The Resignation of U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual

Mar 24, 2011

Kennon Pearre

Office of the Simon Chair

On March 20, 2011, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, resigned his post amid growing tension with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. The release of U.S. State Department cables by WikiLeaks this past December revealed Pascual’s sentiments on Mexico’s struggle with drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs). Highlighted during Felipe Calderón’s recent visit to Washington DC, he expressed his dismay with Ambassador Pascual to Washington Post reporters, claiming tensions had risen so high between them that he was unable cooperate with the U.S. ambassador. The cables have caused visible strain to U.S.-Mexican relations, and are now implicated in bringing down one of the highest ranking U.S. officials since their release in December.

President Calderón is under intense pressure to reduce the drug-related violence which plagues cities and towns throughout Mexico, especially in the northern border region. Since assuming the Office of the Presidency in 2006, Calderón has forcefully confronted the DTOs at the expense of 35,000 lives. At the same time, the United States has supported Calderón’s position, backing his efforts financially and technologically through Plan Mérida. At a time when President Obama travels to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador to reinforce the importance of U.S.-Latin American relations, Pascual’s departure highlights rifts that are growing between the two governments concerning Mexico’s ability to defeat the DTOs.

Carlos Pascual and President Calderón’s relationship had been precarious since Pascual was appointed ambassador in 2009. Beginning with Pascual’s credentials, his expertise in failed states was a notion that many in Mexico found to be particularly insulting, in light of the 2009 Pentagon report suggesting Mexico was in danger of becoming one. On a more personal level, Pascual is alleged to be dating the daughter of a senior member in Mexico’s main opposition party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Yet Pascual’s major error in the eyes of President Calderón was his remarks, revealed by WikiLeaks, questioning Mexico’s institutional capacity to combat DTOs. Pascual, in a diplomatic cable, refers to Mexican military officials as having “risk-adverse habits,” and claims that various Mexican security agencies are often at odds with each other.  President Calderón responded forcefully, describing Pascual as “ignorant” and distorting the truth.

These assessments raise questions with regards to how Mexican security agencies are combating the DTOs. Pascual also expressed his lack of confidence in the Mexican Army, where, according to the Economist, high levels of corruption and inefficiency can hardly be disputed. The recent arrest of thirteen Mexican soldiers who attempted to smuggle close to a ton of crystal methamphetamine across the U.S. border furthers reservations held by analysts and U.S. government officials about the army. The December 2009 Arturo Beltrán Leyva episode was highlighted by Pascual in a leaked diplomatic cable, describing the inability of the army to act and the subsequent reliance on the navy to carry out the mission, which lead to the death of the prominent cartel leader.

Pascual’s questioning on whether the war on drugs could be won by Mexican authorities also invokes questions about Mexican sovereignty. The close coordination between Mexico and the United States to combat DTOs has escalated in recent years, with new reports circulating that U.S. drones are collecting information on cartel leader’s locations over Mexico. The Mexican authorities rely heavily on information gathered by U.S. agencies to combat DTOs throughout the country. Pascual’s control over this information and ability to pass it to whichever Mexican agency he deemed suitable shows the critical role the United States plays in the Mexican security situation. President Calderón spoke out on this issue as well, defending the bravery of the army and deriding Pascual’s preferential treatment of certain Mexican security agencies.

The Calderón government may feel insulted by the leaked diplomatic cables, claiming they were distortions of the truth, but the tension between Pascual and President Calderón show that criticism of the Mexican authority’s capacity to combat the DTOs is a sore point for bi-lateral relations. It remains to be seen if cooperation between the United States and Mexico will increase over time and or become an issue in itself. On his visit to Washington, President Calderón remarked in a sarcastic tone: “We have an expression in Mexico, which says ‘don’t help me compadre.’”After five years of bloody conflict, the Calderón government has little to show in regards to progress. Pascual’s criticism may have cost him his post, but it will force others to realize the grim reality which confronts certain regions of Mexico today.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons