U.S.-Mexico security cooperation is getting a rebrand. Last week, on Oct. 8, top officials from both countries held a high-level meeting on the matter in Mexico City. In the press conference that followed, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard announced the end of the Mérida Initiative, an anti-drug program that has seen the United States send Mexico more than $3 billion in financing for military equipment, law enforcement training, and other crime prevention measures since its inception in 2008.
Hyping a Reset
Scholars, however, believe this approach may have had the opposite effect. Many have tracked how the kingpin strategy splintered and multiplied Mexican drug gangs rather than eliminate them. Since 2008, annual homicides in Mexico have more than doubled. On the other side of the border, U.S. drug overdose deaths—which in recent years have been driven up by the mass production of synthetic drugs in Mexico—rose from 36,450 in 2008 to a record 93,331 in 2020.
The Mérida Initiative was born out of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s support for then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s militarized, combat-focused approach to the drug trade. Calderón embraced the so-called kingpin strategy, in which authorities focused on taking down drug bosses in the hopes that doing so would erode the organizations beneath them.
At last week’s summit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that the countries’ past joint attempts at improving safety had relied “too much on security forces and too little on other tools in our kit.” Ebrard said the next phase of cooperation would be “superior” to Mérida because it will be based more on “respect, co-responsibility, and reciprocity.”
Washington adjusted the Mérida Initiative’s course under former U.S. President Barack Obama, introducing new efforts to train judges and prosecutors in Mexico to fight crime without the use of force. But over the years, the initiative suffered from a lack of consensus on how to evaluate its performance, Mexican diplomat Martha Bárcena Coqui told El Economista this month. In 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. State Department had not consistently tracked performance data for its Mérida programs.
In place of Mérida, officials said they are laying plans for what is being called the “Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities,” a nod to the 200th anniversary of official diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States. A joint statement from the two delegations said the measure, due to be finalized in January 2022, will focus on preventing substance abuse, providing economic alternatives to organized crime, promoting human rights, and increasing investigative abilities.
It’s highly ambitious talk. And Mexican analysts were quick to voice skepticism about Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s commitment to improving investigations into organized crime. After taking office in 2018, López Obrador abolished a federal police force that had received years of U.S. training, creating a new force called the National Guard in its place. His government has also failed to comply with a 2018 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling requiring Mexico to create an independent oversight panel to monitor abuses of power by its police.
Although López Obrador has often called for an alternative to Mérida’s military-heavy approach to drug violence—voicing support for “hugs not bullets”—he has overseen a massive expansion of the Mexican military’s role in everyday life. During his term, the number of army and navy personnel deployed inside the country has risen from around 69,000 people to 125,000 people, according to data compiled by Ibero-American University consultants Ernesto López Portillo and Samuel Storr. Those numbers don’t include the new 90,000-strong National Guard, which is composed of around 75 percent military personnel. In fact, judging the López Obrador administration by its actions—rather than the Bicentennial Framework fact sheet released last week—Brookings Institution fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote that Washington’s desired areas of security cooperation with the United States appear quite narrow. They include reducing the flow of illegal arms to Mexico from the United States.
Washington, far more than Mexico City, is interested in aggressive anti-crime probes. But it was easy enough for Mexico to nod along last week—before any specifics had been agreed to. Despite the many obstacles facing the Bicentennial Framework moving forward, last week’s meeting showed some concrete progress. Most importantly, it means Mexico and the United States are talking again. In October 2020, the U.S. arrest of a former Mexican defense secretary in Los Angeles on drug charges badly soured relations between the two countries, bringing security cooperation to its lowest levels in some 15 years, former Mexican ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhán told CNN. Mexico largely suspended U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operations on its soil and denied visas to DEA agents. CNN reported last week the agency is still unable to conduct most operations in Mexico.
Besides last week’s dialogue, there are other signs that U.S.-Mexico security coordination is improving. This week, Milenio reported that a joint U.S.-Mexican investigation is probing a Mexican chemical-maker for allegedly importing materials to make fentanyl, a key ingredient fueling U.S. opioid deaths. It’s a small step. The full Bicentennial Framework as announced is a much taller order. Conceptually, it represents an important move beyond failed war on drugs strategies of the past. At a minimum, ongoing consultations to shape a new approach could bring U.S.-Mexico relations to a more positive place than the low they experienced at start of the Biden presidency.