HomeNewsAnalysisUS Gaffes Highlight Misunderstandings of Mexico

US Gaffes Highlight Misunderstandings of Mexico


Top US officials have made a series of gaffes on Mexico in recent weeks, sparking concern that the foreign government most involved in the country's fight against organized crime may be overlooking the details.

With drug-related deaths on the rise in Mexico, and getting ever more coverage in the US media, Washington has increased its focus on its southern neighbor. Unfortunately, a handful of recent comments suggest deficits in understanding of Mexico on the part of US officials.

The first misstep came from William F. Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, who claimed that the Mexican gangs represent a greater threat to US security than Colombian groups did in the 1980s and 1990s. While danger is a subjective concept, and Wechsler was referring primarily to the degree of penetration by the Mexican groups in the US, there is no reasonable measure by which groups like Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel and the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers' Cali Cartel were less threatening than Mexican groups are today.

At his height, Escobar was open about his involvement with Colombia’s political class, even serving as a deputy congressman into the 1980s. When the federal government turned on him, he orchestrated an attack on the state far more aggressive than that undertaken by Mexican criminals. He planted bombs in the capital, had a presidential candidate assassinated, and blew a passenger jet out of the sky -- an act of terrorism that led to greater attention from Washington, because there were US citizens on board the flight.

The Colombian groups in those days were also more powerful in the drug trade, running a far greater chunk of the supply chain than the Mexicans do now. They controlled everything from production to wholesaling to, in certain cases, retail sales in the US, pocketing the value-added at each step.

Finally, even conceding that the Mexican groups have a greater presence in the US than the Colombians had in their heyday (which is debatable), Mexican drug violence has remained almost entirely on the southern side of the border. In contrast, the Caribbean cocaine route operated by the Colombians turned Miami into one of the most violent cities in the hemisphere in the 1980s. No US city has suffered a comparable security decline because of Mexican traffickers operating there.

In short, if power and aggressiveness are the measure of danger, today's Mexican trafficking networks fall far short of their Colombian forebears.

In a further gaffe, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claimed, following a meeting with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, that 150,000 people had been killed in the war on drugs during the Felipe Calderon administration. Presumably, he heard 50,000 from Mexico's defense secretary and mistakenly remembered the figure with a “1” in front of it. While such a mistake could happen to anyone, the number of organized crime-related deaths has been bandied about endlessly in recent years, and his error suggests that Panetta, notwithstanding the US's increase in military ties with Mexico, is paying little attention to the neighboring country.

A final misstep on Mexico came from William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state specializing in drug trafficking, who recently described Juarez as the most dangerous city in the Americas, if not the world. In fact, while this label arguably applied for the past few years, it is not accurate today. According to El Diario de Juarez, the number of murders in the city during January and February came to a mere 200. This gives Juarez an annualized murder rate of less than 100 per 100,000, and puts it on pace for its lowest number of homicides since 2007. At least two·cities in the Americas, Honduras' San Pedro Sula and Venezuela's Caracas, have registered higher murder rates in 2011 and 2012.

A casual onlooker could be forgiven for overlooking these developments, but Juarez’s dramatic improvement has been one of the most high-profile events in Mexican public security over the past year. The fact that Brownfield is the State Department’s top man on drug trafficking makes his comment more worrying still. If he doesn’t know what is going on in Mexico, who does?

The implementation of the Merida Initiative raises further questions about the US government’s level of understanding and commitment. Unlike the gaffes listed above, these shortcomings have concrete policy consequences. The basic defect of Merida was that supposed hardware shortages, especially of helicopters, were given far more attention than the institutional defects which are the biggest obstacle to a safer Mexico. While the subsequent reforms to Merida have re-oriented funds toward these deeper issues, the initial misunderstanding helped distract the US and Mexico for three years.

A further problem is the aid program's slow implementation. As of August 2011, according to the US Congressional Research Service, just $473.8 million in aid had been delivered, roughly a quarter of the amount allocated for that period. There are myriad reasons for this, but none of them do much to undermine the opinion that, for all the US hand-wringing on Mexico, policy-makers’ attention to and understanding of the country's needs are woefully insufficient.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.


Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

COSTA RICA / 16 AUG 2018

Costa Rica’s recently-elected President Carlos Alvarado Quesada has officially hit 100 days in office. But his government is still struggling…

MEXICO / 27 JUN 2014

A militia led by ousted vigilante leader Jose Manuel Mireles has seized a town near the port of Lazaro Cardenas in Michoacan…


Mexican Federal Police arrested Eduardo Ramírez Valencia, alias 'El Profe,' an alleged operator of the Zetas crime syndicate in the…

About InSight Crime


Venezuela Drug Trafficking Investigation and InDepth Gender Coverage

29 APR 2022

On May 4, InSight Crime will be publishing The Cocaine Revolution in Venezuela, a groundbreaking investigation into how the Venezuelan government regulates the cocaine trade in the country. An accompanying event,…


InDepth Coverage of Juan Orlando Hernández

22 APR 2022

Ever since Juan Orlando Hernández was elected president of Honduras in 2014, InSight Crime has provided coverage of every twist and turn during his rollercoaster time in office, amid growing…


Venezuela's Cocaine Revolution

15 APR 2022

On May 4th, InSight Crime will publish a groundbreaking investigation on drug trafficking in Venezuela. A product of three years of field research across the country, the study uncovers cocaine production in…


Widespread Coverage of InSight Crime MS13 Investigation

8 APR 2022

In a joint investigation with La Prensa Gráfica, InSight Crime recently revealed that four of the MS13’s foremost leaders had been quietly released from…


Informing US State Department and European Union

1 APR 2022

InSight Crime Co-director McDermott briefed the US State Department and other international players on the presence of Colombian guerrillas in Venezuela and the implication this has for both nations.  McDermott…