There was one panel that I made not sure not
to miss: 'Narco-violence Along the Border,' correctly -- in my opinion -- flagged
as 'an emerging issue in national security law.'
I work on issues related to this
narco-violence at CNAS, so I found the fact that this issue was prominently
featured at the ABA conference both striking and encouraging. Now, as with most
unsettling geopolitical phenomena, one can argue at different levels whether
and how the situation in Mexico poses a national security threat to the United
States. (The 'failed state' argument that an unstable southern neighbor is
inherently detrimental to U.S. security versus the view that only considers
direct attacks on the U.S. homeland, and so on.) What is certain is that the
drug war in Mexico now routinely spills across the border. (It's why cities in
places like Arizona are now tremendously unsafe, with
drug-related kidnapping rates that have tripled in the past eight years.)
As the panel moderator put it: To what
extent should we deal with drug-trafficking groups with the same methods we use
with terrorist ones? How should the U.S. government handle the line between
law-enforcement and intelligence- and military-oriented responses? Given a
national legal framework that depends on formal categories (citizen vs.
non-citizen, state vs. non-state) and the ways in which drug violence and
associated problems repeatedly defy them, the answers are complicated indeed.
Unfortunately, the panel fell flat of my
expectations by omitting to address these questions completely. The preceding
discussion, 'Legislative Update on Developments in National Security Law,' was
as jargon-y as you would expect from its title, setting my expectations for the
upcoming one. Yet -- and as ironic as this sounds -- what was missing from the
panel on narco-violence was a discussion of, well, law. What we got instead was
a very thorough run-down of the situation in Mexico. The panelists discussed
mounting death tolls (more than 5,600 casualties in 2008 alone), the alarming amount
of manpower and firepower wielded by cartels, the chaotic nature of the
confrontations between them, as well as the ways in which the U.S. exacerbates
the conflict (drug demand and gun supply). Most of this information was on
point, but it never evolved into a policy discussion.
Fact: most people don't know as much as they
should about Mexico. (This became painfully obvious during a low moment in the
panel when the speaker asked the audience a number of very basic questions
about the country, to astounding general silence.) There's value to informing
people. Yet I would have hoped for more from a discussion hosted by the ABA.
Even what is arguably the biggest and most obvious legal question when it comes
to policies to curb U.S. drug demand, the de-criminalization of marijuana,
emerged as an afterthought in the very last question of the Q&A. Really?
Certainly, even just getting the facts right
is important. It's also why I'll take this chance briefly to discuss two
particular items of misinformation that I hear cited at just about every turn.
I don't mean to claim that they're the most important, only that they keep
coming up and require clarification.
The first is related to the 'failed state'
argument I briefly mentioned above. No one has seriously argued that Mexico is
on the brink of becoming one. Panelist Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson Center
for scholars correctly noted that the now-infamous U.S. Joint Forces Command
report that supposedly lumped together Mexico and Pakistan as being at risk of a 'rapid and sudden collapse' is one of the most misinterpreted briefing
documents out there. The report was actually extremely speculative in nature,
seeking to outline contingency plans for U.S. force preparedness in the case of
such an extreme event. Mexico is not a failed state. This may seem a minor
quibble, but making unnecessarily alarmist claims has very significant
diplomatic implications and detracts from what can actually be done to improve
The second point is related to U.S. gun supply.
People keep stating that up to 90% of weapons used by drug traffickers come
from the U.S., citing a study carried out by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Everyone repeats this claim -- from
Mexican officials to U.S. scholars to Hillary Clinton. It is inaccurate: the
real proportion is actually much lower, though I won't venture a precise
figure. The ATF stated that up to 90% of weapons traced have been linked back to the U.S. This takes into account
neither the weapons not traced by the ATF (most of them) nor those that clearly
originated in places like Russia, China, and so on. It is also in the interest of Mexican
authorities to selectively report those weapons that did originate in the U.S. in order to gain leverage in bilateral
Conservatives in the U.S. tend to use the
confusion over the numbers as a red herring. There is value, however, to
acknowledging that the battle against weapons trafficking must take place along
multiple fronts in a country like Mexico, with its many miles of coastlines and
lax southern border. Whatever the precise number of guns entering Mexico from
the north, it is certainly excessively high and the U.S. must hence take
measures to stem the flow (assault weapons bans, etc). But that's for another
So, at what point to you stop sharing basic
information and attempt to elevate the debate? As summarized by a friend: about
once a month, some significant event gets featured on CNN and leads to an 'Oh
(expletive), Mexico!' moment. Those then tend to fade. Do people still need to
be told over and over that there is a dire situation at hand? The answers are
not clear to me. After all, the C-SPAN crew at the Renaissance Hotel, which had
been present to cover all of the morning panels, left just in time to miss out
on the Mexico debate."