July 20, 2011

Lugar Opening Statement for Western Hemisphere Nomination Hearing

I join the Chairman in welcoming our distinguished nominees.  I appreciate this opportunity to examine, not only their credentials, but also current U.S. policy toward Mexico and Guatemala.

Over many decades we have taken for granted the benefits of peaceful relationships with bordering countries.  Our neighbors have been among our most important trading partners, with Canada currently ranking first in overall trade with the United States and Mexico ranking third.  Historically, few great powers have enjoyed the type of sustained regional stability that we have experienced.  

 But in recent years, that regional stability has been shaken, as Mexico has struggled with criminal violence, debilitating corruption, and drug financed cartels.  In January, the Mexican government pegged the number of people killed during its four year, military-led crackdown on organized crime at more than 34,000.  Those murdered include government officials, police officers, military personnel, and others who were deemed a threat to the cartels' business interests or leaders.  

Mexico’s insecurity and cartel violence is spilling into Central American countries where it is exacerbating security challenges.  Concern is particularly acute in Guatemala amid fears that the burgeoning presence of Mexican drug traffickers is adding another layer of violence to a country already burdened by crime and corruption.  Senior Guatemalan Government officials have warned that the Guatemalan security forces need a major overhaul to keep the Mexican drug gangs in check.

Guatemala is seen as an ideal transit point for the cocaine travelling from Colombia through Mexico to the United States.  Guatemala has a large unguarded border with Mexico; it has ports on the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico; it has hundreds of grass airstrips near large plantations that are suitable for light aircraft; and its security forces are under-resourced relative to the drug gangs.

Events in Mexico and Guatemala have clear security implications for the United States, Americans traveling in the region, and the U.S.-Mexican border.  But this instability also has commercial consequences.  Hopes for much stronger trade relationships that could help the United States and the entire Western Hemisphere compete with China, Japan, and the EU are suffering as a result.  Given U.S. interests in the stability and prosperity of our southern neighbors, the United States has been working with these countries to confront lawlessness.

The Merida Initiative, a multi-year, Federal partnership to provide equipment and training in support of law enforcement efforts to curb the flow of illegal narcotics through the United States, Mexico, and Central America, is the framework for this relationship.

Though much remains to be done, the Merida Initiative has opened a new era of U.S.-Mexican law-enforcement cooperation that is far more extensive than anything previously attempted.  The stakes are high for both countries.  Sustained lawlessness in large areas of Mexico would complicate U.S. efforts to combat drug smuggling and illegal immigration, and could generate increasing drug-related violence on our side of the border.  For Mexico, degrading the capacity and influence of the cartels in Mexico is a near existential national security objective.

Today, I look forward to the nominees’ perspectives on the Merida initiative and on efforts by Mexico and Guatemala to fight corruption within their own ranks.  How can we enhance our cooperation with these governments in ways that benefit U.S. security?

I thank the Chair.