WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon eyes a bigger role in Mexico's drug war, the military's efforts to open the door to a new relationship with its southern neighbor risk alienating the Mexican military, which has long had a strained relationship with its counterpart, experts said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for improved relations with the Mexican military in response to escalating drug violence along the Mexican border and in Mexico. On "Meet the Press" earlier this month, the secretary said: "I think we are beginning to be in a position to help the Mexicans more than we have in the past. Some of the old biases against cooperation between our militaries and so on, I think, are being set aside."
Most experts, however, say any military role should be limited to sharing intelligence or training Mexican troops and even defense officials privately concede their effort to increase their role in Mexico is confusing Mexicans and even other U.S. agencies.
"It's a mistake to say that the United States is going to address this problem of security in Mexico by increasing the Pentagon's role," said Armand B. Peschard-Sverdrup, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It only would perpetuate the dysfunctional relationship between the two countries."
During a trip designed to expand U.S. Mexican-military relations, Adm. Michael Mullen, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, visited the graves of American troops who died during the Mexican-American war just as Gates did during his first visit in August. The chairman also laid a wreath at a memorial to the Mexican 201st Squadron.
Although the solemn gesture appeared innocuous, Mexico observers say the visit undercut the military's message that U.S.-Mexican military tensions were a thing of the past.
"Why remind Mexicans of the war? The Mexican military is already highly suspect of U.S. intentions and the war is still fresh in their minds," Peschard-Sverdrup said. "Yes, Mullen was well-intentioned, but he goes to pay homage to American who died, not realizing in a sense that he's also reinforcing the concerns that many in Mexico — especially the Mexican military — have" that the U.S. military will try to dominate its land once again.
Critics said the military also has not helped its efforts with a recent U.S. Joint Forces Command report that concluded that Mexico and Pakistan were the world's two states most likely to fail.
"It's ridiculous comparing the Mexico situation to Pakistan," said Raul Benitez, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who specializes in military and national security issues
Benitez said the report demonstrated that the military's view of Mexico was "black and white" and he questioned why the administration chose to send a military official before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano traveled there. As a result, Mullen became the first administration official to brief President Barack Obama on Mexico.
On the Mexican side, the military has taken on an unprecedented role in fighting the drug cartels. President Felipe Calderon has dispatched troops to hot spots throughout the country to try to contain the violence. Drug cartel leaders have hit back with widespread kidnappings, murders and beheadings. The death toll since last year: 7,000.
The U.S. has tried to help Mexico contain the violence by launching the Merida Initiative, an anti-crime aid measure that's expected to total $1.4 billion over three years. Under the initiative, the Pentagon is providing five helicopters, a maritime surveillance aircraft and handheld ion scanners, as well as personal protective equipment, rigid hull inflatable boats and night vision devices. In addition, the Defense Department trained 150 Mexican officers from October 2006 to September 2007. Last year, Mexico and the United States signed an agreement to share intelligence.
However, congressional Republicans chastised the Pentagon last week for not making Mexico a bigger priority. Adding to the pressure, the Texas governor called on the administration to send the National Guard or military troops to the border. Last week, Obama said he'd be open to considering such requests, but emphasized that he didn't want to militarize the border region.
"We're going to examine whether and if National Guard deployments would make sense and under what circumstances they would make sense," Obama said during an interview.
Sean Smith, a Homeland Security spokesman, said federal border agents and local law enforcement officials will continue to take the lead in patrolling the border and arresting drug traffickers on the U.S. side.
"The military is barely even in the conversation at this point," he said. "They would only be used as an extreme last resort should the situation in Mexico get dramatically worse."
At the busiest commercial border between the two countries, the Texas frontier city of Laredo, the idea of a U.S. military presence at the border also gets a lukewarm reception.
"My personal opinion is we don't need to militarize our area. We don't need any more guns in our area. What we need is for the people that are already established there to be trained even more," said Roberto Garcia Jr., a homicide detective in Laredo.
Garcia offered a gruesome closed-doors visual presentation Thursday at a conference on Mexican security sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington nonpartisan research organization funded by Congress. Mexican drug cartels are increasingly killing on the U.S. side of the border, and U.S. law enforcement needs to be beefed up, he said.
"People in the United States need to understand that this does affect our national security. . . . Unless we do something about it, you're going to see heads being rolled down Main Street like they're doing in Mexico," Garcia said.
(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article.)
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