HomeNewsAnalysisCold War Expert Sees Parallels in Mexico's Drug War Struggles

Cold War Expert Sees Parallels in Mexico's Drug War Struggles


Latin America's fate has long been tied to the conflicts of the United States, first in the Cold War and now the Drug War. But what insights does Mexico's experience in the Cold War provide for its current struggles against organized crime?

That was the question that Renata Keller, an assistant professor of International Relations and Latin American Studies in the Boston University Pardee School of Global Studies, sought to answer a couple of months ago, in this article titled, "Mexico: From Cold War to Drug War."

In her piece, Keller, who is the author of the book "Mexico's Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution," laid out the ways in which the origins of Mexico's security challenges, from tactical missteps and strategic errors to fundamental misconceptions about the nature of the conflict, lie in the nation's Cold War experience in the second-half of the 20th century.

What follows is a transcript of an InSight Crime interview with Keller regarding her article, US drug policy in Latin America and at home, and other topics.

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I understand your thesis to be this sentence from your piece: "Understanding the dynamics of the Cold War in Mexico provides important insights into why Mexico is currently losing its war on drugs." Do you think that's a fair assessment? If not, how would you characterize your argument?

I'd say that was the thesis of that piece. Obviously the history of the Cold War in Mexico doesn't explain everything about the war on drugs, but it does offer insight into some important dynamics.

One of the most elemental aspects of US foreign policy dynamics during the Cold War was the US pattern of strongly encouraging, one could even say bullying allies into adopting policies that were closely aligned to its own. Do you see a similar approach on drugs?

Yes, absolutely. I think a similar process happened with both the Cold War and the War on Drugs, where the United States pressured Latin American countries into pursuing certain policies. But it is also important to keep in mind that in both cases, some of our allies experimented or are experimenting with different policies. There's a push and pull. The United States can't always dictate what it wants, and other countries can negotiate their own positions even within those unequal power relations.

To what degree do you think the War on Terror has replaced the Cold War as a paradigm driving US drug policies?

I see them all as following a similar paradigm. In all cases the focus [from Latin American nations] is on combatting internal enemies rather than confronting state-to-state problems. All of these so-called "wars" focus on individuals and groups, rather than states, being the problems. I see each new "war" as growing out of the previous one rather than there being a huge shift.

Do you think US policies toward Latin America have matured on drugs? The second instalment of the Mérida Initiative certainly seemed more holistic and less militarized than the original, to say nothing of Plan Colombia. And the Obama administration has also been silent while several Latin American nations have liberalized their drug laws.

I think US drug policies both domestically and internationally have liberalized and matured. At home we're seeing more of a turn toward treatment rather than punishment. We're seeing more of a move toward legalization. And in our foreign policy on drugs, I think we have also seen some limited improvement.

Notwithstanding the negative, the US clearly offers some benefits to Mexican officials charged with security, whether through its intelligence capabilities (see the Chapo arrest and the tracking of Arturo Beltrán Leyva a few years before that) or extradition or support for its judicial reform. Given that trade-off, what is the ideal role for the US with regard to Mexican security? Do you think it's realistic for Mexican policy makers to continue to rely on the US in certain areas while limiting their role in overall strategy?

I think the ideal role for the United States would be to continue to exchange intelligence information with Mexico, to continue to be supportive in other ways that the Mexican government sees fit, whether in training or other capacities. But the United States should also focus on limiting the harm it does. For instance, if we could actually change our gun laws so that fewer guns cross the border, that would have a positive impact on Mexico as well.

Could you talk about the effect of the Cold War on Latin American security institutions, and their reliance on force as an early measure?

I think the Cold War has had a substantial influence on Latin American security institutions and their focus on internal threats rather than external ones. In theory the military should protect the country from foreign threats, but during the Cold War there was this idea that the greatest threat came from within. So Latin American militaries focused on their own citizens, and they used this perception of threat to get funding from their own government and from the United States.

A lot of this is impossible to guess without access to classified information, but how much responsibility do you think the CIA bears for helping to set up trafficking routes, arming drug traffickers, and tolerating or even encouraging the worst excesses of its allies in organized crime during the 1980s?

I think the CIA bears a lot of responsibility. I don't think it helped set up trafficking routes but I think it turned a blind eye when fighting drug trafficking was deemed less important than fighting communism. A great example is Manuel Noriega in Panama, who worked with the CIA during the Cold War even though he was helping Pablo Escobar at the same time. The CIA let him get away with it...They really undermined the DEA's efforts to hold Noriega responsible.

There were also quite a few Cuban émigrés who left after the Cuban Revolution, became involved with the CIA, and became involved in drug trafficking. Thanks to their work for the CIA, they essentially had a free pass for their criminal activities.

One of the overwhelming failures in Mexico and around Latin America has been the inability to address corruption in any enduring, systemic way, at least based on current evidence. Do you think the Drug War's emergence as part of the Cold War has something to do with that?

I think it could. Because whenever you have power concentrated so much, like it was in Mexican military and intelligence services, institutions that don't have oversight, that really encourages corruption. And a lot of those people who gained power during the Cold War became involved in drug trafficking-- just look at the Zetas, many of whom came from the military.

How do you think growing US flexibility on marijuana inside its borders will affect its approach to Latin American policies?

I hope marijuana legalization will increase US flexibility on Latin American drug policies, because it is unreasonable for the United States now to punish Latin American countries that legalize marijuana. But because marijuana is not one of the bigger problems at this point, I don't know how much impact it will have when it comes to cocaine or opiates. I think that's a tougher question.

Returning to the sentence that I cited above, what do you think "winning" looks like for Mexico's struggles with organized crime? And related to that, is "war" the right paradigm for this?

I don't think the drug problem is anything you can "win," so the war analogy is a really poor one. That said, I think "winning" would be lowering the levels of violence, having fewer people die. I think strengthening the rule of law in Mexico would be another sign of winning -- I'd like to see more people held responsible for their crimes, especially those in the upper levels of government.

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