Washington’s Counter-insurgency Laboratory—from Mexico to Afghanistan

by Bill Weinberg, NACLA News

The Merida Initiative, Washington’s new security program for Mexico and Central America, was immediately dubbed “Plan Mexico” by its critics—implying it is a new version of Plan Colombia.

In fact, from its origins ten years ago, the multi-billion dollar aid package and militarized anti-narcotics program dubbed Plan Colombia was seen as a model to be applied elsewhere in the hemisphere. The first steps were down the Andean chain to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, in an expanded version of the program, the Andean Regional Initiative. But unanticipated gains for popular movements and the left in Bolivia and Ecuador have largely halted Washington’s integrated program of drug war cooperation and military aid in these nations. Peru continued to follow the model—and violence is fast escalating there. Now, with growing fears in Washington of Mexico’s destabilization, a similar program has been developed for the Mesoamerican isthmus.

Simultaneously, Pentagon planners have been explicitly evoking Plan Colombia as a model for the war in Afghanistan—where counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts have likewise become inexorably entwined.

Ironically, Colombia itself has seen rising cocaine production as well as continued horrific violence and rights abuses throughout the years the Plan has been in effect. There is a sense of policy-makers creating what they ostensibly fear.

The Merida Initiative and the specter of intervention
In March 2007, some 20 were arrested and several injured in protests against the visit of President George Bush to the southern Mexican city of MĂ©rida. Meeting with Mexico’s President Felipe CalderĂłn and Central American leaders in the historic Yucatan city, Bush won agreement for a regional security program to be known as the Merida Initiative.

The Bush administration called the Merida Initiative “a new paradigm” of bilateral cooperation in the war on drugs and terrorism, calling for a $1.4 billion, multiyear “security cooperation package.” Some 40% of the funds were slated for new helicopters and surveillance aircraft for the Mexican army, with large chunks for the federal police and the security forces of the Central American republics. Mexican leaders were quick to emphasize that, in contrast to Plan Colombia, the Initiative did not call for stationing US military troops and advisors south of the border.

The Merida Initiative made its way through Congress in 2008. As part of an emergency appropriations bill, the Senate in May approved the first installment: $350 million in drug war aid to Mexico, with an additional $100 million for Central America, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Reducing the Bush administration’s request for $500 million to Mexico and $50 million to Central America, the Senate also adopted language that would hold up a quarter of the funds until the State Department rules that Mexico is meeting human rights markers. The House approved $400 million for Mexico, with similar provisions.

At the 47th US-Mexico Interparliamentary Commission, held June 6 in Monterrey, Mexican politicians from all of the three leading parties protested the imposition of human rights conditions on the aid package as patronizing and hypocritical.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT) stuck up for Mexico’s rejection of human rights conditions. “Our friends in Mexico needed to vent and explain how this issue was not handled well,” the senator told a reporter. “Anything that smacks of certification is a nonstarter.” Dodd was likewise a champion of Plan Colombia back in 2000, and critics point out that he was a big donation recipient from United Technologies, the Connecticut-based company that produces the Blackhawk helicopter—several of which were provided to Bogotá under the aid package.

Later in June, the House and Senate worked out a compromise that reduced the human rights conditions to a consultative process between Mexico and the US. The “conditions” were downgraded to “guidelines.” This concretely meant that the amount of the aid which can be withheld was reduced from 25% to 15%.

Under pressure from US human rights and labor activists—who openly called the initiative “Plan Mexico”—Congress officially expressed concern about specific claims of rights abuses, such as the harsh repression of 2006 protests in Oaxaca.

In a propaganda piece plugging the Merida Initiative, Ray Walser of the right-wing Heritage Foundation was quick to dismiss the analogy with Plan Colombia: “Unlike Plan Colombia, which helped to rescue Colombia from the throes of a narco-war, the Merida Initiative will provide assistance in equipment, technology, and training without a significant US military footprint in Mexico.”

The RAND Corporation took a more distanced view, writing in an analysis after the passage of the Merida Initiative:

In Colombia, strategic cooperation and large amounts of U.S. aid failed to stem the production of narcotics. Nearly two-thirds of global cocaine continues to be produced in Colombia. Yet it is undeniable that Plan Colombia, an eight-year strategic initiative providing $6 billion in U.S. aid, succeeded in depriving the FARC rebels of drug profits by strengthening the Colombian military and police to target violent traffickers. While trafficking itself remains a problem, Colombia is no longer in danger of becoming either a “failed state” or an anemic, low-growth quasi-democracy—an outcome that is yet possible for Mexico.

There was no doubt of the urgency of Mexico’s crisis. The near-daily assassinations, along with the cartels’ growing habit of decapitating their victims and issuing threats using posters and the Internet, “have a clear objective to intimidate, frighten, paralyze society and, with that, force the federal government to retreat,” said Government Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino. He hailed the approval of the aid package as “a concrete expression of the principle of shared responsibility” in the drug war.

The US released the first $197 million of the $400 million package in December. At a signing ceremony in Mexico City, US Ambassador Tony Garza called the package “the most significant effort ever undertaken” by the US and Mexico to fight drugs. Carlos Rico, Mexico’s undersecretary for North American affairs, expressed his confidence that the Barack Obama administration will remain committed to the program, and that any human rights concerns can be resolved.

But US leaders were soon discussing the Initiative in terms certain to alarm Mexican nationalists. President Barack Obama was briefed March 7 by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen about Mexico’s drug wars. “They have an urgent need,” Mullen told reporters as he returned from his first official visit to Mexico, adding that tactics used against militant networks in Iraq and Afghanistan need to be employed in Mexico: “They need intelligence support, capabilities and tactics that have evolved for us in our fight against networks in the terrorist world. There are an awful lot of similarities.”

During his meetings with Mexico’s military leadership, Mullen said he discussed how Washington could help in the battle against the cartels, especially citing “ISR,” for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—a term that often refers to the use of unmanned drones.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, speaking in back-to-back hearings of his committee and the Homeland Security Subcommittee March 10, said the Defense Department must make Mexico as big a priority as Afghanistan. Lewis asserted, “one of our problems is that the Department of Defense somehow puts Afghanistan ahead of the challenges on the Mexican border.”

Officials from Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection bureau defended the success of border security measures. Officials said the escalating cartel violence in Mexico is evidence that the US border security plan is working. “They are fighting for territory,” Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said of the drug cartels.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) thanked Aguilar for his service: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what all of you do. You truly are in our prayers on a daily basis. You’re on the front lines of an undeclared war unlike any we’ve ever seen on the southern border probably since 1916.”

Elaborating on the 1916 reference, Culberson said: “I think we are at the point today that we need to send the Black Jack Pershing into the Southern United States and put it in command of a true, fast-reaction military force that can move up and down that border on the US side.” Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing led an expedition into Mexico with 10,000 troops to hunt down Pancho Villa after the famous revolutionary had carried out a raid across the US border.

Meanwhile, some 7,000 Mexican soldiers and federal police arrived in Ciudad Juárez in a bid to restore order amid an escalating bloody turf war between rival drug cartels. In what some called Mexico’s internal “surge,” masked soldiers patrolled the streets in long convoys of military vehicles, throwing up checkpoints.

Weeks later, a delegation of political leaders from Juárez and the state of Chihuahua visited Colombia, where they won commitments from the Colombian government to send National Police officers to train the Chihuahua police.

As in Colombia, where the military’s collaboration with the ostensibly outlawed paramilitaries remains a source of controversy, there appears to be a degree of inter-penetration between Mexico’s security forces and drug cartels. The notorious May 16, 2009 jailbreak at a state prison in Zacatecas was but the latest in a string of incidents in which apparent cartel paramilitary forces wore the uniforms of elite federal police agencies. Footage from security cameras show that a convoy of 17 vehicles, backed by a helicopter, approached Cieneguillas state prison, meeting no resistance from guards. About 30 men—some in the uniforms of the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI) and Federal Preventive Police (PFP)—entered the facility, rounded up 53 prisoners, loaded them into the cars and sped away. Most of the escapees were said to be affiliated with the Zetas.

A 2008 year-end report by the Pentagon’s Joint Forces Command named two countries as likely candidates for a “rapid and sudden collapse”: Pakistan and Mexico. The report, code-named JOE 2008 (for Joint Operating Environment), stated: “In terms of worse-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico. The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and press by criminal gangs and drug cartels. How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state.”

In a RAND study released nearly simultaneously with the Pentagon report, “Could Mexico Fail?,” analyst Brian Michael Jenkins explicitly invoked the memory of the Revolution. Read the abstract:

The Mexican Revolution, from 1910 to 1920, engulfed the entire border region, and political turmoil in Mexico precipitated a crime wave in the United States. Thus, current concerns about the growing lawlessness in northern Mexico and its consequences for U.S. national security are not without precedent.

As President-elect Barack Obama and President George Bush met Jan. 12 in Washington with Mexican President Felipe CalderĂłn, Gen. (ret.) Barry McCaffrey—who as President Bill Clinton’s drug czar was a key architect of Plan Colombia—held a press conference to issue dire warnings: “Mexico is on the edge of the abyss—it could become a narco-state in the coming decade… However, President CalderĂłn and Mexico’s senior leadership have launched a serious attempt to reclaim the rule of law from the chaos of the drug cartels.” McCaffrey called for increased US military aid to Mexico, calling the Merida Initiative “a drop in the bucket compared to what was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan ($700 billion to date). We cannot afford to have a narco-state as a neighbor.”

Mexican officials were quick to deny the ominous claims. Mexican President Felipe CalderĂłn labeled talk of his country’s collapse as “false, absurd,” and challenged the US to clean up its own act by curbing drug use and arms trafficking.

The US Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dennis Blair, speaking to reporters in Washington March 26, also downplayed the notion that narco-violence has brought Mexico to the brink of collapse: “Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. Repeat that. Mexico is in no danger of becoming a failed state. The violence we see now is the result of Mexico taking action against the drug cartels… The Mexican campaign is our campaign.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also clearly had mending fences in mind on her trip to Mexico that week. In Mexico City, at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Espinosa, Clinton said: “We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States, that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States to Mexico. We see this as a responsibility to assist the Mexican government and people.” Clinton also joined Public Security Secretary Genaro GarcĂ­a Luna for a visit to the Federal District’s new Iztapalapa headquarters for Mexico’s Federal Preventative Police, where she was briefed on missions undertaken by US-supplied Blackhawk helicopters.

The Obama administration has requested $66 million in additional 2009 assistance to Mexico through the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program (INCLE). The bill passed by the House of Representatives in May actually goes well beyond this request. It would provide Mexico with $470 million: $160 million in INCLE funding and $310 million in military and police aid through Foreign Military Financing (FMF). If the House version of the bill is approved, Mexico would surpass Colombia as the Western Hemisphere’s top recipient of US military and police aid.

The Andean Regional Initiative: Bolivia, Ecuador break ranks
There is a sense of deja vu here. Upon taking office in 2001, President George Bush inherited the $1.6 billion five-year Plan Colombia aid package, which had been passed the previous year. But he immediately expanded the program to include coordinated aid packages for Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Dubbed the Andean Regional Initiative, this program incorporated Plan Colombia.

Speaking to a House subcommittee in 2004, Robert B. Charles, assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, called the Andean Regional Initiative “a bulwark against the threat of terrorism in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru… In short, it is a regional hemispheric and national security program, with direct implications, for homeland security and for our well being here in the continental United States… In Colombia, and elsewhere in the hemisphere, the link between drug money and terrorism is incontrovertible.”

But before the Colombian model could be replicated throughout the Andes, Washington’s design succumbed to the wave of change sweeping the South American continent—especially the 2005 election of an Aymara coca grower as South America’s first indigenous president: Evo Morales of the Movement to Socialism (MAS).

In 2008, Morales expelled the DEA from Bolivian territory, charging that the agency was actually involved in the drug traffic, and “did not respect the police, or even the [Bolivian] armed forces.” In January 2009, Bolivian voters approved a new constitution that explicitly recognizes coca leaf as a cultural heritage of the country’s indigenous peoples.

Morales, in Washington for an OAS meeting last November, drew parallels between himself and US President-elect Barack Obama, and said he looked forward to improved relations—but added: “The DEA will not return while I am still president.”

The 2006 election of the populist Rafael Correa similarly drew a halt to that country’s integration into the ARI. Correa quickly made it clear that he would not renew the US Southern Command’s 10-year usage rights for Manta air base when they expire in 2009. In September 2008, Ecuadoran voters approved a new constitution expressly forbidding foreign military bases.

Bolivia and Ecuador are slated to receive $30 million and $7 million, respectively, under the State Department’s Andean Counterdrug Initiative in FY 2009—but with a greater emphasis on non-military aspects of the program than in previous years.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its 2008 annual report found a “shock” rise in coca production in Colombia of 27% in the previous year. By contrast, coca cultivation was up 5% in Bolivia and 4% in Peru. In contrast to the situation 20 years ago, when Bolivia led world production, Bolivia was now the third producer after Colombia and Peru. This was, to say the least, counterintuitive news for Plan Colombia’s supporters.

In the UNODC’s annual report for 2009, the agency did register an 18% decline in Colombian coca cultivation—partially offset by continued rises in Bolivia and Peru. But this still represents a significant net gain since Plan Colombia took effect.

Meanwhile, the human rights situation in Colombia remains grave. Amnesty International’s 2008 annual report on Colombia found: “All parties to the 40-year-old conflict committed violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity… Fewer people were killed by paramilitary groups than in previous years. However, reports of killings of civilians by the security forces rose… The number of people forced to flee their homes by the conflict also rose.”

Peru follows militarized model
The turn-around that brought the post-populist Alan GarcĂ­a back to power in Peru after 16 years out of office in 2006 has done nothing to slow Peru’s advancement on the militarized ARI model. With Peru and Colombia now the only full-fledged members left, the ARI name was dropped after 2004, although aid to Peru continued to be administrated through the Andean Counterdrug Initiative.

Indeed, in Peru’s Andean interior, a new counterinsurgency campaign has emerged in the past year, redolent of the dark days of the ’80s and early ’90s, when the nation was convulsed by a brutal struggle with the Shining Path guerillas.

In March 2009, local human rights groups reported that more than 300 families were displaced from their lands by the armed forces’ “Plan Excelencia 777,” launched earlier that month to take control of Vizcatán zone, considered a stronghold of narco-trafficking and “terrorist” organizations—meaning resurgent Shining Path remnants—in the Valley of the ApurĂ­mac and Ene Rivers (VRAE). The reports were denied by the armed forces. But Nolberto Lamilla of the AsociaciĂłn Paz y Esperanza in Ayacucho, the regional capital, told the local media that arbitrary detainments and even “disappearances” by the military had residents in a state of fear.

Guerillas killed at least 26 people in Peru in 2008, including 22 soldiers and police officers—the bloodiest year since the late 1990s. In 2007, the latest year for which data is available, coca cultivation in Peru increased by 4%, the highest level in a decade. Estimated cocaine production rose to a 10-year high of some 290 tons.

In October 2008, forensic examinations determined that five bodies found in Ayacucho’s remote RĂ­o Seco village were relations of a peasant woman who reported the disappearance of 11 family members after the National Police had conducted a “counter-subversive” operation in the area. The bodies are reportedly those of the woman’s husband, brothers and a sister-in-law, who had been pregnant. Two children and four adults remained missing. Ironically, some of the disappeared were apparently members of the rondas, a peasant self-defense militia established to defend local communities against Shining Path attack at the height of the insurgency.

Peruvian opposition Congress members called for a special commission to investigate the disappearances, and the national human rights ombudsman sent a team of investigators to RĂ­o Seco. The disappearances took place while US troops were in Ayacucho on an ostensible “humanitarian” mission, building clinics and schools. This occasioned much speculation in Peru’s press that Washington is seeking military bases in the country—which was denied by the US embassy.

Ominously, the violence is re-emerging just as forensic investigations are underway in Ayacucho region, investigating atrocities carried out by the security forces in the bloody struggle with the Shining Path in the ’80s and early ’90s. An exhumation in the village of Huanta in March 2009 revealed the remains of 49 people from a mass grave—victims of a massacre by the Peruvian armed forces in 1984.

The US currently provides Peru with some $100 million in aid annually. The DEA maintains vigorous operations in the country.

There is the potential that Peru will follow Bolivia and Ecuador out of the US orbit. At a People’s Summit in Lima last May, Peru’s indigenous organizations launched a new alliance to defend their collective rights—and win power in the 2011 presidential elections. The National Association of Peruvian Coca Producers (CONPACCP) has already launched a political party, Kuska (“united” in the Quechua language), with a support base in the VRAE, where it has won mayoral elections in seven municipalities.

The Merida Initiative thus closes a grim circle. In the years since NAFTA was passed, the narco economy and attendant violence have exploded horrifically in Mexico, with the drug trade filling the economic vacuum created by the dropping of traditional public supports for the country’s campesino sector. Just as Mexico is adopting a militarized “anti-drug” program based on Plan Colombia, Colombia is moving towards a free trade agreement with Washington based on NAFTA. Peru signed a similar agreement last year. It remains to be seen if the Obama administration will wake up to the vicious cycle seemingly at work here.

Plan Colombia as model for Afghanistan
In recent years, Pentagon planners have come to see Colombia as a model for their war across the planet in Afghanistan. Despite obvious differences—an arid rather than lush terrain, and the ultra-conservative Taliban insurgency rather than ostensibly leftist FARC guerilla movement—there is a clear parallel between the two countries. In both, illicit crops—opium in Afghanistan—provide both a source of funds for the insurgency and a means of winning peasant loyalties: protecting growers from government eradication efforts. In both, the US has nonetheless aggressively pushed for eradication.

In 2007, the US brought in a corps of Colombian National Police to train the Afghan police force’s National Interdiction Unit (NIU) in counter-narcotics tactics. The exchange was worked out after Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics minister Habibullah Qaderi visited Bogotá in 2005—with US encouragement. A spokesperson for the US embassy in Bogotá told the BBC that the “educational exchanges had fostered greater co-operation and understanding in countering global drug-trafficking.”

Just as the training program got underway, the Washington appointed its ambassador in Bogotá, William Wood, as its new envoy to Afghanistan.

Gen. Peter Pace, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his comment on the exchange, said Afghanistan could learn from Colombian social projects aimed at breaking the hold of the rural narco economy, and demobilization of illegal paramilitaries. “I think those kinds of outreach programs by the Colombian government are good models for President Karzai to consider as he looks at how to reduce the amount of drug trafficking in his country and promote instability,” he told reporters in Bogotá.

But the US applied more pressure for Afghanistan to adopt a more controversial aspect of Plan Colombia—the aerial spraying of herbicide to eradicate drug crops. Even as the Colombian training program in Afghanistan was getting underway, President Hamid Karzai rebuffed Washington’s proposal for a program to spray poppy fields. Karzai voiced his concern for the health impacts, and the destruction of legal crops.

Karzai’s Counter-narcotics Ministry issued a statement that “traditional techniques” would be used for eradication—that is, sending teams of laborers backed up by NIU agents to trample and plough under the crop. However, an unnamed US official told Reuters he believed Karzai would agree to spraying if manual eradication failed to cut production.

In 2004, US-contracted aircraft apparently did a test run for the fumigation program, secretly spraying a placebo of plastic granules over poppy fields in Afghanistan to gauge public reaction. The test spray sparked harsh protests from poor farmers, tribal chiefs and government officials up to President Karzai, who demanded to know details of the incident. US officials up to the level of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad denied any knowledge.

Speaking to McClatchy news service, US officials declined to identify the agency that oversaw the test spraying, but noted that the State Department oversees counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan (as well as the spray program in Colombia). The department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement declined to comment.

Today, there are signals that the Obama administration is reconsidering an aggressive eradication strategy for Afghanistan. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke, speaking at the opening of the G8 meeting in Italy in June, said the eradication policy has been “a failure” and that crop-substitution programs should be pursued instead.

“Spraying the crops just penalizes the farmer, and they grow crops somewhere else,” Holbrooke said. “The hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on crop eradication has not had any damage on the Taliban. On the contrary, it has helped them recruit.”

But aggressive eradication and (largely ineffectual) crop-substitution programs have co-existed in Colombia for years; peasants in inaccessible regions have no means of getting legal crops to market, while drug lords helpfully pick up illicit harvests themselves. The White House Drug Czar’s office admits: “The remote location and rugged terrain of poppy growing areas are major obstacles to establishing crop-substitution programs.”

The Colombian government’s recent gains against the FARC—coupled with the current US reversals in Afghanistan—have led Pentagon leaders to return to the theme of replicating Plan Colombia in the Hindu Kush. “I think many of us from all over the world can learn from what has happened with respect to the very successful developments of Plan Colombia,” Adm. Mullen said this March. “As in all plans, there are parts of it that would be very applicable in other parts of the world and specifically to Afghanistan…”

Unfortunately, “success” against the FARC in Colombia has not been reflected in an improvement in the country’s human rights climate. Amnesty International in its most recent annual report on the country noted: “Fewer people were killed by paramilitary groups than in previous years. However, reports of killings of civilians by the security forces rose… The number of people forced to flee their homes by the conflict also rose.”


This article first appeared July 9 on NACLA News.

From our Daily Report:

US signs military base plan with Colombia
World War 4 Report, Oct. 31, 2009

US military bases for Peru?
World War 4 Report, Sept. 4, 2009

Leahy blocks State Department rights report on Mexico
World War 4 Report, Aug. 9, 2009

Colombia to train Baja California state police
World War 4 Report, July 6, 2009

US shifts Afghan opium strategy
World War 4 Report, July 28, 2009

See also:

by Kent Paterson, Frontera NorteSur
World War 4 Report, June 2009

by Daniel Leal Diaz, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, January 2005

See related story, this issue:

The Free-Trade Roots of Mexico’s Narco Crisis—And Philadelphia’s
by Kent Paterson, Frontera NorteSur
World War 4 Report, November 2009


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, November 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution