‘Plan Mexico’ was militarized drug war policy at its worst

An effort to replace the Merida Initiative is a welcome relief, as many blame US guns and money for increased violence and corruption.

Goodbye Mérida, welcome Bicentennial agreement,” proclaimed Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, earlier this month following talks between cabinet-level U.S. and Mexican officials on the future of bilateral security cooperation.

For some time now, policymakers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border have urged replacing the 2008 Mérida Initiative, the security cooperation agreement between the United States, Mexico, and countries of Central America to secure the region against drugs, crime, and violence. But the Mérida Initiative was cut from the same cloth as all of the militarized enforcement measures the United States has championed in Latin America in its decades-long “war on drugs.” From Mexico south through the Andes, the results haven’t been promising. Transnational crime groups continue to dominate parts of Mexico and Central America, and the drug trade continues to thrive, as hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants make their often-perilous way northward to the U.S. southern border. Either too weak or too corrupt, governments that they leave behind struggle to address the multi-faceted phenomena that continue to destabilize the region. 

The new Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities — so named to commemorate 200 years of U.S.-Mexican diplomatic relations — is a badly needed revision of Plan Mérida. To constitute a major step in the right direction, however, that agreement must be focused on recovery and development as much as  — if not more than —law enforcement and policing.  

Rhetorically, it is becoming quite popular in the United States to call the “war on drugs” a failure. Yet despite that, Washington continues to pump millions of dollars into complex transnational agreements designed to combat the illicit drug trade, such as the Mérida Initiative. Policymakers developed the Mérida Initiative nearly 15 years ago as former Mexican President Felipe Calderón was prioritizing the use of force in taking on the country’s drug cartels. Calderón overhauled local and state police forces, put the military in charge of policing crime, and increased penalties for corruption on federal authorities. The results were disastrous. Bloody turf battles among cartels and against the Mexican state itself destabilized border cities such as Ciudad Juárez, which gained notoriety in 2010 as the “murder capital of the world.” Indeed, the civilian death toll of Mexico’s drug war has exceeded those of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

U.S. media attention to drug violence in Mexico began to wane following Calderon’s costly campaign against the cartels, in part due to a deliberate effort by his successor Enrique Peña Nieto, who wanted to make it less visible outside of Mexico. By 2018,  homicide rates again began to approach numbers resembling 2010. By then, Washington had directed more than $1.6 billion to Mérida Initiative programs, much of it devoted to training and arming the Mexican military and security forces with, among other things, helicopters and other aircraft. 

Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has taken few substantive measures to address his country’s security woes. His “hugs, not bullets” security strategy conveys his disinterest in taking on the cartels. In fact, López Obrador has derided the Mérida Initiative, all but pulling Mexico out of it earlier this year. However, the Mexican president has failed to find alternatives to ensure security and stability in parts of his country. Nor has he been able to implement an effective anti-corruption strategy. Beginning in 2020, amidst the pandemic, homicide rates in Mexico are now higher than they were during Calderón’s presidency

Reactions to the Mérida Initiative have been mixed. The most common criticism is that its resources have worsened human rights violations in Mexico. These critics note that military forces are not equipped to police civilians. Others doubt whether the Mérida Initiative has made the region safer with new criminal groups emerging, and murder rates again on the rise. 

Supporters of Plan Mérida argue that it led to increased extraditions and the capture of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2017. Some analysts have praised the level of international cooperation in intelligence sharing and law enforcement promoted by the Mérida Initiative. But cooperation certainly has its limits. In October 2020, the U.S. arrested former Defense Minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda in Los Angeles after the Drug Enforcement Administration identified him as aiding Mexican cartels. Cienfuegos’ arrest infuriated López Obrador. U.S. violations of Mexico’s sovereignty is a timeless concern in bilateral relations. Though the general was eventually released back to Mexico, the incident limited U.S. cooperation with Mexican agents. 

Meanwhile in Washington, the Biden administration has inherited a tense, highly partisan security situation at the border. Add to that the persistence of criminal groups south of the border, rising U.S. drug overdose deaths, and thousands of Central American and Caribbean migrants journeying northward for lack of other options. 

In the coming weeks and months, officials from both sides of the border will begin the long process of re-imagining security cooperation, with the desire for equal cooperation at the top of Mexico’s priorities. The two governments have promised to devote more attention to drug addiction — on both sides — as well as attention to the trafficking of U.S. guns into Mexico. Something must also be done about regional migration. At the top of Mexico’s list, however, is focusing the strategy away from fighting the drug cartels and toward addressing the root causes of the drug trade. But given López Obrador’s own inability to make legitimate strides in improving Mexican security in the last two  years, how the Bicentennial agreement will make the region safer and more stable remains unclear. 

Shifting the focus away from militarized enforcement is a step in the right direction, but the move must happen gradually and with complete cooperation from U.S. and Mexican officials. Hasty, uncontrolled endeavors to demilitarize will create a power vacuum, where criminal groups could assume control of more territory, creating further instability. 

Perhaps most critically, in order to promote long term stability, the region must be conceptualized less as a conflict zone and more as a region in need of recovery and development. As the percentage of aid devoted to enforcement resources decreases, more resources must be devoted to the social and economic health of the region, not the militarized training and equipping of its security forces. In the past, U.S. aid has “aided and abetted” human rights violations by security forces due to an oversight in Plan Mérida in monitoring resource distribution and tracking results. This was because aid had been given in a manner devoid of accountability. The U.S. and its partners in the region need to establish cooperation such that partners seeking aid show that they are equal partners in rebuilding.  

In a similar vein, while the Bilateral agreement cannot be the final say on regional immigration issues, aid distribution intended to foster recovery and long-term development will help to rebuild societies and ease some of the pressure at the U.S.-Mexico border, offering policymakers in Washington time to adopt longer term immigration reforms in what is currently a broken immigration system. 

To make longer term gains in the most significant issues facing the United States, Mexico, and its Central American partners, the principal shift that needs to occur is one from making war to rebuilding. Militarized enforcement measures in the region have a long history. In the road ahead, policymakers on both sides of the border must proceed slowly and carefully.