U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond
John Bailey, Professor and Mexico Project Chair, Georgetown University
Jorge Chabat, Professor, CIDE
Alfredo Corchado,, Mexico Bureau Chief, Dallas Morning News
Peter Hakim, President, Inter-American Dialogue
Moderator: Nora Lustig, Shapiro Visiting Professor, George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs
On February 8, 2008 the Inter-American Dialogue, the Elliott School for International Affairs at the George Washington University and the Mexico Institute hosted a discussion on security cooperation between the United States and Mexico in light of the proposed Mérida Initiative, a 1.4 billion dollar assistance package to Mexico and Central America to fight organized crime and drug trafficking. John Bailey described how the relationship between organized crime and government in Mexico has changed in recent years, evolving from a historic interaction of corruption and coexistence, to the current pattern of physical and political confrontation both between drug cartels and the government, and between cartels themselves. He noted that the U.S. response to fighting drug trafficking and its expected role in the Mérida Initiative is to "do more of what we're doing, add some things, and try to do better." He characterized the initiative as drug-oriented, border-oriented, and future-oriented, with goals that are purposefully vague in order to garner more support for its broader goal of fighting drugs and terrorism. However, he stated, the specifics of the program will have to become more defined as the American public demands answers on issues such as the balloon effect, arms trafficking, justice reform and human rights abuses linked to the Mexican army.
Jorge Chabat emphasized that the Mérida Initiative is critical because it challenges the pattern of mistrust that the United States has had in the Mexican police force while simultaneously attempts to create a regional framework. He noted that since Mexican president Felipe Calderón came into office he has made the issue of security a priority, a wise strategy not only because it was necessary, but because it was a good political move that gave him strong support from the general public. However, Chabat pointed out, the Initiative faces many challenges such as corruption within Mexican security forces and approval from the US Congress, the Mexican elite and the public in both countries. Also dangerous, he noted, are exaggerated expectations on both sides of the border of what it can realistically achieve. He also cautioned that success in fighting drug trafficking will be dependent on other factors outside of Mérida such as judicial reforms, control of corruption, and improving Mexican intelligence capabilities. The situation should be seen as not a national security problem, but rather a public security problem, he added. Success will be measured not by metrics, he argued, but instead by a general feeling of safety, where territory is not controlled by drug-traffickers and people are not being killed in the streets.
Alfredo Corchado gave a first-hand perspective of the harsh reality that exists along the US-Mexico border. He asserted that currently there is a very real threat to freedom of expression. According to Mexico's Commission on Human Rights, 36 journalists have been killed in the last seven years. He explained that in border towns such as Nuevo Laredo, drug traffickers have systematically taken over the community by co-opting everyone from the police, to the mayor's office, to local journalists, who fear for their lives if they do not cooperate. Further, since Calderón sent the Mexican military into this region to increase security, more than 1300 members have defected to work for the cartels. In places along the border such as Nuevo Laredo, Corchado asserted, the cartels run everything, from what stories are permitted to be printed in the newspaper, to the anti-military agenda of local civil society and human rights groups.
Peter Hakim argued that although the willingness on both sides of the border to cooperate in this initiative is unprecedented, it does not overcome the historic lack of trust between the two nations. Further, he noted, it is hard to interpret the discussion currently taking place in the U.S. Congress. Although most agree that the plan in good in theory, Members are getting stuck on the details, especially in regards to how the initiative will be monitored and how human rights violations will be prevented. He pointed out that because it is an election year, domestic politics will play an important role, especially because Congress has the tendency to treat the proposal not as a joint initiative, but rather a U.S. program. Andrés Rozental, a Mexico Institute board member, added that in Mexico this is seen as a Mexican-born initiative that is symbolically involving the United States. It is believed that because the U.S. is part of the problem, it should be part of the solution as well. He noted that Mexico has also made it clear that if the costs of cooperating seem too high (i.e., the United States demands too much), then it will withdraw the offer to work collaboratively.