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Mexico Should Make Trump Pay For The Drug War

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

Attention deficit disorder isn’t usually a welcome presidential attribute, but Mexicans can be thankful that Donald Trump has temporarily shifted his focus away from their country to pick fights instead with Iran, the EU, China, California, and the U.S. news media.

The last time Trump addressed Mexico, right after the election, the peso fell 17 percent. Within days of his inauguration, Trump demanded that Mexico pay for a border wall, prompting cancellation of his planned summit meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

As former Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan lamented, “it took only one week of bilateral engagement between the new U.S. administration and Mexico to throw the relationship into a tailspin.” That relationship would be better if Trump had stuck to the view he expressed in November 2015: “I don’t care about Mexico, honestly. I really don’t care about Mexico.”

Someday soon, however, Trump will rediscover his interest in Mexico, and relations will likely suffer again. But Mexico need not take his abuse lying down. As the buyer of more than a quarter trillion dollars in U.S. exports—the second largest market in the world for U.S. goods—Mexico has some leverage if Trump tries to play rough with tariffs and trade.

And if Trump persists in sending a bill to Mexico City for his wall, Peña should seriously consider sending a bill in return to Washington to pay for the U.S. drug war.

The high cost to Mexico of the U.S. “drug war”

For years now, Mexico has paid an extraordinarily high price in lives and social disruption for Washington’s insistence that North America’s drug problem be tackled south of the border, where the drugs are grown and transported, rather than primarily in clinics and halfway houses at home to treat the medical and psychological issues of users.

Successive administrations, starting with President Nixon, have demanded ever tougher border controls, aerial spraying programs, and DEA-backed anti-“cartel” operations in Mexico. All their efforts and sacrifices have been for naught. U.S. residents currently export up to $29 billion in cash to Mexican traffickers each year to buy marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin.

Forcing that trade underground has taken a terrible toll on Mexico in terms of violence, corruption, and social upheaval. Since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón ordered his military to join the “war” on drug traffickers, Mexico has lost about 200,000 lives and 30,000 more have disappeared, dwarfing the civilian death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq over that period.

The majority of them were victims of criminal organizations, but human rights organizations also report soaring rates of human rights violations, including torture and killing, committed by security forces.

The 2016 Global Peace Index, prepared by the Institute for Economics and Peace, estimates the total cost of violence in Mexico at $273 billion, or 14 percent of GDP, with no end in sight. Direct fiscal costs of fighting the war on crime were about $32 billion in 2015 alone. Yet the United States has contributed only about $2.5 billion since fiscal 2008 to Mexico’s drug war, under the so-called “Merida Initiative.”

Mexico’s pain shows no signs of easing. New York Times reported in December that Mexico suffered more than 17,000 homicides in the first 10 months of last year, the highest total since 2012. “The relapse in security has unnerved Mexico and led many to wonder whether the country is on the brink of a bloody, all-out war between criminal groups,” it said.

Time for an alternative

In his last phone call with Mexican President Peña, Trump reportedly complained, “You have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with. We are willing to help with that big-league, but they have to be knocked out and you have not done a good job knocking them out.” According to one disputed account, Trump threatened to send U.S. troops south of the border if Mexico doesn’t do more to stop the drug problem.

Peña can continue to do Washington’s bidding, ensuring his political demise, or he can challenge Trump by asking why Mexico should fight North America’s drug war on its own soil and at its own expense. If he goes the latter route, he’ll have plenty of good company.

Former heads of state from Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, along with other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, have called for “normalization” of drugs—eliminating black markets and incentives for violence by legalizing individual possession and cultivation of drugs while instituting public health regulations. They note that such programs have succeeded admirably in Portugal and the Netherlands at reducing both the criminal and public health costs of drug abuse.

“The harms created through implementing punitive drug laws cannot be overstated when it comes to both their severity and scope,” they assert in their 2016 report, “Advancing Drug Policy Reform. “Thus, we need new approaches that uphold the principles of human dignity, the right to privacy and the rule of law, and recognize that people will always use drugs. In order to uphold these principles all penalties— both criminal and civil—must be abolished for the possession of drugs for personal use.”

Support for decriminalization is growing in Mexico, where the supreme court in 2015 approved growing and smoking marijuana for personal use. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox now advocates legalizing all drugs over a transition period of up to a decade.

Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister, recently opined, “Mexico should take advantage of California’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana. Regardless of Mr. Trump’s victory, the approval of the proposition in the United States’ most populous state makes Mexico’s war on drugs ridiculous. What is the purpose of sending Mexican soldiers to burn fields, search trucks and look for narco-tunnels if, once our marijuana makes it into California, it can be sold at the local 7-Eleven?”

Critics rightly point out that what works in the Netherlands won’t necessarily solve Mexico’s problems. Its powerful drug gangs have diversified into a host of other violent criminal enterprises. They control territory, intimidate or corrupt law enforcement, and kill with impunity. Legalizing drug sales won’t end their criminal ways, but it could erode their profits and let police focus on universally despised crimes with direct victims—murder, kidnapping, extortion, and the like.

As Mexican journalist José Luis Pardo Veiras remarked last year, “Decriminalizing drug use will not fix a deeply rooted problem in this country, but it will allow Mexicans to differentiate between drugs and the war on drugs, between drug users and drug traffickers. This is the first step in acknowledging that a different approach is possible.”

As for Trump, let him build his wall and see if that keeps out all the drugs. If not, maybe by then Mexico will be able to offer some useful advice on how to fight the drug problem not with guns, but with more enlightened policies.

Jonathan Marshall is an independent scholar and journalist.

IMAGE: Wiki Commons

6 Countries Trump Has Already Insulted And Provoked

Two weeks into Donald Trump’s belligerent presidency, one must ask: Where will this administration’s launch its first serious international conflict?

The White House’s announcement Friday of narrow economic sanctions against Iran, in response to its dumb test firing of a missile, came after Trump made it sound like Iran had done something outsized and horrific. It hadn’t. Still, the president tweeted hours before announcing the sanctions, “Iran is playing with fire” and, “They don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”

Diplomats and foreign policy experts see an emerging pattern of needless spats, provocations and threats coming from Trump, and they’ve already labeled it. “I think we are just facing a normal Trump tantrum,” Graham Richardson, a senior cabinet minister in a previous Australian government, told Sky News, in response to Trump’s telephone tirade with the prime minister of one of the U.S.’ most loyal allies. Apparently, Trump hit the roof when he learned that the Obama administration had promised to take 1,250 war refugees stranded offshore in Australia—if they passed U.S. federal immigration review.

But Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, just as Mexico’s president did days earlier, covered for Trump,  saying, no, the U.S. president didn’t hang up on him. Mexico’s presidential spokesman said no, Trump didn’t threaten a military invasion—rather he offered troops to combat crime. This is what seasoned diplomats do, when bulls stampede in the china shop.

“None of this is normal,” Dan Nexon, a professor at Georgetown University who studies American global strategy, told Vox. “It’s not just that the president is apparently acting like a petulant bully with these people. It’s also that it’s for no obvious policy purpose.”

Actually, Trump is doing what he pledged to do during his campaign—shake up all the old systems by injecting chaos and instability.

“We must as a nation be more unpredictable,” he said last summer in his major foreign policy address at the Center for the National Interest. Trump’s complaints about foreign policy—then and now—are the same. The U.S. is overextended with allies taking advantage of us, not paying a fair share, think we’re unreliable, and rivals do not respect us, Trump said. “We’re getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world.”

Here’s a list of six countries and major international institutions that Trump and his team have threatened—injecting anything but stability into international affairs. Certainly this behavior is silly, unnecessary, and stupid. The question is, will these provocations and others to likely follow lead to serious new international conflict.

1. Iran. The Iranian decision to test-fire a ballistic missile this week was an example of the dumb provoking the dumb. Trump took the bait and tweeted early Friday, “Iran is playing with fire.” That reply came two days after his administration put Iran “on notice” about its missile tests and its support of terrorism. While Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted Friday that his country was unmoved by U.S. threats and would never initiate a war, Trump’s martial hardliner, National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn, preposterously claimed that the Islamic Republic was still a major threat to the United States. “Iran’s senior leadership continues to threaten the United Stated and its allies,” his statement released by the White House said. “The days of turning a blind eye to Iran’s hostile and belligerent actions toward the United States and the world community are over.”

2. North Korea. Here, too, the Trump administration is saber rattling with an isolated nuclear-armed regime that likes to flash its teeth, and drawing eye-for-an-eye lines in the sand. The new Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, on his first trip abroad since taking over the Pentagon, visited South Korea and Japan, and as with Iran, said that North Korea was a bad actor continuing to “engage in threatening rhetoric and behavior.” Speaking to the press before meeting South Korea’s defense minister, he said, “Any attack on the United States or our allies will be defeated and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.”

3. China. Here, Trump’s administration isn’t just making eye-for-an-eye threats, they are throwing the first punch. During his confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson called for a more confrontational stance on China’s expansion of military bases off their coast in the South China Sea. “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed,” he said. That came after the president-elect spoke to Taiwan’s president, provoking China, and scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which lessens the clout the U.S. has in the region. “By preemptively eliminating tools like economic statecraft from its foreign-policy toolbox, the Trump administration will be leaving itself with only hard power to counteract China’s ambitions,” ForeignPolicy.com wrote. “That would probably mean an attempted military blockade against the Chinese navy in the South China Sea.”

4. Mexico. Trump’s attacks against Mexico and its people are too numerous to recount, starting with his early campaign slurs smearing Mexicans and continuing with recent boasts about forcing the country to pay for a new border wall, which it has consistently dismissed. But last week, this needlessly fraught relationship took a darker turn when Trump threatened Mexican president Peña Nieto with sending U.S. troops over the border to fight crime, according to leaked transcripts of the phone call. “Trump threatened to send U.S. troops into Mexico to stop ‘bad hombres down there’” said the Los Angeles Times. Immediately afterward, the White House and the Mexican president’s office walked that back, saying no such threat was made—the predictable diplomatic and public relations damage control response. On the other hand, the Mexican president canceled his January 30 meeting with Trump, after Trump kept saying the U.S. would build a wall and Mexico would pay for it.

5. Australia. Trump’s executive order ending U.S. commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership has left U.S. allies in the region, especially Japan and Australia, reeling as they saw it as a withdrawal of U.S. power from the region. As he did in his conversation with Mexico’s president, Trump went ballistic in a phone call last weekend with Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, apparently because he did not know about Obama’s pledge to resettle 1,250 refugees. Trump called it “the worst deal ever,” according to news reports. Later, he tweeted angrily about it, prompting Turnbull to downplay the incident and a former cabinet member there to label it “a normal Trump tantrum.” Obviously, the U.S. is not going to incite a dispute with Australia, a key military and intelligence ally, especially when it’s picking fights with nearby China. But yet another kneejerk and dumb reaction is hardly going to lower the temperature in the region.

6. Germany. This is another example of Trump’s team needlessly provoking a key ally. Trump, of course, supported Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, which does not help that continent achieve more economic and social stability. But his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, went after Germany and accused it of being a currency manipulator, by gaming the euro’s value to “exploit” the U.S. dollar. This is the diplomatic equivalent of an ambush. Allies don’t expect their longtime partners to wage these fights in public and this has a cost that’s going to hurt the U.S., because, as in the case in the Pacific, the perception is this American administration is withdrawing and cannot be trusted.

Words Have Meaning and Actions Have Consequences.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the world is watching Trump, and apart from Russia—where Trump is portrayed in the press as their new best friend—is not impressed.

On Tuesday this week, the European Council president Donald Tusk sent a letter to the heads of European Union member states with deep misgivings about Trump. Tusk cited Trump questioning NATO’s value, applauding Britain’s exit from the EU, saying other countries might want to leave to reclaim “their own identity,” and that the EU was a “vehicle for Germany” to assert its power.

Trump has also lashed out at the United Nations, threatening to cut U.S. funding there and for other global organizations by 40 percent. However imperfect the U.N. may be, shrinking it would undermine its peacekeeping and international cooperation efforts. Trump’s advisers have also said they want to walk away from international climate change treaties, which will lead to more—not less—global instability.

Two weeks into his administration, Trump is the proverbial bull in the diplomatic china shop. But his provocations and precedents are serious and are likely to lead to a conflict somewhere that cooler heads would avoid. Writing for Foreign Policy, Stephen Martin Walt, an American professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who describes himself as a realist, said Trump has already blown it, is offending people in every direction, and he doesn’t get it.

“They started to pick several fights with China while undercutting the U.S. position in Asia,” he wrote. “He badgered Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in an acrimonious phone call—and here we are talking about the leader of the country that has fought at America’s side in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—and he bragged (again) about his electoral win. They picked another pointless fight with Mexico, mostly because Trump can’t admit what is obvious to all: If that stupid wall ever gets built, Americans will have to pay for it. The White House announced an unlawful ban on Muslim immigrants, and rolled the new policy out as ineptly as possible. I mean, seriously: They shut the door on hundreds of extensively vetted refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day (thereby invoking memories of the country’s callous response to Nazi persecution in the 1930s), and then they doubled-down by deliberately excluding any mention of Jews from the official statement on the day itself.”

The question is not if, but when and where will Trump’s first serious conflict strike?

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights.

IMAGE: President Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, at the Homeland Security headquarters.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Why U.S.-Mexican Relations Are On The Brink

Reprinted with permission from the Truman National Security Project.

Like so many previously held assumptions, the assumed alliance and cooperation between the United States and Mexico is being tested, if not toppled. Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto is confronted with an unapologetic Trump ready to tear up the 23-year old North America Trade Agreement (NAFTA), deport millions of illegal Mexican immigrants, and build his wall.  Indeed, Mexico faces a quandary in how to deal with a new U.S. President who intends to make good on his campaign promises.

Until recently, Peña Nieto has approached Trump with the old sense of cooperation, having received Trump for a meeting and photo-op in Mexico last August (despite the very obvious negative impact on his approval ratings at home) and stating that he seeks dialogue with Trump. He even listed his own goals for talks with Trump in Washington, including the humane treatment of Mexican migrants, preservation of free trade in North America, and building bridges not walls—all of which diverge dramatically from Trump’s agenda. But then Peña Nieto canceled his Washington visit in an extraordinary, high stakes move that publicly pits himself against Trump.

For his part, Trump has approached Mexico as a country he can steamroll. His campaign preyed on the prejudices and economic maladies of rural and Rust Belt Americans, who wanted a reason to explain why their America no longer feels like it’s theirs and an enemy to blame for the loss of jobs—no matter that many more American jobs have been lost to robots rather than to Mexico. But Trump believes he can mitigate their pain by targeting others, and in this case, Mexico has served as his piñata. He continues to claim Mexico will pay for the wall, without recognizing that Mexico poses multiple layers of economic and security challenges that extend far beyond any wall he could possibly build.

Tearing up NAFTA wholesale and imposing a 20% tariff on Mexican imports to pay for the wall would be disastrous for both the U.S. and Mexican economies. The United States trades approximately $1 trillion a year with Mexico and Canada, and the interconnectedness of the three economies since the implementation of NAFTA cannot be overstated. It is also worth noting that Canada and Mexico are the top two export destinations for the United States, and according to the U.S. Trade Representative, American exports to Mexico account for approximately $236 billion a year. If NAFTA is torn up, U.S. companies would lose out alongside the Mexican and Canadian companies.

Meanwhile, deporting millions of Mexican immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for years—for some of them, their whole life—would be logistically impossible, cost prohibitive, and inhumane. The cause and effect relationship of jobs and immigration must be highlighted as well: Trump cannot expect to dismantle NAFTA without causing a dramatic impact on the Mexican economy and security, and thus increasing the likelihood for a massive surge in illegal migration to the United States in the coming years.

Building a wall along the 2,000-mile border is equally untenable and unnecessary, particularly as many portions of the border cut through inaccessible terrain. Trump has already signed an Executive Order to begin construction on the wall, but it is also a poor use of funds that could go toward more modern and enhanced technologies for border protection, training and equipment for additional border patrol guards on both sides, and better intelligence capabilities. These advancements can more successfully thwart not just the illegal flow of migrants across the border, but also the illegal flow of drugs, weapons, and money.

All of these issues are roiling Mexico’s politics as well as its economy. Mexico has already endured the Trump effect with the fall in the peso, and with presidential elections in Mexico slated for 2018, there will be much ado about Peña Nieto and the ruling Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party’s handling of Trump and the economy. No doubt, a multitude of candidates will emerge in 2017 to tap into Mexican nationalism, leaving the possibility that an extreme left-wing candidate like Andrés Manuel López Obrador will gain widespread support.

We need to bring U.S.-Mexican relations back from the brink. The best case scenario moving forward would be a tough resolve to preserve and protect U.S.-Mexican relations and negotiate a way forward on trade, immigration, and border security, all without laying us bare to a major economic, political, and security crisis in Mexico. Modernizing and improving certain terms of the trade agreement, deporting those illegal immigrants who have committed criminal offenses, and enhancing the security technologies, mechanisms, and personnel along the border that both countries could work toward would be a win-win for both Trump and Peña Nieto. But more importantly, it would be a win-win for both the United States and Mexico.

Amanda Mattingly is a Senior Director at The Arkin Group and a Truman National Security Fellow. She previously served as a foreign affairs officer at the State Department. 

IMAGE: U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference at the Los Pinos residence in Mexico City, Mexico, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Mexico President Cancels Trump Summit As Wall Taunt Deepens Spat

MEXICO CITY/PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – Mexico’s president on Thursday scrapped a planned summit with Donald Trump in the face of insistent tweets from the U.S. president demanding Mexico pay for a border wall, a deepening spat that threatens Mexican efforts to salvage trade ties.

However, the White House left open the door for a possible rapprochement. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the United States was keeping open lines of communication with Mexico and looking to reschedule the meeting.

Taking a page out of Trump’s playbook, President Enrique Pena Nieto fired the salvo on Twitter, after Trump’s call for Mexico to foot the bill for his planned wall prompted a groundswell of calls in Mexico for next week’s meeting to be called off.

Trump said in a Twitter message earlier on Thursday that his Mexican counterpart should cancel his scheduled visit to Washington if Mexico refuses to pay for the wall that he has ordered constructed along the border. Trump views the wall, a major promise during his election campaign, as part of a package of measures to curb illegal immigration.

Mexico has long insisted it will not pay for the planned wall.

“We have informed the White House that I will not attend the working meeting planned for next Tuesday with @POTUS,” Pena Nieto tweeted. “Mexico reiterates its willingness to work with the United States to reach agreements that favor both nations.”

Trump, who took office last Friday, signed an executive order for construction of the wall on Wednesday, the same day that Mexico’s foreign minister held talks with Trump aides in the White House aimed at healing ties.

Relations have been frayed since Trump launched his campaign in 2015, characterizing Mexican migrants as murderers and rapists, and pledging to build a wall that he said Mexico would pay for.

Trade ties are in the balance after Trump vowed to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and slap high tariffs on American companies that have moved jobs south of the border.

Mexico’s peso, which has fallen sharply against the U.S. dollar in the face of Trump’s stances on trade and immigration, extended losses to 1 percent after Pena Nieto fired off his tweet.

“The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers… of jobs and companies lost. If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting,” Trump said in his Twitter message.

WALL FUNDING

Leaders of the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress said on Thursday they planned to move ahead on funding the border wall, which they projected would cost between $12 billion and $15 billion. Trump said in an interview with ABC News on Wednesday evening that Mexico would eventually reimburse the United States for the wall.

“So we intend to address the wall issue ourselves and the president can deal with his relations with other countries,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said at a news conference in Philadelphia, where Republicans were holding a retreat.

Trump signed the executive orders, including one authorizing the planned wall, on Wednesday just as a Mexican delegation led by Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray arrived at the White House.

The timing caused outrage in Mexico, with prominent politicians and many on social media seeing at as a deliberate snub to the government’s efforts to engage with Trump, who has for months used Mexico as a political punching bag.

House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, asked if lawmakers were worried about the U.S. relationship with Mexico, said, “I think we’ll be fine.”

Trump ruffled feathers with Mexico from the start of the presidential campaign that led to his election victory on Nov. 8.

Former foreign minister Jorge Castaneda said the Mexican government should have canceled the planned summit earlier in the week, when it became clear that Trump was going to go ahead with measures to build the wall and clamp down on immigration.

“There is an atmosphere of crisis in the United States and it is going to last a long time. We are going to have to get used to living like this,” he said on Mexican radio.

(Reporting by Steve Holland in Philadelphia, Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington, Anahi Rama and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Simon Gardner and Frances Kerry)

IMAGE: Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto gestures as he delivers a message about foreign affairs at Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City, Mexico, January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido