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U.S.-Mexico Relations Complicated, Conditioned By Drug War


In many ways, the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is complicated and conditioned by the long and the bloody war on drugs. It's difficult to say exactly how many people have been killed in that war, but Mexican media have estimated that around 70,000 people have died since 2006; many thousands more have been disappeared. The United States has been closely involved, providing money, technology and intelligence to the Mexican government.

But Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has begun to back away from the U.S. And this week, his administration said they would limit its contacts with American agencies. David Shirk is an associate professor at the University of San Diego. He studies the U.S.-Mexico relationship, and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID SHIRK: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: How closely has the United States been involved?

SHIRK: In the last 12 years, and especially the last six years, have really been a high-water mark in U.S.-Mexico collaboration, particularly on security issues. Levels of trust are so high that we have had the opportunity to fly drones in Mexico, we have agents operating in direct collaboration with their Mexican counterparts, we've seen record levels of extradition. So, the collaboration is at a much higher level of intensity than we've ever seen before - or has been, at least over the last six years or so.

SIMON: And has U.S. involvement been helpful?

SHIRK: That's a great question. I think it has been, depending on what you consider to be success. We have not seen violence go down. We have not necessarily seen the flow of drugs diminish. We have not seen necessarily an overall reduction in corruption in Mexico. But you can look at tactical successes. The dismantling of major organized crime groups, the target of specific organized crime figures has been accomplished over the last several years, thanks to this very high level of collaboration.

SIMON: So, why would President Enrique Pena Nieto be eager to reduce that cooperation?

SHIRK: Well, I'm not sure that the idea is necessarily to reduce collaboration so much as to reshape the dynamics of collaboration. I think that's probably how the Pena Nieto administration would portray this. For one thing, the Pena Nieto administration is trying to move away from the security policies that were employed by the Calderon administration. So, these efforts to go after high-level targets and to dismantle drug-trafficking organizations is diminishing as a priority of the Mexican government. And what they have emphasized instead is promoting citizen security.

I think that the Pena Nieto administration thinks that you had a real problem with the lack of coordination under the Calderon administration. And their idea, in the Pena Nieto government, is to try to tighten up and centralized the mechanisms of coordination and cooperation with the United States. And I think that's a deliberate attempt to vet and control whatever types of cooperation we're going to see between the U.S. and Mexican government.

SIMON: Well, that raises an issue that I think you've even touched on in some of your writings. Has this been, in many ways, a drug war that's been an American war conducted over the border?

SHIRK: I think that there are a lot of people who would agree with that idea. And in some ways, you can see that the drug war, as it's played out over the last 34 years, in particular as a U.S. proxy war. That said, over the last six years, working with Mexico, U.S. officials have consistently tried to let Mexico set the agenda. U.S. officials that I spoke to, repeatedly - and Mexican officials - repeatedly expressed the understanding that Mexico and the United States were working together because they had a shared responsibility to deal with the problem of drug trafficking and organized crime. But I think U.S. officials are really waiting to see whether they will be able to cooperate with the Pena Nieto administration and in what areas. Because there is some sense that the trust and collaboration that was built up over the last six years is at least on hold, if not in recession.

SIMON: It seems to me - I've spoken with Mexicans, who, to deal in shorthand, are sick of the drug wars and sick of the cartels and blame them for thousands of deaths, and yet at the same time, in some ways, they blame Americans for being the market for those drugs.

SHIRK: Yeah, I think that's true. I mean, first of all, I think many Mexicans are tired of having their country portrayed as a lawless, violent and corrupt place. That said, I also think that, for many Mexicans, this incredible fight that they've made over the last six years to try to take on organized crime has not yielded major gains in stopping the flow of drugs in even necessarily breaking down some of the major cartels that operate in Mexico. So, there is a sense that they've made all of this effort and it's primarily to prevent U.S. drug consumers in engaging in an illicit market activity. I think some Mexicans may simply say this is not worth the effort. This is not our fight. Let's let the drug traffickers get back to business as usual and we can get on with our lives.

SIMON: David Shirk is an associate professor at the University of San Diego. Thanks very much for being with us.

SHIRK: Thanks so much for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.