Reporting from Mexico City — In contrast to their upbeat public assessments, U.S. officials expressed frustration with a "risk averse" Mexican army and rivalries among security agencies that have hampered the Mexican government's war against drug cartels, according to secret U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed Thursday.
The cables quoted Mexican officials expressing fear that the government was losing control of parts of its national territory and that time was "running out" to rein in drug violence.
The cables gave a much starker view of the pitfalls and obstacles facing Mexican President Felipe Calderon, a departure from the public statements of unwavering support that have come out of Washington for most of the 4-year-old war, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives.
Two cables from U.S. Embassy officials in Mexico, one dated January of this year and the other October 2009, praise Calderon for persisting in his campaign to tackle "head on" the powerful cartels that traffic most of the cocaine, heroin and marijuana that reaches the U.S.
But the Mexican president's struggles with "an unwieldy and uncoordinated interagency" law enforcement effort have created the perception that he is failing, the cable dated Jan. 29 said. His inability to halt the violence or contain the rising death toll has become a principal political liability as his public ratings have declined, it said.
The U.S. assessment said Calderon's tools are limited: "Mexican security institutions are often locked in a zero-sum competition in which one agency's success is viewed as another's failure, information is closely guarded, and joint operations are all but unheard of," said the January cable, which is signed by the No. 2 official in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, John D. Feeley, a veteran diplomat with extensive experience in Latin America.
"Official corruption is widespread, leading to a compartmentalized siege mentality among 'clean' law enforcement leaders and their lieutenants," he said. "Prosecution rates for organized crime-related offenses are dismal; 2% of those detained are brought" to trial.
The cables are part of a massive release of thousands of classified documents by the WikiLeaks website that has turned an uncomfortable light on the workings of American diplomacy. The documents involving Mexico are said to number 2,836, and the first were made public Thursday by the Spanish newspaper El Pais.
In the January cable, Feeley goes on to describe serious tensions between the Mexican army — increasingly dogged by allegations of human rights abuse and its inability to stanch violence in Mexico's deadliest city, Ciudad Juarez — and a smaller, more effective navy whose special forces have scored some of the more dramatic victories in the war, including the killing of kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva a year ago.
"Below the surface of military professionalism, there is also considerable tension between" the army and the navy, the diplomat wrote. The army "has come to be seen [as] slow and risk averse even where it should succeed: the mission to capture HVTs" — high-value targets, namely, cartel leaders. "The risk is that the more [the army] is criticized, the more risk averse it will become."
He said U.S. officials would have to convince a demoralized Mexican military that "modernization and not withdrawal" are the way forward and that "transparency and accountability are fundamental to modernization."
The cable was apparently intended as a "scene setter," or advance briefing paper, for a meeting of the Defense Bilateral Working Group that took place Feb. 1 in Washington.
This unvarnished U.S. assessment of the Calderon government's political problems is matched by realities in Mexico that that The Times has portrayed over years of reporting on the drug war.
The Oct. 5, 2009, cable was signed by U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual. It recounts a meeting with several top Calderon security officials, including then-Deputy Interior Minister Geronimo Gutierrez.
Gutierrez is first quoted criticizing delays in the U.S. Merida Initiative, a program that is funneling $1.4 billion in aid to the drug war and to the revamping of Mexico's police and courts.
Then Pascual quotes Gutierrez as saying it was too late for crucial "institution building" to take root in the remainder of the Calderon presidency.
"We have 18 months," the cable quotes Gutierrez as saying, "and if we do not produce a tangible success that is recognizable to the Mexican people, it will be difficult to sustain the confrontation into the next administration."
According to Pascual's report, Gutierrez went on to lament the "pervasive, debilitating fear" that was gripping so much of Mexican society.
"He expressed a real concern with 'losing' certain regions," Pascual wrote. "It is damaging Mexico's international reputation, hurting foreign investment and leading to a sense of government impotence, Gutierrez said."
As The Times has reported, huge swaths of important states that border the United States, such as Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, as well as central drug-producing regions, such as Michoacan (Calderon's home state) and Sinaloa, are controlled by drug cartels that corrupt police forces, dominate city halls, intimidate the public and kill anyone who gets in the way.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Mexico City declined to comment on the contents of the cables or to confirm their authenticity. He said State Department cables in general "reflect the day-to-day analysis and candid assessments that any government engages in," may be preliminary or incomplete and "should not be seen as having standing on their own or as representing U.S. policy."