin military men and the Pentagon, that dates back to the 1960s, Mexico had stood outside the conference for 40 years, attending only as an observer, until it finally came in from the cold this fall.

The conference acts as an auxiliary to the Summit of Latin American Defense Ministers, first assembled in 1995 in Williamsburg, Virginia, an event that Fazio argues was crucial to the forging of “The Third Link.”

Item: This February, Mexico violated long-standing tradition–and probably its Constitution–by participating in joint military maneuvers with the U.S. and other Latin American naval forces. Although Constitutional Article 76 forbids Mexican troops from operating outside of the nation’s territorial limits, hundreds of members of the Mexican Navy aboard the Abasolo, a guided missile-carrying frigate, took part in the 43rd UNITAS (“United International Anti-Submarine”) exercises off Colombia’s Pacific coast.

Under the direction of U.S. Southern Command Admiral Kevin Green, Mexican, Colombian, Chilean, Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and U.S. naval vessels fired torpedoes and test missiles at each other in what Mexico’s Navy Secretary Admiral Marco Antonio Peyrot described to the press as “peaceful” war games–the Mexicans were even gifted by U.S. crews with an experimental missile to try out.

The fact that these “peaceful” games were being held off a country where the U.S. is bankrolling the billion-dollar counter-insurgency Plan Colombia was not lost on Fazio. The analyst charges that operations like UNITAS, yet another U.S. Cold War-originated structure, are the military side of the sort of neo-liberal economic integration Washington foists on Latin America under the guise of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA in Spanish).

Item: Eight hundred fifty-seven Mexican troops were trained in the U.S. during 2001, the largest number since the mid-1990s. Most received instruction at the ex-School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, and at Fort Bragg, North Carolina’s Center for Special Forces, installations visited during a hush-hush April 10 U.S. tour by Mexico’s defense chief Ricardo Vega.

General Vega was then flown up to the Pentagon, where he met with Rumsfeld and was certainly briefed on the U.S. Defense Secretary’s impending announcement of the creation of the Northern Command. After lunch, Joint Chiefs of Staff director General Richard Meyers personally escorted the Mexican official on a tour of terrorist-blasted areas of the Pentagon, apparently to remind Vega just what the War on Terrorism was all about.

The number of Mexican officers trained in the United States last year is 37 percent higher than in 2000, and represents the fourth spot on the Latin training roster (after Colombia, 6,000; El Salvador, 1,000; and Ecuador, 899). As retired General William Nash recently told the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, such training “will serve our interests for a long time.” U.S. and Mexican troops bond during the training program and the Mexican officers will be part of their country’s military for a generation, estimates Mexican military expert Roderic Camp. Knowledge of English and U.S. weapons and battlefield techniques make such trainees excellent candidates for the still-mythical Commando America.

Although Mexico’s revolutionary army was founded in 1917, principally to repel attack from the north–the U.S. has invaded at least five times and this scenario is taught to officers at the Mexican war college–the War on Terrorism has become an incisive tool for the integration of the two militaries under Pentagon direction. “Like it or not, we are part of the U.S.’s area of influence. We may not have any treaties of cooperation to fight terrorism but believe me, there is a lot of cooperation going on,” an anonymous top-level defense secretariat official told La Jornada on the day that Rumsfeld announced the formation of the Northern Command.

Of course, under President Vicente Fox, Mexico has become an active collaborator in George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism, not only via the integration of its military assets with Pentagon defense mechanisms, but on the homeland security front as well.

Item: In January, White House Drug Czar John Walters and Mexican Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha announced formation of a bilateral bloc against drugs and terrorism. One key White House strategy, most clearly demonstrated in Colombia, has been to blur the distinction between the War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism. In both Walters’ and Macedo’s eyes, the link between narco-trafficking and terrorism–the old Bush family theory of the “narco-guerrilla”–justifies in-creased interchange of resources and overlaps in enforcement.

Item: Under orders from President Vicente Fox, the Mexico City offices of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the oldest guerrilla group in the Americas, and numero uno on the U.S. Latin terror parade, was recently shut down and the staff ordered to leave Mexico. The FARC office was established here 10 years ago in an effort to enlist Mexico as a mediator in peace talks with the Colombian government. Although the office was under surveillance day and night by national security agents, the exodus of the guerrilleros signals that Mexico will play no role in any future peace talks.

Item: On March 22, at the United Nations development summit in Monterrey, Fox and Bush inked a “smart border” security pact similar to one signed between the U.S. and Canada last December. The “agreement” allows Washington to spend about a billion dollars in technology upgrades along the 2,000-mile border between the two nations that “will weed out two-bit terrorists,” as Bush said during a quick trip to El Paso last March, while allowing legitimate commerce to flow smoothly. (None of the 19 terrorists held accountable for the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington entered the U.S. from either Mexico or Canada. Most obtained their visas after a 15-minute wait at the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia.)

The nuts and bolts of the “smart border” agreement were worked out in early March during a visit here by U.S. Terrorism Czar Tom Ridge, designated chief of Bush’s new Department of Homeland Security. Ridge lavished praise on President Fox for his “extraordinary cooperation” in strengthening security along Mexico’s southern border, where U.S.-bound trucks now undergo gamma ray inspection, and where a crackdown on Central American migrant workers results in more than 100,000 deportations annually.

But perhaps Mexico’s most telling participation in Bush’s War on Terrorism has been a commercial one. Having won contracts to assemble cluster bombs and nuclear triggers during previous U.S. war efforts, the maquiladora industry has been attentive to commercial opportunities presented by the terrorism war. Several weeks ago, Reforma, a national daily, revealed that hundreds of suspect Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners being held in tiger cages at the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are dressed in orange jumpsuits that bear the legend “assembled in Mexico.”

John Ross sends frequent dispatches from Mexico City’s Centro Histórico.