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A Rumor of War

21 November 2009

Philip Caputo has been writing about war and the corruption of war since his Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War, first appeared in 1977.  As a Chicago Tribune reporter, that includes the generally bloodless — but highly corrupting — world of Chicago politics.

In the December 2009 The Atlantic Caputo turns his attention to the “War on Drugs” in Mexico.

I have a problem with the title — “The Fall of Mexico” — suggesting first that the Calderón-Bush-Obama Administrations “War” is central to the Republic (only to the present administration) or that the authoritarian streak in the present Mexican government is somehow a product of this war.

While Caputo, of course, is going to focus on the “drug warriors”, their victims and the “collateral damage” of this war, he — like most writers — only focuses on the Mexican side of the border region.  He never seems to venture further south than Nuevo Casas Grandes, a couple of hours south of Columbus, New Mexico.  At most, he’s talking about a frontier “war”.  This isn’t to say that the people living along the border are not part of the “real Mexico”, but that the social conditions along the frontier are not necessarily those of the majority of Mexicans, nor that everyone along the border is affected with despair and hopelessness (Mexicans have a sense of black humor which accounts for some of the grafitti Caputo quotes as meaningful).

Caputo’s premise that the “War” is has created repression and corruption (or has allowed it to flourish), seem to put the cart before the horse.  Although Calderón’s electoral victory is problematic, he did receive a little over a third of all votes in the 2006 Election, campaigning on an authoritarian “law and order” platform that presupposed state sanctioned violence.  The border region strongly supported PAN, so there is no denying that there wasn’t already support for a heavy-handed “solution” in search of a problem.

While “corruption” has risen (at least by the standards of Transparency International) under this administration, the increase in perceived corruption may be independent of the “drug war” excesses.

Neither of which is to say that Caputo’s article is off-target.  It isn’t.  Consider WHO the casualties are in this “war”:

Statements by U.S. and Mexican government officials, repeated by a news media that prefers simple story lines, have fostered the impression in the United States that the conflict in Mexico is between Calderón’s white hats and the crime syndicates’ black hats. The reality is far more complicated, as suggested by this statistic: out of those 14,000 dead, fewer than 100 have been soldiers. Presumably, army casualties would be far higher if the war were as straightforward as it’s often made out to be.

And, I’d add, a good number of those military casualties have been the victims of “friendly fire”, plane and truck accidents and the like.  Perhaps, the “war” should not be seen as “asymetical warfare” — or even a police operation gone amuck — but, as Caputo quotes Gustavo de la Rosa, the former Chihuahua state ombudsman for Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, as saying, as a creeping military coup:

… the president, elected in 2006 by a margin as thin as an ATM card, called out the army not merely to fight the cartels and eliminate a threat to national sovereignty but to consolidate his power and confer legitimacy on his presidency. “Calderón wants to show the Congress that the military is with him,” de la Rosa said. “And the military promised to support Calderón in exchange for being allowed out of the barracks, because the army wants to govern. Chihuahua is an experiment. What is happening here is in essence a military coup, a regional coup.” To support this contention, he cited a change he has had to make in his own work. Under normal circumstances, he would file complaints of abuse with the state governor, but now, he said, “the governor is ineffective, so I have to go to General Felipe de Jesús Espitia, the comandante of the 5th Military District.”

The militarization of Mexico is noticeable.  Calderón is the first president to be regularly photographed in a military uniform since Manuel Ávila Camacho, who was a real Army General, and was the president during a declared war (the War against Nazifascism, as it’s styled here).  Ávila Camacho also demilitarized the government (being the last general to serve as President) and — while the military certainly has been used for political repression since the Second World War — the generally high regard for the military in Mexican society rests largely on its apolitical and non-aggressive missions: resource and environmental protection and disaster relief.

And, give Vicente Fox his due… he overtly toned down militarism, going so far as to try canceling the annual Revolution Day parade in Mexico City — succeeding in at least making the patriotic (and impressive) exercise less a display of firepower and military might, as a celebration of sports and health.  After all, we’re talking about a nation where the tanks and missiles and scarily-armed paratroopers are impressive, but the crowds cheer for the Army cooks, the navy nurses and the kids in the Servicio Militar Nacional carrying shovels and seedlings.  And where the national service requirement crosses most 18-year olds minds as meaning clerking in a government office, or going door to door as a census taker or planting trees… not carrying a gun.

That anti-militarist strain is coming to the surface.  It’s not so much weariness with the “war”, nor the occasional admissions that the Army is being used to repress not just some gangsters, but political and social dissent as well that is making people turn from the military solution.  It is one factor in the rejection of PAN and President Calderón at the polling booth, and a likely factor in a return to the “corrupt” but more mainstream PRI (or a compromise left candidate) in the 2012 Presidential election.

What will not rein in the military are renewed U.S. “demands” for “human rights accountability” in the funding for the Merida Initiative.  As I explained when the issue was first raised, the Mexican objection is that such strings would require Mexico to centralize its police — and major constitutional changes that would simply entrench the Federal government’s present attempts to reverse the trend toward wider democratic and citizen participation and leave it in the hands of “experts” in the Capital.

The U.S. financed “war” in Colombia has not improved human rights, nor spread democracy in that unhappy nation.  While Colombia’s situation is complicated by a sixty-year old civil war that has gotten mixed in with that nation’s best known illegal export, “human rights provisions” have a way of corrupting the central power to create the illusion of “progress”… and to create their own upside down logic — making dissent, on paper if not reality, equal to criminality, to meet the demands that repression is progress in creating human rights.

The idea that the Merida Initiative was for Mexico’s benefit is nonsense.  The money goes to business interests in the United States.  The tools for repression fo to the present administration in Mexico and the rest of us live with the results.

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