“MX” for Borderland Beat
Note to readers: This ‘Washington Post’ article was written by Edward Hunt, an assistant professor of political science at Regis College.
|The U.S. has spent billions trying to fix Mexico’s drug war. It’s not working.|
Mexican lawmakers just voted to legalize recreational marijuana, a move that raises new questions about U.S.-Mexican collaboration on anti-drug efforts. Since 2007, the U.S. government has appropriated $3.3 billion under the Mérida Initiative to help Mexico wage war on drug trafficking. But the increasingly violent conflict has left an estimated 150,000 Mexicans dead and about 79,000 “disappeared” over the past 13 years.
The Justice Department recently brought charges against Emma Coronel Aispuro, wife of notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is serving a life sentence in a U.S. maximum-security prison. And the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning this month about another cartel leader, Nemesio Ruben Oseguera Cervantes, or “El Mencho.” But after last year’s large-scale violence in Mexico, some officials within the Biden administration have questioned whether the U.S. approach is working.
Several members of Congress want Secretary of State Antony Blinken to reassess U.S. security assistance, citing concerns that U.S. aid has not effectively reduced crime-related violence in Mexico. So what is the Mérida Initiative, and why is it a potential target for reform?
The Mérida Initiative kicked off in 2007
The Mérida Initiative began during the George W. Bush administration, with the goal of helping Mexico fight crime-related violence and cross-border trafficking.
Initially, the U.S. government focused on aiding Mexican security forces, providing $1.5 billion of assistance during the first few years of the program. This initial package included $421 million in foreign military funding, which enabled the Mexican government to buy advanced U.S. military equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters.
Under the Obama administration, U.S. officials refocused the program to emphasize criminal justice reform. With this approach, U.S. officials have been working with the Mexican government to transform Mexico’s judicial system from an opaque system based on written arguments to judges into an accusatorial system with public trials and oral arguments — much like U.S. criminal judicial procedures.
Although funding for the Mérida Initiative has declined, Congress continues to appropriate about $140 million every year. A January 2020 hearing suggested that many U.S. officials want the program to continue but think it’s time for an overhaul and a closer look at why this funding hasn’t stemmed drug-related violence. A U.S. drug policy commission called in December for the program’s reassessment, finding that U.S.-Mexican security cooperation hasn’t protected U.S. citizens from illegal drugs and Mexican citizens from criminal gangs.
What do supporters of the Mérida Initiative say?
Supporters of the Mérida Initiative maintain that the program is a key component of the war on drugs. They argue that it’s helping the Mexican government reform the criminal justice system and confront drug cartels — the groups they identify as the main purveyors of violence in Mexico.
The program’s defenders, including security experts, U.S. officials and academics funded by the Mérida Initiative, praise the growing cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican governments, citing examples of collaboration to target drug traffickers and cartel leaders.
And other analysts point out that U.S. security funding is a relatively small component of the overall effort to rein in criminal activity. Analysis from the Congressional Research Service, for example, notes that U.S. programs make only a small dent in Mexico’s overall spending on public security and national defense.
How about opponents of the initiative?
Some researchers see the Mérida Initiative as a tool for the United States to increase its influence in Mexico. They say the United States is using the program to open Mexican markets, reorient Mexican military forces and acquire greater influence over the Mexican government, for instance.
For years, some opponents have argued that the program has made drug-related violence worse. They point to the increase in drug-related violence that occurred during the program’s initial implementation, claiming that U.S.-trained security forces committed human rights violations and exacerbated violence.
My research on the drug war suggests that complementary U.S. counternarcotics assistance may have played a role in boosting drug-related violence. Even as funding for the Mérida Initiative declined and the program’s emphasis shifted to criminal justice reform, the Defense Department provided the Mexican military with counternarcotics assistance to train elite Mexican security forces at U.S. military bases.
Drug-related violence increased as U.S. counternarcotics assistance rose during the initial years of the drug war. Violence decreased when U.S. funding declined from 2013 to 2014 and increased again in 2016 as U.S. counternarcotics aid approached previous highs.
Are there alternatives?
In early 2019, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared that the drug war was over, promising that the army would focus on public safety rather than rounding up drug kingpins. In December, the Mexican government announced plans to limit bilateral cooperation, but critics of the U.S. role advocate more concrete steps to end the drug war.
Human rights organizations argue that Mexico’s military should not be involved in policing operations. Amnesty International, for example, reported that as the involvement of the military increased, human rights violations became more frequent and levels of violence rose across Mexico.
In recent months, alternatives once considered impossible, such as the decriminalization of drugs, have come up for discussion. With a growing number of advocates calling for a shift to decriminalization and an end to the drug war, some analysts on both sides of the border see hypocrisy in programs like the Mérida Initiative, which aims to fight a drug war that has become increasingly violent, while the Mexican government and many U.S. states move toward decriminalization.
Finally, some experts advocate for policymakers to consider ending security aid altogether, especially the U.S. training for Mexican security forces reportedly involved in human rights violations. Critics point to recent explosive allegations that high-level Mexican officials have been colluding with drug cartels, citing this corruption as grounds for curtailing the program.
Much academic research suggests that ending the militarized approach to combating drug trafficking would reduce violence and enable the United States and Mexico to transition away from a seemingly endless and violent war.
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