A leading source for news and analysis about Mexico and the U.S.-Mexican border.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden and what his death may mean for Mexico

chapo guzman mugSome speculate most-wanted man now could be "El Chapo" Guzmán;
it is more likely to be al-Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, however

osama bin laden mug


By David Gaddis Smith

Ten years ago, Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda was aiming for the "big enchilada" — a comprehensive migration reform package with the U.S. — when the Sept. 11 attacks happened. Although President Bush and other U.S. officials already were applying the brakes on Castañeda's idea, the Sept. 11 attacks — masterminded by Osama bin Laden — ensured that such reform was not going to happen anytime soon. Ironically, the attacks occurred just days after President George W. Bush's state dinner for President Vicente Fox.

The attacks brought about a tsunami of change in U.S. border security. This in turn helped bring about a situation where many Americans seem unable to distinguish between Mexicans seeking a better livelihood and terrorists bent on attacking the United States. President Barack Obama is continuing the security push, making immigration reform appear to be far on the horizon. The reaction of Osama bin Laden's followers to his death in Pakistan on Monday, and their short- and long-term effect on security measures, remains to be seen.

Mexico was of at least two minds in responding to the Sept. 2001 attacks. Many Mexicans responded immediately in a positive way in the United States' hour of need. Interior Minister Santiago Creel made a huge mistake in withholding support to the United States, following Mexico's isolationist tradition. Creel's reaction even may have contributed to his unexpected loss to Felipe Calderón for the National Action Party nomination for president in 2005. Had Creel won the nomination, one wonders whether he could have come close to defeating Andrés Manuel López Obrador, as so many things had to go just right for Calderón for him to win (although a number of those factors had to do with López Obrador's vanity and hubris.) One wonders what Creel's reaction to Sept. 11 might mean in his renewed quest for the PAN nomination for the 2012 race.

Bin Laden and Mexico parallels?

The United States did not work directly with bin Laden when the Saudi Arabian moved to Pakistan to help push the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. But the U.S. did work with other mujahedeen who worked along with bin Laden. The skills the mujahedeen, bin Laden and others learned then were turned against the West.

Mexico has at least one parallel case, that of the Caste War of the Yucatan, where Mexican elites battling for control of the state armed Mayan Indian campesinos to fight against the other side. The campesinos then used the fighting skills they learned against the government in a long-running war from 1847 to 1901.

And, come to think about it, the Zetas trained by the Mexican military and now working for drug traffickers or running drug operations themselves (and massacring migrants and innocents) and the police trained by the government who have also gone over to the other side seem to also qualify in this category. Once you have given someone military or law-enforcement training, how do you keep them on your side?

Since Sept. 11, the United States has followed a policy of seeking to chase bin Laden and others from their safe havens so that at least a portion of bin Laden and others' time was spent on protecting their rear ends, reducing the amount of time they could devote to plotting harm to the United States and its allies. The results in terms of catching bin Laden were a long time coming. While there have been major terror attacks since Sept. 11, none has been in the United States. Unfortunately, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have caused major collateral damage, to Americans, allies and the residents of those countries. Still, that is part of the price of war.

In Mexico, although drug trafficking groups are not terror organizations bent on taking over the government, they sometimes act like terrorists, beheading their enemies and even massacring innocents, such as has happened in the past year in Tamaulipas state. Mexico also is pursuing a policy of denying safe haven to traffickers, although it often does not seem successful, the capture of major traffickers notwithstanding. Mexico has suffered major collateral damage, where traffickers have killed innocent men, thinking they might be working for their rivals. Civilians have been killed in the crossfire. But can Mexico's next government somehow just tone down the battle with traffickers, as many Mexicans are calling for? Would traffickers and members of organized crime then just lie low and stop killing their rivals? Can Pandora's box be closed? Do you come to a backroom deal with drug traffickers?

chapo guzman wanted posterThe U.S. did not trust Pakistan enough to notify the country that it was going after bin Laden. The U.S. traditionally has had a lack of trust in Mexican authorities, often with good reason, although it has also had some good success after sharing information in recent years. Some commentators have been saying that with bin Laden and Saddam Hussein gone, drug trafficker Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán could become the new ayman al zawahiri mugNo. 1 enemy for the United States. It seems that bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri (right), would be a more likely candidate, and lists for terrorists and drug traffickers are separate. Some Mexicans have long feared a U.S. operation into Mexico; this seems unlikely. However, Page 36 of the Pentagon's 2008 "Joint Operating Environment" study named Pakistan and Mexico as nations whose governments could undergo "rapid collapse." In the case of Mexico, this conclusion was silly, despite drug traffickers' hold on parts of the country and the violence that has ensued since the report was issued. Nevertheless, it certainly can be said that the report got Mexican and U.S. officials' attention to try to correct some major problems that got worse before they got better. (And the report seemed to miss foreseeing the 2011 popular movements in many parts of the Muslim world.) The study also said: "Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone." Some conspiracy theorists think Guzmán might have too much money at stake for that to happen; Forbes magazine keeps putting him on its billionaires' list, to Mexican officialdom's chagrin. (He is tied for 1,140th place, with a net worth of $1 billion. To put that in perspective, Mexico's estimated GDP for 2010 was $1.56 trillion.) It certainly would behoove Calderón to do whatever he can to pull an Obama and bring Guzmán to justice.

UPDATE, May 4: Attorney General Marisela Morales said the capture of Guzmán is a priority. Some call Guzmán "El Capo del PANismo" because Fox and Calderón's National Action Party governments have seemed to have left many of Guzmán's operations, and Guzmán himself, unscathed.

UPDATE, May 7: The Guardian says Guzmán may be most sought-after fugitive now. On the same page: César "El Placa" Villagrana Salazar, said to be Guzmán's operative in Magdalena de Kino, Sonora, has been jailed. Magdalena is the hometown of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate who was assassinated in Tijuana in 1994.

UPDATE, May 9: Guzmán lieutenant Héctor Eduardo "El Güicho" Guajardo Hernández is captured Monday afternoon in Mexicali. Story, El Mexicano.

UPDATE, May 15: Alleged Guzmán operator captured in Colombia.
Héctor Eduardo "El Güicho" Guajardo Hernández remains hospitalized.


Author's note: To demonstrate the continuing power of social media, this author found out about bin Laden's death through Twitter when writers speculated that "El Chapo" Guzmán could now be the United States' most-wanted person.