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Obama Signals Readiness to Further Militarize Drug War with Potential Deployment of National Guard to Mexico Border

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President Obama is considering deploying National Guard troops along the border with Mexico in response to the escalating drug war. More than 7,000 people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence in the last year. Much of the drug-related violence in Mexico has been fueled by the ability of drug cartels to purchase AK-47 assault rifles and other arms in the United States. We host a roundtable discussion with Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy, NYU professor and author Greg Grandin, and Paul Helmke of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama is considering deploying National Guard troops along the border with Mexico in response to the escalating drug war. In his most direct comments so far on Mexico’s fight against drug cartels, Obama told reporters from regional newspapers, quote, “We’re going to examine whether and if National Guard deployments would make sense and under what circumstances they would make sense.” But Obama ruled out any immediate military move.

More than a thousand people have been killed in Mexico in drug-related violence this year. 6,000 people died last year. Vice President Joe Biden highlighted the threat posed by drug traffickers this week when he announced Gil Kerlikowske as the new drug czar.

    VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Since the beginning of last year, there have been nearly 7,000 drug-related murders in Mexico. If we had said that years ago, we would have looked at each other like we were crazy. But 7,000 drug-related murders in Mexico. Violent drug trafficking organizations are threatening both the United States and Mexican communities.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US military is ready to help Mexico in its fight against drug cartels with some of the same counterinsurgency tactics used against militant networks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mullen made the comment after meeting with high-ranking Mexican officials in Mexico City. Mullen said he emphasized the Pentagon’s readiness to provide new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance help, such as unmanned drones to spy on drug gangs, especially along the US border.

His comments came in the wake of a report issued by US Joint Forces Command late last year that grouped Mexico with Pakistan as a state that could undergo a “rapid and sudden collapse.” Last Sunday, during an interview on Meet the Press, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the US military will increase its support of Mexico.

    ROBERT GATES: I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past. Some of the old biases against cooperation with our — between our militaries and so on, I think, are being set aside.

    DAVID GREGORY: You mean providing military support?

    ROBERT GATES: No, providing them with — with training, with resources, with reconnaissance and surveillance kinds of capabilities, but just cooperation, including in intelligence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a House subcommittee considered the Department of Homeland Security’s request for additional border security funding in light of the increasing violence. This is Jayson Ahern, Acting Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection.

    JAYSON AHERN: So far, that kind of violence has been contained in Mexico, but we certainly do not want to see it spill over in the United States. And to that end, we have developed very detailed contingency plans to maintain control of the border as we move forward. While in recent years we’ve certainly focused on threats coming into the United States, Secretary Napolitano has made it clear that southbound enforcement, keeping guns and money out of the hands of criminals in Mexico, will be a priority for us. To this end, we’ll dedicate additional personnel and technology to combat this threat, and we’re finalizing our enhanced operational plans at this time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: For its part, Mexico recently announced it will send a total of 7,000 soldiers and federal police officers into the border city of Ciudad Juarez, where 1,600 people died last year in drug-related violence. Ciudad Juarez is located across the US border from El Paso, Texas. In a recent visit to El Paso, Texas Governor Rick Perry called for 1,000 US troops to be deployed to protect the border. But the mayor of El Paso, John Cook, has expressed concern about militarizing the border.

    MAYOR JOHN COOK: Soldiers are trained to kill. That’s what their job is. The job of the Border Patrol is different; it’s to protect the border. So, just the training that goes into it and understanding what the law is, understanding who has a right to be in certain places, is not something that soldiers usually pay much attention to. They set up a perimeter, and they defend it, and they kill anybody who comes into their territory. I don’t really want that to happen in the city of El Paso. I don’t want our border militarized.

AMY GOODMAN: Much of the drug-related violence in Mexico has been fueled by the ability of drug cartels to purchase AK-47 assault rifles and other arms in the US. According to law enforcement officials, 90 percent of the guns picked up in Mexico from criminal activity are purchased in the United States. Last month, fifty-four Congress members wrote to President Obama backing Mexican calls to enforce a ban on the imports of assault weapons, which are often shipped to Mexico.

For more, we’re joined by three guests. But we’re going to begin in Las Cruces in Mexico — New Mexico with Laura Carlsen. She’s the director of the Mexico City-based Americas Policy Program for the Center for International Policy. Her latest article is called “Drug War Doublespeak.” She’s joining us by video stream.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Laura.

LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you, Amy. Thank you for the invitation.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Your piece is called “Drug War Doublespeak,” and you start by talking about the “blitzkrieg of declarations from US government and military officials and pundits […] claming Mexico was alternately at risk of being a failed state [and] on the verge of a civil war.” What do you think is actually happening there?

LAURA CARLSEN: Well, we’ve been very surprised at this barrage of statements recently. And there are two reasons, basically. A lot of the talk has been focused on Mexico’s national security threat. Mexico has a very serious problem with violence, and that’s a predictable result of the drug war model that’s being applied, but it is not a threat to US national security.

When we started to look at some of these articles talking about spillover of Mexican violence into the United States, what we found is that there’s no evidence of that whatsoever at this point. The articles begin talking about the violence in Mexico, some of the worst cases. Then they jump to declarations by public officials, and there’s no evidence of what’s actually happening in the United States, because we simply don’t have that. In the case of using statistics, like there’s a lot of talk about the number of kidnappings in Phoenix, it turns out that many times those statistics are spurious, and they have no backup. They’ve been invented, or they’ve been twisted in many cases.

This is a real warning sign for us, because when we see an exaggerated threat assessment, as we’re seeing right now in terms of spillover of Mexican violence to the United States, it’s generally a prelude to militarization. And in fact, with Governor Perry requesting soldiers on the border and the National Guard, we’re already seeing a buildup for that kind of militarization.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you also talk about, in your article, the Mérida Initiative that President Bush originally announced. What was that, and how has it faired?

LAURA CARLSEN: The Mérida Initiative was designed by President Bush in October of 2007, and essentially this is a drug war model. It’s a copy of Plan Colombia, that we have six years and $6 billion of experience with and that the GAO itself has called a failure in stopping drug flows. It provides military equipment and US goods and services — no cash — to Mexico in order to supposedly reduce the power of the cartels. The first appropriations were 2008, and just last week the second appropriations, $300 million for Mexico in 2009, were passed.

The Mérida Initiative supports the offensive of President Felipe Calderon in Mexico, which, as I said, is this model of interdiction and enforcement that almost completely ignores the public health aspects of the drug problem. Since it’s gone into effect, the US narcotics report itself reports that there’s been a decrease in seizures, an increase in production, and most importantly, what we’ve already seen is this incredible increase in the violence. If last year’s numbers were — the 2007 numbers were approximately 2,500 narco-related deaths. The figures for 2008 were 6,290. And they’re going up. This violence is predictable: when you fight violence with violence, what you get is more violence.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back. Laura Carlsen, director of the Mexico City-based Americas Policy Program at the Center for International Policy, she’s near the border. She’s in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Her latest piece is called “Drug War Doublespeak.” And then we’re going to speak with the president of the Brady Center, talk about the guns that are coming over the border. And we’ll be speaking with Professor Greg Grandin, who — his latest book coming out — he’ll be talking about issues in Latin America. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by not only Laura Carlsen, who is here with us from Las Cruces, New Mexico. She is with the organization that looks at Mexico and Latin America. We’re also — she’s with the group called the Center for International Policy. We’re also with Greg Grandin, professor of Latin America history at NYU. His new forthcoming book is called Fordlandia. Paul Helmke is with us, as well, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. He’s joining us from Washington. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes, I’d just like to ask Laura Carlsen another question, on the question of whether there is success occurring in this drug war in Mexico. On the one hand, you see the administration praising President Felipe Calderon and his initiatives. On the other hand, you see a continued rise in the supposed production of various types of drugs in Mexico. And also, the role of the Mexicans who have been deported from the United States from prisons here in the United States after they serve terms, is there any indication that this is having an impact on the level of violence and of the upsurge in the drug trafficking in Mexico?

LAURA CARLSEN: Well, first of all, it’s very frustrating to see the way that these multiple failures of the drug war model, that’s been roundly criticized now by the United Nations in the drug war policy meetings in Vienna, as well as by a high-level commission called the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, are continuously spun as successes. It’s completely unacceptable to ask a society to accept higher levels of violence as a sign that we’re winning the drug war. There’s an increasing level of civilians that are being caught in the crossfire between the 45,000 army troops that are in the streets in Mexico and the drug cartels who are fighting for plazas. So, this is very frustrating. We know that this model doesn’t work, because it’s been applied before. And we know that it’s not working in Mexico now.

I don’t think the deportees have as much to do with the rising violence as do deserters from the army. That’s where there’s a very serious problem. One of the items included in the Mérida Initiative, a number of them have to do with increased training for the army and police forces. What we know is that with the high desertion rates that we have in the Mexican army and the high levels of corruption in both the police and the army, much of that training is going to go straight to the drug cartels.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go right now to Washington, D.C. Our guest there is Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. These latest figures that we have just gone through, the number of weapons that are being used, something like 90 percent of them from the United States — your piece — your organization’s piece, “America’s Weak Gun Laws Are Fueling the Violence in Mexico” — how?

PAUL HELMKE: The folks in Mexico have figured out what criminals in the US figured out a long time ago: our weak and nearly nonexistent laws in the US are making it very easy for these guns to get to Mexico. Most Americans don’t realize that we basically have very few laws on the book, almost none, restricting access to guns. And so, it’s very easy to go to unlicensed dealers, who basically can sell any kind of gun without any kind of background check, particularly gun shows, particularly in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico. They go to licensed dealers who are corrupt, and because Congress in effect shields them by keeping the information about where the records are, what the inventory is, who’s in trouble, and making sure that ATF doesn’t have the funding, that’s where guns come from.

And the fact that we allow an unlimited number of guns, almost any kind of gun, very serious military — nearly military-style hardware, it’s obvious that’s why 90 to 95 percent of the guns are coming from the US. We are the world’s gun bazaar, and the gangs in Mexico have figured it out. If anything, Mexico ought to be putting up their army at our border to check the cars coming from the US in to see who’s bringing the guns in, because we make it so easy for dangerous people to get those guns.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, your article mentions that about one percent of all the licensed gun dealers represent 60 percent of the illegal gun sales.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Why doesn’t the government crack down on those particular licensed dealers that are involved in this trafficking?

PAUL HELMKE: Seems pretty obvious to me. Actually, that information is a little old. Congress no longer allows that kind of information to be made public. That’s from 2000, when it was said that 60 percent of the guns traced to crime come from one percent of the dealers.

But we only have enough ATF agents — it would take them twenty-one years to investigate every gun dealer to do — to stop by every gun dealer in the US. And in fact, we have laws on the books that say once you’ve investigated a gun dealer, a licensed gun dealer in the US, you cannot come back again for another twelve months unless you have a warrant. We make it harder to sell cigarettes to minors or liquor to minors than we do to sell guns in this country. And since you can go in again with a credit card and buy a thousand AK-47s, .50-caliber sniper rifles that can shoot down helicopters, it’s obvious why they come to the US to get their guns.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Helmke —-

PAUL HELMKE: We do nothing to stop -— almost nothing to stop dangerous people from getting them.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember when President Bush first took office and the statement of the NRA, “We’re now going to be operating out of the Oval Office.”


AMY GOODMAN: Do you still see their power at that level today? And what do you feel needs to be done?

PAUL HELMKE: Clearly, we have a lot stronger supporters with President Obama, Vice President Biden, Attorney General Holder, Rahm Emanuel, others in the administration. Elected officials in Congress, however, are still scared to death of the NRA for some reason. They think that the NRA is powerful, even though the NRA basically hasn’t won a single contested election in either the ’06 cycle or the ’08 cycle. We don’t know of any person who’s lost because of standing for commonsense gun control over the last two elections. But a lot of politicians are afraid of them, even though when we poll people at exit polls, 75 to 85 percent of gun owners, McCain voters, Republicans, as well as the general American public, support things like doing background checks in all sales, strengthening ATFs so we can stop this illegal trade in gun, restricting some of the weapons that are easily available to the general public.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And even we covered — I think it was last week that the passage of — giving D.C. the right to have a voting member of Congress, it was stuck into that bill the elimination or the reduction of D.C.’s strong gun control laws.

PAUL HELMKE: Clearly sad. D.C.’s law was challenged. The Supreme Court spoke up last summer, said D.C. went too far. But the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia speaking, said you can still have restrictions on who gets guns, what types of guns, where you take guns, how they’re sold, how they’re marketed, how they’re carried. But Congress thinks they know the Constitution better than the Supreme Court. And the Senate, sadly, the other week, said that D.C. City Council didn’t get it right, and so they want to play super city council in the sky and basically say, “You can’t have a vote in Congress unless we can gut your gun laws totally.” That’s ridiculous, and it does show the power of the gun lobby.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Helmke, the case that just went on trial this week in Phoenix, Arizona, of a gun store owner who went on trial on charges he sold more than 700 weapons to straw buyers, knowing the firearms were bought on behalf of Mexican drug syndicates?

PAUL HELMKE: Right, happens all the time. A straw buyer is someone who knows they can’t pass a background check, so they get someone else. And basically, the straw buyer says, “Let me look at that gun. How much does it cost? How does it feel?” And then they have someone else with them fill out the paperwork, obvious straw buyers.

We don’t do enough in this country to crack down on that, and it’s because, basically, we are not serious. We want everybody to have a gun for any purpose.

That gun dealer actually was originally in California, which has the best gun laws in this country, and he moved to Arizona, because it was too hard for him to sell those guns in California and he knew that in Arizona it would be a lot easier for him to market these to the gangs and the drug cartels in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Grandin is also with this, a professor of Latin American history at New York University, NYU, here in New York, just down the road. Can you put the policy of the US with Mexico in context, overall, in Latin America right now?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, the logic context is two things. One is the rise of the left throughout most of South America, in which the US has lost influence in what used to be called its backyard. But it also — and the reason for the rise of the left is the second part of the context, and that’s the absolute failure of economic policies, starting with NAFTA and even before, what’s generally known as neoliberalism or the Washington Consensus.

All the drug war is is a crystallization, in a lot of ways, of all of the pressures brought to bear on the Mexican state by privatization, by deregulation, through the opening of the economy. In some ways, you see a direct relationship between the recession of the state, particularly in northern Mexico, and the vacuum created, which is filled by the cartels. Society, no less than nature, abhors a vacuum. And in many ways, the cartels have functioned as the state, and they tax businesses, they create infrastructure, they provide jobs. The money raised — the money, the profits by narcotics industry in Mexico, billions of dollars — some estimates are $30 billion a year — are injected into Mexican banks. They keep Mexican banks afloat.

So, in many ways, what you’re seeing here with the drug wars in Mexico is a death match between different sectors of elites trying to assume state powers. And when Felipe Calderon took power and came to office in 2006, he declared a war on drugs, and he sent troops into Juarez and other cities in the north, and that’s what kicked off this cycle of violence.

It’s nowhere close to being a failed state. That is hysteria. I think that’s right. But there is a serious crisis in Mexico. And the larger conflict — context, of course, is that a hundred years ago — we’re coming up on the hundredth anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, and so I guess what’s called a failed state now, back then, was called a revolution. So I think Mexicans are acutely aware that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Greg, you mentioned when Felipe Calderon came to office. Obviously, we tend to forget that he was elected in perhaps the most controversial election in Mexican history, a very, very close margin against a leftist candidate, Lopez Obrador. Is there some concern that this increase in militarization, both within Mexico and now possibly from the United States side of the border, will have some impact on the continuing political dynamic within Mexico?

GREG GRANDIN: Oh, I think there’s a clear concern that the Mexican state, the promise of democratization that happened with the election of PAN and Vicente Fox two cycles back has not been delivered, that there’s — that both main political — that all three main political parties, the PAN, the PRI and the PRD, are losing its ability to channel dissent and protest and popular aspirations through the political process.

And you see the growth of social movements and protest, not just in Chiapas, of course, with the Zapatistas, but we saw Oaxaca, saw the crisis in Oaxaca. And we saw a lot of the rhetoric of the war on drugs and the war on terror being used to repress dissent in Oaxaca. And in Chihuahua, people protesting the privatization of water and other natural resources have been locked up and have been physically repressed under the aegis of the war on terror and the war on drugs. So you’re seeing a kind of synergy of all of these different crises coming together in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is weighing the possibility of sending more troops to the border. Do you think some of that — you were mentioning having to do with the economy, of many more Mexicans having to come up, of — not about drugs, but about people who are being squeezed all over the world?

GREG GRANDIN: They’re being squeezed. But what’s interesting about this particular crisis, I read some statistics that actually in every other economic crisis that Mexico has had throughout the last thirty or forty years, there’s been a —- it’s been correlated with an increase of migration to the United States. This is the first time where there’s actually a reverse in migration, because of the economy tanking in the US. And along with that, remittances have fallen. So, in some ways, migration has served as a safety valve from Mexican politics since 1968. And what you’re seeing is a shutting down of that safety valve, which increases the pressures that Juan was talking about within Mexican society.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Laura Carlsen, if we could get you back in the conversation here, for those of us who have had the opportunity from time to time to cross the border between Mexico and the US, there’s an amazing difference between how you are treated when you’re coming from the US into Mexico versus from Mexico into the US, in terms of the type of inspection and processes that you have to go through. As Paul Helmke was suggesting, maybe if the Mexican army would start searching cars coming from or trucks coming from the United States into Mexico, they might be able to interdict many of these weapons that are coming in illegally.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura, are you there?


AMY GOODMAN: Could you respond to that?

LAURA CARLSEN: Well, I think there’s a complete double standard in terms of what is really a transnational problem—- everyone recognizes it’s a transnational problem — and the way that it’s viewed in Mexico and the United States. By talking about spillover and many of the measures, the Mérida Initiative included, that focus only on the Mexican responsibility for this problem, what the United States is doing is washing its hands of these kinds of problems, including the drug — the gunrunning, as well as being the largest market and the reason for existence for these drug cartels.

When there’s drug activity in the United States, it doesn’t mean it’s spilling over from Mexico. This is a normal part of the transnational drug trade. The United States is responsible for its share of corruption, by letting these kinds of illegal substances into the country, by the illegal trade in guns and money laundering that supports the drug industry on the ground in Mexico and other places. And so, by pushing the entire onus of this onto Mexico, it’s releasing itself from responsibilities in many ways that’s completely unacceptable and creating an image that there’s a contagion coming from the south, which is Mexico, into a fundamentally healthy organism, which is US society, and we all know that isn’t true.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Carlsen, President Calderon said, to say Mexico doesn’t have authority over all its national territories is absolutely false and absurd. He said the media is mounting a campaign of lies against Mexico. What do you think has to happen?

LAURA CARLSEN: Yeah, I think that’s basically true. Any definition of a failed state, when you look at it technically and including the rankings that they do of failed states, Mexico does not qualify. There are places where the drug cartels have significant power. It’s not that there’s a total absence of the state. The drug cartels don’t want to be the state. They don’t want to take over the state. What they want to do is they want to carry out their business, a very lucrative business.

What I think has to happen is that we have to get rid of this failed drug war model and we have to start looking at other options. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy that was run by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, came out with a recommendation saying it’s time to completely change course on this. What we have to do is start looking at illegal drug use as a public health problem; cease to criminalize it; stop having these confrontations, bloody confrontations, in the street with the drug cartels; and focus repressive measures just on organized crime. And at the same time, they came out and suggested that we take a serious look at legalization, in some cases, of drugs, because the only way this is really going to stop is when that market doesn’t exist anymore. And the prohibitionist policies that have been put in place until now have completely failed.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Grandin, on a different note, Salvador elections on Sunday?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, the polls show that the election is close. The FMLN candidate, which would have — which, if he does win, it will end nearly twenty years of ARENA right-wing rule, the ARENA party being linked to the death squad in the civil war of El Salvador in the 1980s. Mauricio Funes was well ahead in the polls, but there’s been a major scare campaign.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That’s the candidate of the FMLN.

GREG GRANDIN: That’s the candidate of the FMLN. There’s been a major scare campaign over the last two or three months, along the lines of what happened in Mexico, bringing it back to Mexico, with Manuel Lopez Obrador in 2006, which linked him to Chavez. And Lopez Obrador was well ahead in the polls, scheduled to win, and at the last minute it came in very close. Peru, we saw the same thing. So there’s been an orchestrated attempt to link Funes with Chavez and also with the FARC in Colombia and scare Salvadoran voters into voting once again for ARENA. We saw the same thing in 2004.

Key to this, as you mentioned in the opening, is a threatening the Temporary Protection Status. There’s about 2.5 million Salvadorans in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of them are here under what’s known as a TPS, Temporary Protection Status, that was implemented in, I think, 1989, 1990, and it was a recognition of the migration, out-migration, exile, resulting from the violence of the civil war in the 1990s. And it’s almost been a ritual of US politics every time there’s a presidential election in El Salvador to threaten to revoke that TPS status. What you saw in El Salvador was headlines blared along all the right-wing newspapers, which is completely controlled by ARENA or affiliated with ARENA, announcing that Congress threatens to cut off TPS and remittances will fall and all of this, and all of this alarmism.

The Obama administration, the State Department, issued a neutrality statement yesterday. It was about a paragraph long, but it’s not getting any attention within the Salvadoran press, and certainly not the headlines that the statements by Dan Burton and other Republican congressmen have received.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll certainly follow that story on Monday, what happens with the Salvador elections on Sunday. I want to thank you all for being with us. Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at NYU, his forthcoming book called Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. Laura Carlsen, with us from Las Cruces, New Mexico, she is with the Center for International Policy. And finally, Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.

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