Friday, December 03, 2010

Wikileaks on Mexico: Why is this stuff secret?

I've been avoiding the Wikileaks controversy until now because the information released hasn't related to any topics covered on Grits. But yesterday the site (reconstituted here after its hosting service and domain provider dropped them) posted several cables from the US embassy in Mexico relating to concerns over battling the drug cartels. Now they're getting into my wheelhouse.

CNN has a story on the Mexico cables that hits most of the substantive high points: President Felipe Calderon's military intervention in Juarez failed miserably, causing the US to encourage him to bring in the federal police instead, which happened earlier this year. Because soldiers aren't trained to gather evidence, just 2% of arrests under the military occupation resulted in prosecutions.

This cable from last year offered a pessimistic assessment of the Merida Initiative: "[Mexican Undersecretary for Governance Geronimo] Gutierrez Fernandez then turned to the Merida Initiative, saying that in retrospect he and other GOM [Government of Mexico] officials realize that not enough strategic thought went into Merida in the early phase. There was too much emphasis in the initial planning on equipment, which they now know is slow to arrive and even slower to be of direct utility in the fight against the DTOs. Of more immediate importance is building institutions that can effectively use the equipment."
"Gutierrez went on to say, however, that he now realizes there is not even time for the institution building to take hold in the remaining years of the Calderon administration. 'We have 18 months,' he said, 'and if we do not produce a tangible success that is recognizable to the Mexican people, it will be difficult to sustain the confrontation into the next administration.'"

FWIW, it was fairly obvious from the get-go that the Merida Initiative focused too much on equipment and not enough on strengthening institutions. That was not something that required 20/20 hindsight to figure out.

Another cable had this interesting assessment of Calderon's political situation:
President Calderon has entered the last three years of his six-year term facing a complicated political and economic environment. His National Action Party (PAN) emerged seriously weakened from a dramatic set-back suffered in the July congressional elections and was unable to recoup any real momentum during the last legislative session. Calderon’s bold plan for ten ambitious areas for reform, announced in September, has yet to translate into politically viable initiatives. His personal popularity numbers have dropped, driven largely by massive economic contraction and a public sense that there is little strategy to create new and sustainable jobs. Overall, Calderon’s approval ratings are still well above 50 percent, sustained largely by his campaign against organized crime. Increasingly, Mexicans realize that combating DTOs is a matter of citizen security, and thus support a tough stance. Yet the failure to reduce violence is also a liability. ...
Indeed, the GOM’s inability to halt the escalating numbers of narco-related homicides in places like Ciudad Juarez and elsewhere - the nationwide total topped 7,700 in 2009 - has become one of Calderon’s principal political liabilities as the general public has grown more concerned about citizen security. Mexican security institutions are often locked in a zero-sum competition in which one agency’s success is viewed as another’s failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of. Official corruption is widespread, leading to a compartmentalized siege mentality among “clean” law enforcement leaders and their lieutenants. Prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal; two percent of those detained are brought to trail. Only 2 percent of those arrested in Ciudad Juarez have even been charged with a crime.
Also notable was this explanation of why Mexico's military intervention failed:
Military surges that are not coordinated with local city officials and civilian law enforcement, particularly local prosecutors, have not worked. In Ciudad Juarez, a dramatic increase in troop deployments to the city early last year brought a two-month reduction in violence levels before narcotics-related violence spiked again. The DTOs are sophisticated players: they can wait out a military deployment; they have an almost unlimited human resource pool to draw from in the marginalized neighborhoods; and they can fan complaints about human rights violations to undermine any progress the military might make with hearts and minds.
Indeed, says the cable, the issue of human rights abuses by the military remains a key political stumbling block domestically in Mexico. While the military
has moved to address human rights criticisms, its efforts are mechanistic and wrapped in a message that often transmits defensiveness about bringing a hermetically sealed military culture into the twenty-first century. The military justice system (fuero militar) is used not only for a legitimate prosecutorial function, but also to preserve the military’s institutional independence. Even the Mexican Supreme Court will not claim civilian jurisdiction over crimes involving the military, regardless of whether a military mission is involved. Fortunately, the Mexican military is under increasing pressure to change on a number of fronts. A recent Inter-American Human Rights Court ruling found Article 57 of Mexico’s code of military justice, which effectively allows the military to keep all violators within its own justice system, violate Mexico’s constitution and mandated improvements in the way cases involving alleged human rights abuses by the military are handled. A report issued by Amnesty International in December noted that complaints to the National Commission on Human Rights against the military increased from 367 in 2007 to over 2000 from 2008-June 2009.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these Mexico cables is that items labeled "secret" or "confidential" in fact contained little if anything the government has a legitimate interest in concealing. Much of the information comes from public sources - an Amnesty International report, court decisions, etc. - and one takes away little from the cables that a well-read person couldn't have gleaned from public accounts. These cables - the ones on Mexico, at least - aren't anything the government should be keeping secret in the first place, making me think a) WAAAAAY too much stuff is being labeled secret or confidential by the feds, and b) government officials complaining so bitterly about Wikileaks doth protest too much.


Anonymous said...

Great point, I really couldn't agree more.

The war on drugs in Mexico is failing. So is the one here, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Good for Wikileaks. The government doesn't need to keep secrets.

Hook Em Horns said...


Scott in South Austin said...

This is an overly simplified comment but a lot of what I read sounds a hell'uva lot like the Afghan war. Same strategic errors, use of resources not designed to deal with the local criminal network, etc.

Great presentation Scott.

Anonymous said...

The biggest reason it is classified is to prevent problems with the government of Mexico. Many already have a problem with the U.S. (dating from our invasion during the Mexican-American War followed by our mercenaries serving and our gun-running to various factions in the civil war) and this kind of cable traffic creates problems in future dealings with them - when you criticize the Army publicly, they are less likely to play with you the next day. When a negative comment is attributed to an NGO or independent group, it can be blown off but when it is from the ambassador on Embassy stationary, it is taken by some as a personal insult as well as causing major problems for whoever is in power with their political opposition not to mention the opposition in the U.S. :~)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:28, quite honestly the Mexican military's record doesn't justify pussyfooting around their shortcomings. And Calderon's party lost the elections anyway, neutering his clout in exactly the way you describe. It's not as though US secrecy achieved the aims you lay out for it in Mexico.

I've traveled quite a bit in Mexico and I agree there's a latent, anti-imperialist holdover attitude that deters better relations with the US. But that's because of real-world history that isn't going away just because some diplomat pretends the naked emperor is actually clothed. Anyway, Mexico needs to confront cartel violence out of its own self-interest, it's not some favor their doing for us.

IMO it's never a legitimate justification for government secrecy that someone might take offense, and especially not justified to keep secrets from citizens for the political benefit of foreign allies. As it says in the Preamble to Texas' Public Information Act:

"Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. DemocracyNow! has also given excellent coverage this past week.
One thing that has emerged from this latest batch from Wikileaks is just how much the U.S. has dominated in other country's business. This is revelation not just for us but for those in other countries as well.
When you keep stuff secret the public doesn't know what's going on, just what is presented to us via the corporate media/politicians/talking-head pundits. Hence the controversy - Wikileaks as terrorist organization? - not the content. If we don't know what our officials are doing it makes it harder to hold them accountable.
The Preamble to Texas' Public Information Act is great, I wonder what the federal equivalent is. Unless we clean up our government we're going down.

doran said...

This stuff is secret, grits, because keeping what they do secret is what government bureaucrats do all the time. Generally, they don't get caught at it.

Actually, I'm not sure that what has come out had been designated "secret." It is my understanding that what was leaked was chitter-chatter amongst government employees on a system explicitly designed to encourage communications between people in different branches of government. This system is alleged to have been put into effect following 9-11, to break down the compartmentalization of government which may have contributed to the intelligence and security failures which made the Twin Towers attacks possible.

Wikileaks is like having a Freedom Of Information Act which really, really works well. In my opinion, a series of gold coins should be struck and issued, and a series of postage stamps issued, to honor the people who lifted the 250,000 plus documents and provided them to Wikileaks, and the people at Wikileaks who are risking their lives to disclose those documents.

May a thousand wikileaks bloom!!!

Anonymous said...

As long as we keep buying their dope, that mess in Mexico will continue.

All you out there who are pushing for reform: why not put your pipe down and see if you can tolerate life without having your mind in a fog. By itself, your political beliefs will give you all the befuddlement you need.

Anonymous said...


Though I have little interest in defending the use or misuse of classification protocol (being aware of its abuses personally), I believe I do understand the reasons for those cables being classified. Knowing numerous associates that have served overseas,

I’ll attempt a simple example. If an honest appraisal of a military or police unit is forwarded to Washington and then gets released to the local media due to a security lapse, that very statement may not only cause “someone to take offense” as you remark, but it may also cause them to deny supporting those operations, policies or “suggestions” that we believe would better address the problem in question. Human nature being what it is I’m afraid people take affronts personally, whatever may be in a nation’s self-interest.

Mexico allows numerous U.S. law enforcement agencies to operate in support of both Mexican & U.S. self-interest within Mexico. Yet if that very knowledge is widely disseminated, the permission granted to the U.S. would evaporate to avoid confrontations with the opposing parties so neither the U.S. nor Mexico advertises them. Not because of operational concerns or to protect the government agents but to prevent having to dedicate untold man-hours addressing the political repercussions by those looking to put themselves in power – including those in the pay of the drug gangs in this case. Much easier and more effective to simply allow the operations without having all of them become front page news.

Pointing out in a cable that a specific person is corrupt is also something that the government might not want to have to deal with publicly if the person’s support is critical to achieving a short-term or immediate U.S./Mexican objective and the person, at that time, is protected enough to be retained in their position. Locally, it’s kind of like calling a politician corrupt in public (think county commissioners) and then having to go to him for support the next day to get their vote on an unrelated issue. Just doesn’t work well.
You are correct that they need to address the violence, but when it comes to a specific military commander it might very well be his position that he is doing some favor for us.

Sometimes it is a legitimate justification for secrecy that someone might take offense, especially if we are trying to sign a nuclear treaty with them, for example. As for keeping secrets from citizens for the political benefit of foreign allies, to take it to the extreme, what if it means the democratically elected allies would otherwise be replaced by a fascist dictatorship opposed ot U.S. interests? But that’s for another site! As always, thanks for a great blog. :~)

Get Real said...

12:52, if all the people smoking the "pipe" were pushing for reform, drugs would be legal by now and the mess in Mexico would be a distant memory.

Anonymous said...

Can't contemplate life without your pipe?

Anonymous said...

Last poster, this is the wrong audience to taunt. They would love for heroin, crack and marijuana to be legal right up there with child pornography.

Anonymous said...

8:33, shouldn't you reserve stupid comments like that for your pals on the TDCAA boards? That's the only place where they'll receive anything other than withering, contemptuous scorn. Linking the abysmally ignorant 'war on drugs' to child pornography is a sophomoric and unworthy mechanism utilized far too often by dim witted public (ha) servants. Such as I judge you to be.

Anonymous said...

DemocracyNow! asks:
Is WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange a Hero?
Check it out!

Anonymous said...

" why not put your pipe down and see if you can tolerate life without having your mind in a fog. By itself, your political beliefs will give you all the befuddlement you need."

I wonder if alcohol prohibitionists were making the same argument. "Why not put your bottle down and see if you can tolerate life without having your mind in a fog". I'm sure many were, and it is just as flawed a line of thought now as it was then.

Not that it justifies outright legalization of drugs, but it's an absurd train of thought that is nothing other than wishful thinking. We should abandon that wishful thinking and craft policy on realism and the premise that people will continue to use drugs, as they always have throughout human history.

Anonymous said...

People don't use drugs, a person does. If you glorify, without thinking, the drugged state then you as a person can re-examine your belief in light of rational facts and larger implications. Is the drug you are partying with addicting? What do you tell yourself to avoid realizing that? If you, despite warnings, willfully keep moving in this direction and make yourself addicted will you expect me to help pay for your treatment?

Anonymous said...

The architect term Baptist bar is used to describe a bar that is hidden in ones house. In public a person can be all that in his Kerch while judging, condemning, and stigmatizing others who drink. Then run home, hide, and drown their miserable judgmental life in a bottle. A Baptist bar, ingenious devise for the hypocrite on your Saturnalia list this season.

The following statement “As long as we keep buying their dope, that mess in Mexico will continue” is light in what should otherwise be dribble of darkness.
The wisdom, Buy American. Its better quality, supports American ingenuity, and it will go a long way to stopping the flow of bad product from the south.

There will always be the ignorant, today they are the ones who think the war on drugs is really a war on drugs. What this state needs is a coming out of the dark ages party, and Burleson should host it. That could go a long way in redeeming that town from the blood of racism and the rash from the dildo lady.