Wikileaks the High Cost of Drug War

Recently, Wikileaks released a secret cable of 28 October 2009 from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to a variety of U.S. Government departments in Washington. In the cable, a diplomat depicted and described Mexican Defense Secretary Galvan’s attempt to convince other U.S. diplomats and his Mexican cabinet colleagues to introduce martial law in Mexico, in places where violence over drug trafficking has taken hold. The document exposes how high level Mexican government officials — a supportive Defense Minister and lukewarm Interior Minister — argued over suspending fundamental constitutional guarantees such as freedom of assembly and the press to combat drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).

But the document also reveals a U.S. diplomat hard at work, being realistic about the tactics of Mexico’s drug war, and savvy to the country’s fraught constitutional history of dealing with public order through constitutional suspensions and public oversight.

And yet even so, the diplomat suggests that while suspending the constitution is a non-starter, there are less controversial ways to expand Mexico’s presidential authority over the armed forces during peacetime with a bill currently before Congress.

The diplomat briefed the U.S. government on the Mexican response to the Defense Secretary’s desire to suspend certain Constitutional provisions. Defense Minister Galvan lobbied members of the Mexican government, including a reluctant Interior Minister Gomez Mont, for suspension using a multi-pronged argument.

The case the Defense Secretary built rested upon exigent circumstances; these included Juarez’s daily murder rate, and the escalating violence amidst the drug trafficking organizations and government forces. The Defense Secretary suggested the urgency of his task in that current supreme court jurisprudence did not cover the military’s police function as pacifiers. So, to make a case for constitutional suspension, thereby legitimizing the military’s current police work, the Defense Secretary wanted to invoke Article 29 of the Mexican Constitution.

Here’s the English text of the Mexican law that allows for suspension of the country’s constitutional guarantees. Article 29 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 reads:

In the event of invasion, serious disturbance of the public peace, or any other event which may place society in great danger or conflict, only the President of the Mexican Republic, with the consent of the Council of Ministers and with the approval of the Federal Congress, and during adjournments of the latter, of the Permanent Committee, may suspend throughout the country or in a determined place the guarantees which present an obstacle to a rapid and ready combatting of the situation; but he must do so for a limited time, by means of general preventive measures without such suspensions being limited to a specified individual.

Interior Minister Gomez Mont, who did not favor suspension, still insisted to U.S. diplomats that it was not martial law “in the way that you know it” and was designed to respond to the increasing violence in the country. The final part of the Constitutional Article placed Congress in charge of continuous review, in or out of session.

One of the remarkable things about the Wikileak cable is the judicious weighing of different forms of evidence employed by the diplomat. The diplomat states that Mexico rarely in the twentieth century suspended the Constititution. Indeed, the diplomat suggested that suspension did not occur during the 1968 student protests, the 1985 earthquake, the EZLN Rebellion in Chiapas, or the 1996 protests in Oaxaca. If these crises did not meet the level of suspension, how could it pass public muster now, he asked? It wouldn’t, the diplomat responded. And if it failed it would further limit President Calderon’s credibility. International and human rights groups had already offered legitimate critics of the military’s policing of certain municipalities, and suspension would, these critics alleged, worsen the human rights record.

But in describing the situation neither is the U.S. diplomat a benign force. In the composition of this classified cable, he did not fail to point out that the Mexican government had better options on the table than suspension of Article 29. If Article 29 was a political gamble, pushing through legislation on national security that expands the president’s powers over the military, and to designate them as a tool for law and order in regards intelligence gathering, could be seen as necessary for enforcement. The diplomat is careful to point out the benefits of this approach, but also describes significant hostility to any of Calderon’s reforms among high-ranking members of the opposition.

The cable ends with a summing up of the issue: Article 29 would not enrich current strategy. Instead, it should be seen as an attempt by Mexico’s defense community to protect themselves from human rights or other litigation. Indeed, in a notable coincidence, Wikileaks released this cable just as the Inter American Court of Human Rights, ruled against the government in Mexico in a case in which military officials investigated military members who had abused civilian environmental activists. The IACHR declared that Mexico must turn over military to civilian authorities in cases of civilian jurisdiction. Even so, the Government’s subsequent sending of legislation purporting to effectuate this reform has already been declared stillborn by the major human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch. The rumblings from the Defense Secretary suggest that the Mexican military considers itself in a precarious position.