Joseph Westphal’s Comment on Mexican “Insurgency” Suggests Hidden Depths to the War on Drugs

Undersecretary of the Army Joseph Westphal launched a war of words between the US and Mexican governments on Monday, when he referred to Mexico’s drug cartels as an “insurgency.” His comments, made while speaking at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Center for Politics, implied the possibility of a US invasion of Mexico if the situation deteriorated further. Westphal quickly retracted his statements, as the Mexican government condemned them, and the US government sought to distance itself. However, earlier comments made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and information revealed by Wikileaks suggest that there is more to the situation in Mexico than official reports suggest.

Westphal had been speaking in Salt Lake about budgetary restrictions and their application to issues in the Middle East when he opened up the floor to questions.

In response to a question about foreign policy blind-spots, he said, “One of them in particular for me is Latin America and in particular Mexico. As all of you know, there is a form of insurgency in Mexico with the drug cartels that’s right on our border.” He went on to specify, “This is about, potentially, a takeover of a government by individuals who are corrupt.”

Westphal’s concerns echo those made by Secretary Clinton, who last September compared the situation in Mexico to that in Colombia twenty years ago. At the time, the comparison brought rapid admonishment from the Mexican government, and President Obama, because of its suggestion that drug cartels in Mexico might seize governmental power, as happened in Columbia. Both Westphal and Clinton were further rebuked for implications that a US invasion was a possible response to the problem.

Westphal’s apology was posted on the website of the US Embassy in Mexico. It stated that he had “mistakenly characterized the challenge posed by drug cartels to Mexico as ‘a form of insurgency,’” but the tension remains. After the official apology, the Mexican government continued its condemnation. The Mexican Interior Ministry released a statement saying, “It is regrettable that [Westphal] articulated visions that have been overcome in the relationship with Mexico, which do not reflect the cooperation both governments have been building toward. The Mexican Foreign Minister called Westphal’s remarks “totally unacceptable”.

The Mexican government took particular offense to Westphal’s notion that there would be “armed and fighting” US soldiers combating a government takeover. They rejected the notion that the cartels are politically motivated, claiming that the scope of the cartels’ activities is limited to the “trafficking of drugs and people, homicide, kidnapping, robbery, extortion and other crimes… They are not groups that are promoting a political agenda.”

Publicly, the US has attempted to project an air of cooperation with the Mexican government and its war against drugs. Last month, while in Mexico, Clinton said that she was “a fan” of Mexican President Calderón’s response to the cartels and the “systemic issues” Mexico faces, both of which, she stated he had “tackled”. Yet Westphal’s statements and documents released by Wiki leaks complicate this harmonious image. A US cable released around the time of Clinton’s conciliatory statements said that Calderòn was “vulnerable to criticism that his anti-crime strategy has failed.”

Despite attempts by the Mexican government to downplay the size of the catastrophe and to highlight their successes in clamping down on the cartel’s activities, secret Mexican documents from 2009 reveal another side of the story. The Undersecretary of the Interior describes a “debilitating fear” in many Mexican towns, and the very real concern that they might lose “certain regions”. In August of 2010, the AP quoted Calderòn himself. While speaking at an anti-crime conference in Mexico City he said that drug cartels movement “has become an activity that defies the government, and even seeks to replace the government. They are trying to impose a monopoly by force of arms, and are even trying to impose their own laws.”

Admits the official and secret statements, Mexico’s drug war rages on. It has claimed the lives of 35,000 people since 2006 and has turned large areas of Mexico into war zones.

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Megan Gaffney, a native of New Haven, CT, is a writer/actor/educator who currently resides in Brooklyn.  She has an MFA from The Shakespeare Theatre’s Academy for Classical Acting at George Was ...read more

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