Latin American Program in the News: Hand of U.S. Is Seen in Halting General’s Rise in Mexico

The New York Times

Feb 06, 2013
By , and

As Mexico’s military staged its annual Independence Day parade in September, spectators filled the main square of Mexico City to cheer on the armed forces. Nearly 2,000 miles away in Washington, American officials were also paying attention.

But it was not the helicopters hovering overhead or the antiaircraft weapons or the soldiers in camouflage that caught their attention. It was the man chosen to march at the head of the parade, Gen. Moisés García Ochoa, who by tradition typically becomes the country’s next minister of defense.

The Obama administration had many concerns about the general, including the Drug Enforcement Administration’s suspicion that he had links to drug traffickers and the Pentagon’s anxiety that he had misused military supplies and skimmed money from multimillion-dollar defense contracts.

In the days leading up to Mexico’s presidential inauguration on Dec. 1, the United States ambassador to Mexico, Anthony Wayne, met with senior aides to President Enrique Peña Nieto to express alarm at the general’s possible promotion.

That back-channel communication provides a rare glimpse into the United States government’s deep involvement in Mexican security affairs — especially as Washington sizes up Mr. Peña Nieto, who is just two months into a six-year term. The American role in a Mexican cabinet pick also highlights the tensions and mistrust between the governments despite proclamations of cooperation and friendship.

“When it comes to Mexico, you have to accept that you’re going to dance with the devil,” said a former senior D.E.A. official, who requested anonymity because he works in the private sector in Mexico. “You can’t just fold your cards and go home because you can’t find people you completely trust. You play with the cards you’re dealt.”

A former senior Mexican intelligence official expressed similar misgivings about American officials. “The running complaint on the Mexican side is that the relationship with the United States is unequal and unbalanced,” said the former official, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke anonymously to discuss diplomatic and security exchanges. “Mexico is open with its secrets. The United States is not. So there’s a lot of resentment. And there’s always an incentive to try to stick it to the Americans.”

Wave of Violence

Washington’s concerns about General García Ochoa — which several officials cautioned were not confirmed — come as both governments grasp for new ways to stem the illegal flows of drugs, guns and money across their borders.

Under Mr. Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, cooperation between the two governments had expanded in ways once considered unthinkable, with American and Mexican agents conducting coordinated operations that resulted in the capture or killing of several dozen important cartel leaders. But while Washington highlighted the record numbers of arrests, the stepped-up campaign created a wave of violence in Mexico that left some 60,000 people dead.

The devastating death toll has Mr. Peña Nieto, 46, a former governor, promising to move his country’s fight against organized crime in a different direction, focusing more on reducing violence than on detaining drug kingpins. But he has so far offered only vague details of his security plans, focusing instead on social and economic programs.

While Mr. Peña Nieto portrays himself as the leader of a new generation of reformers, he is also a scion of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years through a combination of corruption and coercion until it lost power in 2000. During its time in power, the party was known more for keeping the United States at arm’s length while attempting to strike deals with drug traffickers, rather than combating them head on.

Mr. Peña Nieto’s election has brought the PRI back to power, and since so many of those serving in his cabinet have one foot in the past, foreign policy experts who specialize in Mexico say it is not clear where the new government is headed.

“It could go either way,” said Eric L. Olson of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, speaking of future cooperation between Mexico and the United States. “Part of me says, ‘Let’s not assume it’s all going to go south.’ And there are things that are happening that give me hope. But the longer it goes without some clarity, the more doubts creep in.”

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