News Column

Cuellar Calls for U.S. Role in Cartel Fight

May 3, 2013

Jared Janes

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (photo: U.S. Congress)
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (photo: U.S. Congress)

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar wants to hear Mexico's rationale for stopping U.S. law enforcement agencies' direct access to its strategies for fighting drug cartels.

Mexican government officials acknowledged this week that they were funneling all contact for U.S. law enforcement through the federal Interior Ministry, the agency that controls security and domestic policy. The new policy under President Enrique Pena Nieto marks a dramatic change from his predecessor's administration, which invited U.S. law enforcement as partners in fusion centers that integrated Mexican military in an all-out offensive against the drug cartels.

Cuellar, D-Laredo, said he understands Mexico's desire to establish one point of contact but wants to ensure that U.S. agencies aren't completely shut out of the partnership.

"Mexico is still trying to figure out what they want to do about security and they want to centralize all contact on security," Cuellar said Thursday during a scheduled event in the Rio Grande Valley. "Why they don't want the U.S. in some of those fusion centers is something I want to talk to them about. I don't know if it's a sovereignty issue, but there's so much we can do to help them."

Mexico's changing security policy was at the forefront of a meeting Thursday between Pena Nieto and President Barack Obama in Mexico City. Obama and Pena Nieto downplayed the significance of the new policy, saying the U.S. and Mexico are still cooperating to fight drug trafficking and organized crime, even if the strategy has changed.

"I agreed to continue our close cooperation on security, even as the nature of that cooperation will evolve," Obama said at a joint news conference with Pena Nieto. "It is obviously up to the Mexican people to determine their security structures and how it engages with the other nations -- including the United States."

U.S. and Mexican officials billed Obama's first trip to Mexico since beginning his second term as focused on economics, not security.

Cuellar, an early supporter of Pena Nieto, said the Mexican government is trying to shift the conversation about its place on the world stage away from its strife with organized crime and toward its growing economy. Since Pena Nieto took office Dec. 1, his administration has pushed reform to Mexico's education, labor and energy systems, but it's largely been quiet about any plans for improving security.

Given the past reputation of Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to turn a blind eye to the cartels, the new security policy has raised red flags, Cuellar said. But he added that the new policy is reflective of the Mexican public's suspicion of foreign meddling in internal affairs.

It's also indicative of a country that may still be deciding on an appropriate security strategy.

As a member of the House Appropriations committee, Cuellar has reached out to Mexican officials on several occasions to figure out what their plans are for expending U.S. aid from Plan Merida, a comprehensive package of aid and equipment approved in 2007 to help Mexico fight the drug cartels. Cuellar said Mexican officials have still not released a detailed strategy for how they plan to work with the United States under Plan Merida.

"In fighting this, we've got to be strong together," Cuellar said. "This is not an American problem or a Mexican problem. It's a joint problem that includes Guatemala, Central America and the other countries we have to work with."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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