Latin America Advisor

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Has the Mérida Initiative Failed the U.S. and Mexico?

A helicopter Through the Mérida Initiative, the United States has provided funding to Mexico for equipment including Bell 412 helicopters. // File Photo: U.S. Department of Energy.

The Mexican government recently announced it is seeking to overhaul the Mérida Initiative, a $3 billion U.S. aid program that for more than a decade has aimed to foster security cooperation between the two countries. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the initiative “doesn’t work” and is “dead.” What does the Mérida Initiative encompass exactly, and to what extent has it failed to reach its stated goals? Is the program likely to be reformed any time soon? What could a potential replacement of the Mérida Initiative look like, and what elements of the aid program need to be improved for U.S.-Mexico security cooperation to work more effectively?

Roberta Jacobson, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs: “As an architect of the Mérida Initiative with Mexico in 2008, let me say what others have alleged: the Mérida Initiative is dead. I disagree, however, with those who think that Mérida failed. For those who believed that the Mérida Initiative was to reduce or end drug trafficking from Mexico to the United States or end gun running from the United States to Mexico, the initiative clearly has failed. That perspective, however, fundamentally misunderstands its purpose. The real goal of the Mérida Initiative was to be a process—a way of developing a culture of security cooperation between Mexico and the United States. Following the launch of the initiative, Mexican and U.S. law enforcement worked together for more than a decade, fulfilling the goal of the initiative. Mérida was designed to be adaptable, changing emphasis so that as transnational criminal organizations changed, so too would the focus of law enforcement agencies. This cooperation has eroded in recent years, and with it the utility of Mérida. Mexico and the United States must redefine their security priorities for a new binational strategy—one that respects sovereignty and responds to the actual causes of insecurity. A new strategy would focus on training for law enforcement and judicial authorities and teaching economic skills to young people who fall prey to cartel recruiting. It would also do a better job of ‘following the money’ on both sides of the border. Regardless of what we call this strategy, we need cross-border cooperation if we are to lessen the violence that claims over 70,000 lives in overdoses in the United States and more than 39,000 lives in drug-related homicides in Mexico.”

Arturo Sarukhan, board member of the Inter-American Dialogue and former Mexican ambassador to the United States: “The Mérida Initiative was never supposed to be mummified; it was conceived to allow for fine-tuning and adjustment, taking into account the context of bilateral ties—acknowledging that no two Mexican or U.S. administrations would have the same priorities and focus—as well as the circumstances on the ground in the fight against transnational criminal organizations. That is what precisely led to shifts in focus and the widening of its scope in the transition from the Bush to the Obama administration, something that should have also occurred with the passing of the baton from Calderón to Peña Nieto. Unfortunately, neither the Peña Nieto nor the López Obrador administrations understood this. And what many in Mexico have failed—then and now—to comprehend is that the process initiated in Mérida in 2007 achieved three critically important things. First, it institutionalized shared responsibility as the linchpin of cooperation against organized crime on both sides of the border and ensured that the United States had ‘skin in the game.’ Second, it was more than just law-enforcement collaboration or training and transfer of equipment. It was, critically, more about processes, ensuring interagency coordination within each government and then between both governments, eliminating particular agendas of individual agencies and ensuring that resources and efforts did not overlap or duplicate. Lastly, it became the midwife for a much broader and ambitious security and intelligence relationship between both nations, spilling over into regional and global cooperation and nudging Mexico to embrace the critical importance of North American common domain awareness. After four years in which the Trump administration basically ignored it, ending the Mérida Initiative now may entail the proverbial boomerang effect for Mexico’s interests; the disastrous handling of the Cienfuegos case by both governments recently is a taste of what might be in store for a post-Mérida bilateral relationship.”

Raúl Benítez Manaut, researcher at the Center for Research on North America at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM): “The Mérida Initiative was born in 2007 with the objective of strengthening the capacities of the Mexican security forces to combat drug trafficking. The two governments quickly broadened the initiative to support justice reform in Mexico. During the Obama administration, it also expanded to strengthen social organizations to build social cohesion. However, organized crime has grown. Homicides have risen in Mexico from eight per 100,000 inhabitants to 23. In that sense, Mérida has failed. Strengthening the military forces and giving them capabilities has not been enough. The great crisis with Mérida occurred in October 2020, with the capture and subsequent release of Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos. That began a serious crisis in the DEA’s relationship with Mexico. Another major crisis with Mérida was the capture of Genaro García Luna in December 2019. The Federal Police, which he oversaw, received a large amount of money from Mérida. This was a great failure for Mérida due to corruption, which made U.S. aid not work well. The López Obrador government refuses to use the word ‘Mérida,’ but cooperation continues. Mexican criminals continue to be extradited. López Obrador does not want ‘marks of the past.’ Mérida’s resources, under another name, will continue to be given, but the United States has changed its security priorities. Now the control of migrants has become primary, and the work of the security forces and the Mexican military is key. The fight against crime continues, and the main threat is the Jalisco Cartel, the most important exporter of fentanyl to the United States.”

Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program in Mexico City: “The Mérida initiative was designed under the Bush administration as support for Mexico’s war on drugs that incoming President Felipe Calderón announced in 2006. The package delivered military and police aid and training over a three-year period, later extended ‘indefinitely’ by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The initiative was doomed to fail from the outset by replicating a supply-side approach to problematic drug use in the United States and the hyper-criminalization of all phases of illegal drug production, transit and consumption abroad. Yet even skeptics did not expect the scope of the human disaster the model would cause in Mexico—it has been a direct cause in the estimated 250,000 homicides and an additional 85,000 disappearances in Mexico. Record rates continue despite repeated promises to abandon the model, while femicide rates have actually risen. There is significant inertia in binational drug war cooperation; it will take far more than another presidential declaration to change course. The Biden administration should take seriously the challenge to develop a new strategy. Urgent steps must include: 1.) continue to end prohibition in the United States (the market for Mexican cartels) with federal-level regulation of marijuana, harm reduction emphasis and studies on deregulation of other prohibited substances; 2.) develop economic options for vulnerable sectors involved in the drug trade, including young people who can’t get jobs or education and resort to selling drugs on the street corner or work as lookouts, ‘mules’ who carry small amounts of drugs for cartels because they face dire need and consumers with addictions that need attention; and 3.) immediately demilitarize the strategy by ceasing all Pentagon and State Department funding to the Mexican armed forces, including the National Guard, for domestic policing activities.”

Rubén Olmos Rodríguez, international analyst and consultant: “Created in 2007, the Mérida Initiative is a bilateral security cooperation program that includes a development cooperation package for Central America and the Caribbean to combat organized crime. Mexico has received about $2.3 billion in military equipment and training and to strengthen its judiciary. The initiative aims to diminish the power of drug cartels, curb money laundering and reduce drug production. Despite this, the presence of drug cartels in the region has increased significantly over the last decade, and with it, the trafficking of drugs and weapons has increased as well. Each year, fewer resources have been allocated to the program. Moreover, after the capturing of several drug kingpins, the cartels have divided into smaller organizations that have diversified their criminal activities, making it increasingly difficult to fight them. The López Obrador administration has rejected the Mérida Initiative, as the official narrative consists of avoiding armed conflict and prioritizing development cooperation. Thus, the Biden and López Obrador governments might create a new mechanism focused on reducing arms and drug trafficking, curbing the financing of organized crime and addressing the root causes of insecurity through development cooperation in the region. A new program must establish transparency mechanisms to ensure that resources are aimed at addressing the root causes of violence from a regional approach, in addition to continuing to strengthen the rule of law in the region in collaboration with the private sector and academia. Acknowledging shared responsibility on issues such as weapons and drug trafficking is also essential.”

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