What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was the darling of international observers, having negotiated a landmark energy reform through the nation's Congress, capping off an extraordinary year of constitutional (and other) reforms. Although economic growth had been sluggish, it was expected that it would take off with higher government spending, increased consumer confidence and renewed export growth to the United States. On the security front, a number of successes had been achieved, with the arrest or elimination of high ranking organized crime leaders and a falling homicide rate. Early in 2014, of course, the Peña Nieto administration was able to celebrate the capture of the most notorious of all cartel leaders, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. 

Since then, however, there has been a steady stream of bad news out of Mexico. Economic growth has continued to disappoint, hitting only 2.3 percent over the year, despite rising fiscal revenues and the successful passage of implementing legislation for the energy reform in August. But the administration's biggest disappointments have to do with the rule of law. Despite the capture of Guzman and a number of other big names during the year, the government faced a breakdown of law and order in the western state of Michoacán, a worsening violence problem in the border state of Tamaulipas, the massacre of 22 suspected organized crime members in Tlatlaya in the state of Mexico and the disappearance (and suspected murder) of 43 students in Ayotzinapa in the southwestern state of Guerrero.

Following on hard from the tragedy in Guerrero, the government was hit with two serious conflict of interest scandals involving the President's wife and the finance minister, the first of which led to the cancellation of a major government contract for a construction firm involved. The President's approval ratings in December were at 39 percent, a low for Mexican presidents only beaten by Ernesto Zedillo in the aftermath of the tequila crisis in 1995. 

It is with these political monkeys on his back that Peña Nieto arrives in Washington, DC today to meet with President Obama. Some might think that it would make sense to delay the meeting to avoid any political contamination. However, the talks between the two presidents are made even more critical by the political crisis brewing in Mexico City. In addition to a number of discussion items concerning immigration, economic integration and the change in the United States' stance on Cuba, it is crucial that the two governments seize the opportunity to reinvigorate their mutual public security agenda. 

Since 2008, the United States Congress has appropriated $2.3 billion for the Merida Initiative to aid in the fight against organized crime in Mexico and Central America. The Initiative has four "pillars" focused on disrupting organized crime, strengthening institutions, modernizing and upgrading the border and building stronger and more resilient communities. These priorities are as important as ever, and the first, second and fourth remain critical in the effort to develop and consolidate the rule of law in Mexico. 

However, whereas there has been continued success on the question of disrupting organized crime, as evidenced by the successful capture or elimination of so many leading criminals over the past 24 months, progress has been less impressive on the other two pillars.  Mexico's justice reform efforts appear to have stalled, and although Peña Nieto is trying to streamline Mexico's police forces, the direct involvement of municipal police in the Ayotzinapa tragedy is but one manifestation of the deep decay of the nation's law and order institutions. It is estimated that two-thirds of the country's mayors have some involvement with organized crime, and examples abound of perversions of the justice system.

At the community level, there are serious challenges, as exemplified by the self-defense groups that sprang up in Michoacán in early 2014, and continue to defy the Federal government. In places like Tamaulipas, the opposite problem prevails, whereby weakened communities and civil society live in fear of the menace of drug cartels and their assassins. 

Merida has shown us, however, that there is hope on both these fronts. Merida funding and expertise, alongside Mexican government programs, was behind the impressive transformation of Baja California's justice system, and the strengthening of communities in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey. While not all of these successes may be replicable throughout the country due to divergent local conditions, they provide, if nothing else, examples of what can be done if programs are well designed, professionaly implemented and rigorously evaluated.

Of course, the two presidents may choose to focus their discussions on the easier and more politically palatable issues of immigration, the economy and Cuba. Those issues alone would provide a more positive agenda for public consumption that would divert attention away from the unpleasant issues of violence, corruption and crime. But it would be a mistake to pass up this chance to inject new life into a cooperative mechanism that has the potential to help Mexico become a more just, orderly and law-abiding country.

This article was originially published on The Hill