It’s not common to see President Barack Obama step in and try to calm the waters around his onetime campaign rival, Hillary Clinton, but he apparently felt the need to do so today on the matter of Mexico.
The foofaraw began Wednesday when Clinton, Obama’s secretary of state, spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. She took questions after a speech, and one came from former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, who wanted to know about U.S. strategy toward Latin America. I’ve bold-faced some of the interesting parts of Clinton’s response:
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, Carla, thank you for asking about this hemisphere, because it is very much on our minds and we face an increasing threat from a well-organized network drug trafficking threat that is, in some cases, morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico and in Central America.
And we are working very hard to assist the Mexicans in improving their law enforcement and their intelligence, their capacity to detain and prosecute those whom they arrest. I give President Calderon very high marks for his courage and his commitment. This is a really tough challenge. And these drug cartels are now showing more and more indices of insurgency; all of a sudden, car bombs show up which weren’t there before.
So it’s becoming – it’s looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago, where the narco-traffickers control certain parts of the country, not significant parts. And Colombia – it got to the point where more than a third of the country, nearly 40 percent of the country at one time or another was controlled by the insurgents, by FARC. But it’s going to take a combination of improved institutional capacity and better law enforcement and, where appropriate, military support for that law enforcement married to political will to be able to prevent this from spreading and to try to beat it back.
Mexico has capacity and they’re using that capacity, and they’ve been very willing to take advice. They’re wanting to do as much of it on their own as possible, but we stand ready to help them. But the small countries in Central America do not have that capacity, and the newly inaugurated president of Costa Rica, President Chinchilla, said, “We need help and we need a much more vigorous U.S. presence.”
So we are working to try to enhance what we have in Central America. We hear the same thing from our Caribbean friends, so we have an initiative, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. And our relationship is not all about drugs and violence and crime, but unfortunately, that often gets the headlines. We are also working on more economic programs, we’re working on Millennium Challenge grants, we’re working on a lot of other ways of bolstering economies and governments to improve rule of law. But this is on the top of everyone’s minds when they come to speak with us.
And I know that Plan Colombia was controversial. I was just in Colombia and there were problems and there were mistakes, but it worked. And it was bipartisan, started in the Clinton Administration, continued in the Bush Administration, and I think President Santos will try to do everything he can to remedy the problems of the past while continuing to make progress against the insurgency. And we need to figure out what are the equivalents for Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
And that’s not easy because these – you put your finger on it. Those drugs come up through Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, through Central America, Southern Mexico to the border, and we consume them. And those guns, legal and illegal, keep flooding along with all of the mayhem. It’s not only guns; it’s weapons, it’s arsenals of all kinds that come south. So I feel a real sense of responsibility to do everything we can, and again, we’re working hard to come up with approaches that will actually deliver.
Nearly immediately after Clinton made the remarks, others of lower rank came out to minimize the hurt feelings south of the border over the comparisons to Colombia.
According to El Universal, the newspaper in Mexico City, Arturo Valenzuela, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said afterward that “what we are talking about is an escalation of violence but not an emergence of an insurgency with political motives.” (I’ve translated the Spanish language quote and Valenzuela may have been speaking in English, so it may not be exact.)
Then the paper quotes White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske as urging caution when talking about characterizing the drug cartels as similar to insurgencies.
“There is concern about the use of car bombs, but this does not automatically translate to the actions of an insurgency,” the paper cited him as saying (again in Spanish).
It was Obama’s turn to weigh in a few hours ago. In an interview with a Spanish-language newspaper group that includes La Opinion of Los Angeles and New York’s El Diario/La Prensa, Obama was asked about the comparison between Colombia and Mexico, and he gave a sort of non-answer.
He obviously spoke in English, and I am translating back into English from the newspaper website’s Spanish language translation, so add the necessary caveats.
“Mexico is a broad and progressive democracy with a growing economy, and as a consequence you can’t compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened 20 years ago in Colombia,” Obama said.
Your turn, Hillary.