When it was announced in 2007 by George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón, the Mérida Initiative was to change the way the US and Mexico approached the war on drugs. With the transfer of almost $1.5 billion in American aid to Mexico, the decades of distrust and working at cross-purposes were in the past; officials from both nations assured the public that the fight was to be a newly cooperative effort from here on.
According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, beyond the emphasis on cooperation, the package was originally conceived with four goals in mind:
1) break the power and impunity of criminal organizations; 2) assist the Mexican and Central American governments in strengthening border, air, and maritime controls; 3) improve the capacity of justice systems in the region; and, 4) curtail gang activity in Mexico and Central America and diminish the demand for drugs in the region.
The biggest chunk of the Mérida millions came in the form of military hardware like Bell and Blackhawk helicopters and CASA coastal patrol planes, odd instruments indeed for the lowering of drug demand and improving criminal justice frameworks.
In contrast, only around a fifth of the money went to anti-corruption and training programs in Mexico. The negative impact of that decision was compounded by a lack of clarity and a slow implementation; according to the US General Accounting Office, as of December only about 2 percent of the eligible Mérida money had been spent.
But despite some checkered results over the first three years (more on that in a bit), the enhanced security relationship is not coming to an end; the Obama administration, eager to continue the pattern of bilateral cooperation, included another $310 million for México in his budget for FY 2011, which implies phase two of the Mérida Initiative.
Officials say that the upcoming portion of the pact will focus more on strengthening Mexican institutions and fighting corruption, rather than the emphasis on hardware that has characterized the past three years.
To that end, the original four goals have been replaced by another quartet (again courtesy of the Congressional Reseach Service):
1) disrupting the operational capacity of organized crime, 2) institutionalizing Mexico’s capacity to sustain the rule of law (police and judicial reform), 3) creating a 21st century border structure, and 4) building strong and resilient communities.
This change of focus responds to a legitimate criticism of the Initiative in its original form, but one wonders if it goes much beyond the rhetorical. Three-hundred-ten million dollars is a lot easier to spend in the form of a few big vehicles than in a series of labor-intensive programs with an infinite number of moving parts.
Furthermore, the requirements for stronger Mexican institutions and lower levels of corruption are nothing new. The officials’ argument is that now that the firepower gap is taken care of, it’s time to look at corruption, but that’s disingenuous. A lack of government weaponry was never the foremost obstacle to a safer Mexico, and it does not appear that phase one has done a great deal to bring the nation any closer to that or any other relevant objective.
After three years in place, one can’t escape serious ambivalence about the plan, especially regarding corruption and violence. A number of high-ranking officials have been fingered for working for organized crime in the past three years, but it remains unclear what (if anything) the Mérida Initiative had to do with those successes, and corruption remains a major problem.
And despite the billions, Mexico is a more dangerous place today than it was three years ago. Perhaps, as the governments argue, that’s because cornered drug gangs are lashing out and fighting for the scraps of a shrinking industry, which would be a lamentable but unavoidable phase of Mexico’s combat of organized crime.
But even if you accept such an explanation, it’s hard to see how the Mérida money will give the Mexican government the upper hand. The most necessary improvements, from a stronger judicial system to better anti-corruption tools, are issues on which the US can have only a marginal impact, and none at all without the preexisting will from Mexico. Both nations have stuck to boilerplate in justifying for the program, and neither has effectively explained what is the exact benefit of a dozen new helicopters in Mexico.
The most substantial improvement from the Mérida is an improved bilateral relationship between the US and Mexico, a reflection of the cooperation both nations trumpeted when the agreement was hammered out. But for a security pact, greater cooperation is a means rather than the end itself. If the Mérida Initiative has a minimal impact on security, while its continued existence is justified principally by the fear that ending it would entail grave harm to the bilateral relationship, well, that is some expensive circular logic.
That doesn’t make it wrong, but there’s no reason to conclude just yet that the Mérida Initiative has been or will continue to be money well spent. As they move on to phase two, Mexico and the US must do more to link the aid package not just to improvements in hardware, but also a reduction in the public-security threat from organized crime.