Time for Mexico to seek U.S. help

National pride is a good thing — until the water reaches your chin and your nation is still sinking. Mexico is not in that deep yet, but parts of the country are. Seven criminal cartels effectively control most cities and the drug trafficking lanes near the United States border, as well as their bases and production centers in the interior.

Yet the Mexican elite class and military remain too proud to do what they immediately should: Call in the Marines.

I say this a bit tendentiously to get Mexicans out of their nationalistic stupor. They in fact should call in the United States Army, Navy and Air Force, too. But not in large units. Rather, Mexico is in dire need of American military specialists stationed inside Mexico to help the country build powerful electronic intelligence systems and train modern military and police forces to replace the suffocatingly hierarchical, outdated ones it has.

My saying this will insult many Mexicans, but I speak from a position of love for the country and its people. Mexico is neither a “failing state” nor a totally corrupt society, as — curiously — both American nativists and humanitarians in the immigration debate claim, one to wall off Mexico, the other to save Mexicans and invite in anyone who wants to come.

But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was right when she said the cartels are “morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency.” Mexican officials and media erupted in protest, and President Barack Obama apologized.

He shouldn’t have. Both the U.S. and Mexico have to honestly recognize that cartels in Mexico and other parts of the world represent what a growing number of clear-eyed specialists are calling a new form of “criminal insurgency.”

“They are attacking the state from within through corruption and violence and seeking to establish areas of influence in which they can operate without restriction,” wrote Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal in a just-released study for the Center for a New American Security.

Where it interests them, the cartels have cowed the local police, politicians and the press through intimidation, executions, massacres and coerced bribery. More than 200,000 people have fled Juarez, the border maquiladoras that were a national growth engine are struggling, and many business leaders from Monterrey, the modern industrial center of Mexico, have moved to Texas.

President Felipe Calderon has bravely tried to break the cycle by going to war with the cartels, but after about 28,000 deaths, most Mexicans now think the cartels are winning. Calderon’s term is up in two years, and Mexico will face the choice to keep fighting or return to an older policy of live and let live with one or more of the cartels. The latter is looking ever more attractive.

Mexico thus needs military and police help now. Yes, more fundamental matters like drug demand in the United States and weak institutions in Mexico need addressing, but those are long-term concerns. Not even legalization of drugs — which I favor — will make the criminal cartels go away. They are in many businesses now, and have tentacles throughout the hemisphere and in every large and medium-sized city in the U.S.

What is getting in the way is that the Mexican military, political and intellectual leaders, abetted by U.S. intellectuals, still have their heads in the Mexican and American wars of the 19th century and the Cold War of the 20th. They still talk of imperialism and hegemony — both irrelevant today.

Though Mexico is our neighbor and supposed longtime ally, the Mexican army has never — never — participated in a joint exercise with the U.S. military, as Roderic Ai Camp notes in a recent study for the Woodrow Wilson Center.

The Merida Initiative funds some police training by Mexicans in Mexico, Mexican military officers are increasingly studying in the U.S., and Mexico has recently asked our Northern Command for help in setting up a joint intelligence center. But that’s not near enough.

Plan Colombia has been a success because of several hundred military trainers and intelligence operatives working hand in glove with Colombians inside that country. More than just teaching officers, they empower sergeants and enlisted men from the working class, something the Mexican military, like the Mexican elite, has yet to do.

Edward Schumacher-Matos writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.

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