Mexico in Focus

Mar 15, 2012

View PDF

Canadians see Mexico on a split screen. On one side, they see a tourist paradise that attracts 1.5 million Canadians every year. On the other: a drug war that has claimed 50,000 lives in five years...

Canadian Military meets with Mexican Army

Conflicting images of drug wars and tourist resorts show a country that is out of control, living on low-wage earnings of tourism and the proceeds of crime - and therefore a perfect candidate for Canadian aid. The picture is false.

As an academic and as executive director of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, Carlo Dade has watched relations between Canada and Mexico for years. Far from seeing Mexico as potentially dependent on Canadian largesse, he says that it is swiftly becoming an advanced industrial economy. Pointing to the impact that high-quality, low-wage Mexican factories have had on North America's automobile industry, Dade says "we would not be competitive globally without Mexico."

The value of two-way trade between Mexico and Canada was $27 billion in 2010, and Mexico ranks 5th as a market for Canadian products. A PWC report called The World in 2050 projects that by mid-century, Mexico's Gross Domestic Product will be 7th in the world. By contrast, the study projects Canada's GDP will be 16th. Dade concedes that drug related violence has hit Mexico hard but has not been a knock-out punch. The violence in Mexico has been "a shock to the psychological system. Obviously, you have got to get people to stop shooting," says Dade.

That's easier said than done. Between $14 billion and $50 billion in drug revenue pours into Mexico every year, and this is what the gangs - or Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) - are fighting over. Last year, NORAD and US NORTHCOM Commander Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Jr. described TCOs as "vicious in the extreme, better-armed than our police forces, very well-financed, diversified, and increasingly sophisticated in their methods. In fact, we now see TCOs using military equipment and tactics, including machine guns, sniper rifles, grenades, and even submarines to move illegal drugs."

Walter McKay is a Canadian security consultant living in Mexico City. With 12 years experience as a police officer, he now assesses Mexico's security challenges for private and corporate clients. "Historically Mexicans don't like outside interference ... basically they don't want the United States. They lost a couple of wars, they lost a lot of land, and a lot of dignity to the United States, which is a belligerent neighbour."

If that provides an opportunity for Canada to offer assistance, McKay believes training would be most welcome. "Police officers in Mexico need to be trained as investigators. They don't really need to be trained in weapons use or how to drive around in vehicles," he says. "So the whole idea of reequipping and militarizing the police force is really just a waste of money and a wasted strategy. It is futile."

Carleton University professor Jean Daudelin, a Latin America specialist, agrees. "I think the most relevant resources would be expertise, particularly in two areas: police, technical, administrative and vetting systems, and the justice system, which is a mess," he says. "The depth of incompetence and corruption of the justice system is astonishing."

Both Daudelin and McKay believe that Canadian military and law enforcement personnel will probably never see field work with their Mexican counterparts. As McKay explains, "the Mexican government would not allow it. It's impossible. They do not want any hint of a concession of their sovereignty. Mexico does not want to appear as if they have failed. They don't think they have. They have almost 450,000 police officers, and it would be egg on their face to say they need more, especially from Canada."

At the street level, however, Daudelin notes, "if you get close in any way to operations, you will get splashed with blood. A large proportion of police and marine operations involve executions of suspects followed by no investigations."

In the end, it is debatable whether Mexico even wants a great deal of outside assistance. The Mexican government has adequate financial resources and this year it will spend $12 billion on all aspects of security, up 10 percent from 2011.

In reality, the drugs problem is not just Mexican, but regional. Success in one area of drug traffic suppression simply drives the criminals somewhere else. The annual air-sea Operation Caribe has, with Canadian involvement, succeeded in making aviation and marine transport very expensive for the traffickers. That moved the action to land corridors through northern Mexico and into the United States. When President Felipe Calderon launched the December 2006 campaign against the big cartels, two things happened. From a relatively stable situation with low levels of violence, smaller drug gangs now battle ferociously between themselves and against the government to maintain control of the trade routes. At the same time, they are moving out of Mexico, with relatively strong law enforcement capabilities, to weaker countries in the region, like Guatemala. The drug gangs do not want to take over political control anywhere; they just don't want governments to interfere with their business. That's not a problem in Guatemala, where the United States government estimates that almost three quarters of the country is under the control of criminal organizations.

If Mexico does not need assistance from Canada, why should Canada try to become more involved? Brian Lee Crowley, the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, thinks the answer is one border closer than Mexico. "Ottawa is always looking for ways to get American interest for Canada's issues. And we all know what a difficult challenge that is," he said. "So America is very worried about violence and instability in Mexico. They are worried about the growing purchase the drug trade has on society and government there, not least because it pushes people to try to get into the United State." If Canada can show that it has made a difference in the Mexican situation, it might not make a big difference for Canada directly with Mexico but it would give Canada some political capital to spend with the Americans, Crowley believes.

If Canada is looking for places to make a difference, there are plenty of countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America where it would be much safer to operate, where the Spanish language does not pose a barrier and where Canadian help is actually needed. "In one sense with Canada's limited resources, why not focus on Belize or Jamaica or some other English-speaking island state?" Walter McKay asked. "The United States is already dumping far more money, talent and training into Mexico than Canada ever will. We're not going to match that."

On the other hand, Carlo Dade makes a strategic case for engagement with Mexico. "The hemisphere is Hispanic and eventually we are going to have to deal with that. Do it now," he said. "This is where the strategic use of the few human resources we have could have a huge impact." 

In support of the Government of Canada's Strategy for the Americas, the CF has begun to increase its level of emphasis on the Americas. Part of that increased engagement is Mexico, and one of Canada Command's top four priorities is to develop stronger defence ties with Mexico. FrontLine asked the Commander, Lieutenant-General Walt Semianiw, for an overview of progress in this regard:

Q: What is Canada Command's current engagement with Mexico?

The Department of National Defence (DND) and the Canadian Forces (CF) have historically been involved throughout North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. These have included: United Nations Peacekeeping missions in countries such as Guatemala and Haiti; various Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) activities; and providing individual training through the Military Training and Cooperation Program (MTCP). Mexico has been a member of the MTCP since 2004.

Canada Command is [responsible] for overall CF engagement in the Americas and in this regard is an active player and coordinator for CF activities with Mexico. Recent events have included Mexico's participation in Exercise Quinte Dipper, a parachute training event at CFB Trenton, and a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief 'lessons learned' seminar that was held in Ottawa in November 2011.

Canada and Mexico also participate in yearly policy-military staff talks and military to military staff talks where avenues of further cooperation are discussed.

One of Canada COM's significant activities was the signing of the NAMSI (North American Maritime Security Initiative) Letter of Intent in August 2011. This initiative between Canada COM, the United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), the United States Coast Guard (USCG), and the Mexican Secretaria de Marina (SEMAR) is intended to establish and share operating procedures for the prevention of and response to incidents and illicit acts that could threaten maritime safety and security of the respective countries.

Q: What is Canada's Future engagement with Mexico?

Canada will not conduct operations within Mexican territory since there is no anticipated need or request to do so. Canada is, however, looking to increase the number of training activities it conducts with Mexico.

The upcoming military-military staff talks will, in part, work towards that aim. SEMAR has already agreed to participate in Exercise Maple Flag this year, and there are upcoming visits to Canada by members from two of Mexico's Defence Colleges.

Q: Mexico is increasingly using marine infantry in its drug enforcement operations is this a learning opportunity for Canada?

No. It must be remembered that in Canada, drug law enforcement operations are the responsibility of the civilian law enforcement agencies. These agencies may, at times, request CF assistance and, if approved, CF assistance will be in support of [that agency]. When the CF does provide assistance to law enforcement agencies, the supported agencies remain responsible for all aspects of law enforcement - including arrest, detention, search and seizure.

Q: Some analysts believe the government of Mexico is winning against drug traffickers and that it has the resources to do so. Given this, what is Canada Command's possible engagement with Mexico? Are additional resources required?

Even with their current successes, criminal violence continues to challenge Mexico, due in great part to the activities of Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs). This is especially so in Mexico's southern region that borders on Belize and Guatemala. Starting in 2011, Canada COM has participated in the U.S.-sponsored Mexico/Guatemala/ Belize Cross Border Workshops. Canada and the U.S. act as facilitators and look for potential cooperative engagement opportunities in that region. Canada, however, will not conduct operations within Mexican territory since there is no anticipated need or request to do so.

Canada COM is now developing multi-year plans that look at means of regional engagement activities that the CDS has directed be focused, modest, enduring and reciprocal. The aim is to build military-to-military relationships with those countries for the long term that will generally increase regional security. Canada COM is also examining various training, equipment and relationship building initiatives with both Guatemala and Belize that are to be implemented in the upcoming fiscal year.

Our initial engagements will be achieved through current means and a refocusing of resources and efforts towards the Americas region.
We intend on increasing the capacity of our staff and the knowledge they have on the region, including their ability to work in the local languages. It is also key that the management of these personnel ensures they are employed in jobs where they can use their talents. As always, the most important resource are our people.

We also need an ability to track and evaluate the success of our activities in the region. Canada COM is helping to build the mechanisms and tools for this so our limited resources will always be used efficiently. However, it is important to remember that Canada will not conduct operations within Mexican territory since there is no anticipated need or request to do so.

Richard Bray is the Senior Writer for FrontLine Magazines.
© FrontLine Security 2012