Mexico: US ambassador canned after “drug war” revelations

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced on March 19 that the US ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, had resigned. Pascual, who has only been at the post for a year and five months, will remain in Mexico to organize an “orderly transition,” Clinton said. Pascual’s resignation came after a number of embarrassing revelations about US-Mexican relations, starting with the WikiLeaks group’s publication of diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Mexico. Some cables showed US diplomats losing confidence in the militarized “war on drugs” that President Felipe Calder贸n Hinojosa ordered shortly after taking office in December 2006. Calder贸n made it clear during a visit to Washington on March 3 this year that he wanted Pascual replaced, but State Department officials said at the time that they had no plans to remove the ambassador. (La Jornada, Mexico, March 20)

In late February US media started reporting that the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) had allowed some 2,000 firearms to enter Mexico illegally in what appeared to be a bungled effort, codenamed Operation Fast and Furious, to trace the activities of US gun smugglers in the US Southwest.

The embarrassments continued on March 16 when the New York Times revealed that the US had been flying Global Hawk drones鈥攃rewless spy planes鈥攐ver Mexican airspace for about a month to carry out surveillance of suspected drug traffickers. Two days later, on March 18, the Associated Press wire service reported that the US had been sending Predator B drones over Mexico since early in 2009, when US president Barack Obama took office, apparently at a rate of about one flight a week. The Predator flights involve four drones operated by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the Mexico-US border.

The Air Force’s $38 million Global Hawk can fly higher than 60,000 feet; the smaller $4 million Predator B drones fly at about 18,000 feet. These are similar to the drones the US uses to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan but are not armed, according to US sources. (NYT, March 16; AP, March 18 via Sify news service)

Opposition senators grilled Mexican foreign relations secretary Patricia Espinosa Cantellano about relations with the US for almost four hours in Mexico City on March 17. Espinosa downplayed the importance of the criticism in the leaked cables and said that the drone flights were requested and “controlados”鈥攚hich in Spanish can mean either “monitored” or “controlled”–by the Mexican government. Senator Pablo G贸mez of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) dismissed as “laughable and absolutely incredible” the idea that the US would let a foreign government “have control over” its aircraft. Espinosa said the Mexican government had known about Operation Fast and Furious, but not that illegal weapons had come across the border. Mexican authorities had initially denied knowing anything about the operation. (LJ, March 18)

The drone flights violate Article 42 of the Mexican Constitution, according to retired Supreme Court justice Juventino Castro y Castro, who told the left-leaning daily La Jornada that “the US authorities can’t order any administrative or military-type action in Mexico, and in addition, the president of the Republic is the one charged with guarding against this.” (LJ, March 19)

Some 35,000 Mexicans have died in drug-related incidents since the start of President Calder贸n’s drug war. One well-known case involved Josefina Reyes Salazar, an activist living near Ciudad Ju谩rez, Chihuahua, who was murdered on Jan. 3, 2010; as of this February, five of her relatives have also been murdered. According to a diplomatic cable dated Jan. 28, 2010 and released by WikiLeaks, the US embassy shared the view promoted by some Mexican officials that Josefina Reyes Salazar’s murder resulted from connections to drug traffickers, not from her opposition to the drug war policy. In the cable, which isn’t classified but is marked “for official use only,” US embassy deputy chief of mission John Feeley, a former US Marine, wrote that “Reyes was the mother of purported Ju谩rez Cartel hit-man and drug trafficker Miguel Angel ‘El Sapo’ Reyes Salazar” and that “information available to the consulate in Ciudad Ju谩rez suggests that Reyes’ murder had more to do with her ties to organized crime than her work with human rights organizations.”

Feeley noted that the Mexican press, the government National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and London-based Amnesty International (IA) had all treated the murder as an attack on human rights activists. On March 15 Alberto Herrera Arag贸n, executive director of AI in Mexico, said there was no doubt that Reyes Salazar was a human rights activist and that it had not been proven that her son, who is in prison in Tamaulipas, is linked to the Ju谩rez drug cartel. (LJ, March 15, March 16)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 20.

See our last post on Mexico.