Foreign Policy: You recently returned from a trip to Russia. When you speak with your Russian counterparts, how much of that conversation is about Afghanistan?
Gil Kerlikowske: About 60 percent. They do a lot of training for Afghans in Moscow... Afghan police.
FP: Is that a good idea? Russia has one of the most corrupt police forces in the world.
GK: I guess there were people asking if they would be able to make arrests on drug traffickers, if that trafficker was a [Russian] Federation citizen. We've seen a 12-kilogram cocaine case made in St. Petersburg in which they've made the arrests and are trying federation citizens.
In some ways they might be looking at the drug-trafficking issue as not just the ability to corrupt governments, but as a way to limit the heroin addiction in that country. From what I've seen, it hasn't been the same thing as what you read about when people are pulled over for a traffic ticket and have to bribe the officer to get out of the ticket. We've seen substantial cooperation and substantial cases being made.
FP: When Russian drug czar Viktor Ivanov spoke with FP last year, he was very adamant that he favored a poppy eradication strategy in Afghanistan. Is he still pushing that line, and how do you respond to that?
GK: I think we've pretty much moved beyond that. It's clear they're concerned about the amount of Afghan heroin being used by Afghan citizens. We see eradication as a decision that needs to be made by [Afghanistan]. There has been no desire on the part of the Afghan government for eradication, and we aren't pushing it.
FP: Shifting to Latin America, during his trip last week, President Obama pledged an additional $200 million to fight drug trafficking in Central America. Is this a sign that you feel the drug battle in Mexico is spilling south of its border?
GK: For as long as I've been involved in policing, I can tell you that there have been rule-of-law courses, capacity building, and exchanges [with Central American countries]. I don't see it as suddenly more severe, but certainly, Mexico's southern border is a concern, not just to Mexico, but also to us. So building better institutions in those countries would be helpful.
FP: What's your big-picture sense of the drug situation in Latin America?
GK: It used to be fairly easy to categorize countries as production countries, transit countries, or consumer countries. I think those lines have been -- if not completely obliterated -- generally blurred. The amount of drug use in Mexico is significant. It's also clear from my most recent trip to visit drug treatment centers in Colombia that they're concerned as well.
FP: U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual was forced to leave his position in Mexico two weeks ago because of comments he made in WikiLeaks cables about the perception that the drug war in Mexico is failing and about pervasive corruption in Mexican law enforcement. Are those concerns you share?
GK: I can't and wouldn't comment on the WikiLeaks cables themselves. I can tell you I've had a number of conversations with Ambassador Pascual, who I thought had laid out a clear vision for the work of the United States in taking [the] Merida [Initiative] to the next step -- particularly in law enforcement and sharing information.
As a police officer, I can say that cynicism just comes with the territory, and it's pretty easy to adapt that kind of attitude to Mexico. I'm not overly optimistic, but I think there has been some progress and we have an administration that's courageously taking on these criminal organizations, who are now involved in so many other kinds of crimes.
FP: Do you agree with the assessment made by some in the administration recently that the violence in Mexico is taking on characteristics of an insurgency?
GK: No. I think we've been through that half a dozen times with statements that have been made. The cartels have used high-powered weapons and car bombs at times, but I think everyone on the U.S. government side has tried to be clear that tactics insurgents used in other places may be similar to what these criminal enterprises are using. There's a significant difference between that and the goal of taking over a government.