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U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation

Discussants: Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, and Jorge Chabat
Updated: October 30, 2007


After months of quiet negotiations, the United States has announced a $1.4 billion, two-year package, the Merida Initiative, to help the Mexican government combat organized crime. Dubbed “Plan Mexico” by the media, in reference to Plan Colombia, a multibillion dollar counternarcotics initiative, the aid package will provide funds for police training, equipment, and intelligence gathering. But some question whether such measures are enough to stem Mexico's security troubles and shore up its weak institutions.

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and president of Peschard-Sverdrup & Associates, LLC, and Jorge Chabat, professor at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City, debate what an ideal security cooperation agreement would look like between the United States and Mexico.

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Jorge ChabatMost recent

October 30, 2007

Jorge Chabat

As Armand points out, the Merida initiative addresses the security concerns of Mexican and American people. However, there are some risks that the initiative becomes politicized on both sides of the border. The proximity of U.S. elections is certainly a factor that complicates the approval of the funds for the initiative. On the Mexican side, we can expect some opposition from the PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution] and part of the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party]. The main argument against the initiative is the threat to Mexican sovereignty and the possibility of human rights abuses. Even when this argumentation is based on false assumptions, like the Merida initiative opens the door to the presence of U.S. military personnel or to illegal actions of DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] agents in Mexico, the opinions against the initiative abound in the Mexican media. The truth is that there is a high dose of ignorance of what the Merida Initiative is.

I agree with Armand in the sense that if the U.S. Congress does not approve the funds for the Merida Initiative, it will weaken President Calderon’s leadership and will give an impulse to those who want Calderon’s failure. A weakened Mexican president is not good for U.S. national security independently of who is in the White House. At the same time, if the Merida Initiative is not approved in the U.S. Congress, it will open the door for the rebirth of anti-U.S. feelings in Mexico in the political elite and some part of the public. It is true that details are important and the success of this initiative depends on how it will be framed and how it addresses U.S. and Mexican concerns. In this sense the explicit reference to the war on terrorism made by the Mexican minister of foreign relations will facilitate the approval of the initiative in the U.S. Congress. In principle, the reference to the fight against drugs would facilitate the acceptance of the initiative by the Mexican political elite and public. But it is not clear that it is happening right now.

If the Merida Initiative funds are approved by the U.S. Congress, the opposition to this collaboration plan will be focused in the results obtained during the first year. It is very possible that the results of the initiative will not be impressive during 2008 and that those who oppose it will try to obstruct the renewal of the funds for 2009. Moreover, if some scandal involving DEA agents or U.S. military in Mexico happens during 2008, the future of the initiative will be jeopardized.

Armand Peschard-SverdrupOctober 26, 2007

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup

Although I can certainly appreciate the political posturing that is currently taking place both in Capitol Hill and San Lazaro, I hope members of both legislatures will come to the realization that the Mérida Initiative addresses the security concerns of the very people who elected them—whether they are voters in U.S. home districts or in Mexican circunscripciones.

The impact of transnational organized crime does not respect borders or partisan affiliations. Both the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governors of Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) governors of Michoacán, Guerrero, and Baja, California, as well as that party’s mayor of Mexico City, are grappling equally with the criminality and violence brought about by the different transnational criminal organizations. In the United States, Democratic and Republican governors and mayors—throughout the country, not just in border regions—are involved in the same struggle.

Ultimately, how the Mérida Initiative is viewed by the Mexican Congress and by the Mexican public at large will largely depend on how the initiative is framed. There will be natural nationalistic knee-jerk reactions that question whether the initiative is an encroachment on Mexican sovereignty. This response is bound to be accompanied by an understandable concern over whether there are any strings attached. The presence of U.S. law enforcement or military officers in-country has always been a point of contention in the relationship between Mexico and the United States. Therefore, it will be important to take these concerns into account when framing the finer details of the agreement.

Conversely, the U.S. Congress has a unique opportunity to support the bold leadership that President Calderón has exhibited in just his first ten months in office and, more importantly, to reinforce the unprecedented level of cooperation between the United States and Mexico that this initiative is based on. Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem to appreciate the importance of the initiative as well as its pressing need. They also concur that Congress will have to scrutinize the proposal and stipulate the terms under which the monies are spent, as part of that body’s oversight role and holding the executive branch accountable. We can only hope that the White House’s failure to consult Democrats in Congress during the conceptual phase of the initiative and their decision to bundle the funding for the initiative within the president’s $46 billion request for supplemental funding for the war in Iraq do not end up politicizing the Mérida Initiative to the extent that it leads to yet another impasse between President Bush and a Democratic-led Congress.

The stakes are too high for both nations for the initiative to simply fall victim to politics as usual.

Jorge ChabatOctober 25, 2007

Jorge Chabat

I agree with Armand in the sense that the Merida Initiative is just an initial step toward the deepening of bilateral security cooperation between Mexico and the United States. Moreover, it could be the basis for a regional security agreement that will include the United States, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and probably Colombia, Peru and Canada. However, such an initiative would face several obstacles: the anti-U.S. feelings that are still very strong in some part of the media and the political elite, the anti-Mexican feeling that exist in some sectors of the United States, and the influence of Chavez’s Venezuela in the Caribbean.

The opposition to the Merida Initiative in Mexico has been produced by a combination of factors: political interests, intra-bureaucratic competition, and misinformation. The Calderon administration cannot do anything to solve the first reason, can do little regarding the second reason, and a lot in the case of the third reason. Some of the opinions expressed are assuming that the initiative is a loan or that it will be provided in cash and that Mexico can use that cash to acquire technology from other countries. Obviously, these opinions are misinformed.

One of the factors that provokes most of the suspicions about this initiative is the occult interest of the United States. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” some say. Obviously, the main gain that the United States has in providing the assistance to Mexico is stability in its Southern border. That is something that need to be more explained to the Mexican public.

The Merida Initiative has to overcome the opposition of part of the media and the political elite in Mexico. Even when the arguments expressed against the initiative are not very strong, it is probable that those who oppose the initiative would push for a presentation of that proposal in the Mexican Senate. The Mexican Constitution establishes that all international treaties should be ratified by the senate. However, the Mexican minister of foreign relations has expressed that the Merida Initiative is a political declaration that does not involve international commitments. Consequently, he said, it should not be presented to the Senate.

I agree with Armand that if the Merida initiative gives the impression that it is going to set up conditions for judiciary reform or other domestic reforms, it will generate a lot of noise in the Mexican public. Actually, Senator Ricardo Monreal (of the PRD) has used this argument. Some technical assistance and advice would be helpful for Mexico to achieve these reforms, but it is very important to take care of the form in which this assistance is provided.

Armand Peschard-SverdrupOctober 24, 2007

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup

I think that it is important to consider the Mérida Initiative as an initial step toward the deepening of bilateral security cooperation between the United States and Mexico. The cooperation must be based on a much more balanced set of common threats and objectives, as opposed to just a means to advance an agenda that is perceived to be skewed toward addressing only U.S. security concerns.

The initiative is likely to provide opportunities for confidence building between the U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and security agencies. After all, overcoming the almost habitual levels of mutual mistrust that Jorge Chabat points out is crucial if the two governments are ever to tactically succeed in going after transnational threats jointly.  

Moreover, it is important to realize that any initiative designed by the Bush and Calderón administrations could not be overly bold. Neither government has much political maneuverability at home, because both are minority governments that must contend with healthy opposition parties in their respective Congresses.

The Merida Initiative had to be carefully drafted so that Mexicans would not perceive it as an encroachment on Mexico’s sovereignty. To be acceptable to the U.S. public, the initiative—and more important the $1.4 billion funding contemplated for a multiyear period—had to be packaged as money spent on curbing the flow of drugs that enter the United States. This is particularly important when viewed against the backdrop of the billions of dollars being spent in Iraq as well as a complicated political environment with lingering hostility emanating from an immigration debate that is still being played out in many regions throughout the United States, which—rightly or wrongly—many Americans associate with Mexico.   

Although I certainly agree with Jorge Chabat that Mexico must still carry out a series of key measures aimed at professionalizing Mexican law enforcement personnel and organizationally restructuring Mexico’s security apparatus, these are tasks that must be carried out by Mexico alone and therefore need to remain completely separate from any type of bilateral or regional initiative. Otherwise, opponents of the Mérida Initiative would be quick to allude to such internal reform measures as indicators that the U.S. government is setting conditions on Mexico in exchange for the support it is offering.

Ultimately, if both the United States and Mexico manage the Mérida Initiative effectively, it could conceivably evolve into a framework for subregional security cooperation that could extend to Central America, which cannot be ignored in discussions of security and ways to combat transnational crime.

Jorge ChabatOctober 23, 2007

Jorge Chabat

I agree with Armand Peschard that an ideal U.S.-Mexico security cooperation agreement should include the strengthening of the institutions in both countries that are dedicated to combat security threats. The emphasis given in the Merida Initiative to improve the technological capabilities of the Mexican government goes in the right direction. The achievement of security needs the latest technology and this is a matter of money. However, this effort would be useless if the Mexican government is not able to fight corruption in the Mexican police forces. The lack of trust in Mexican police forces has complicated bilateral collaboration since the 1980s. From this perspective, the Merida Initiative is not enough. In the long term, cooperation between Mexico and the United States should include assistance for institution building in Mexico in the judiciary and the prison system. Technological assistance to fight organized crime is very important but if there is not a transformation of the institutional framework in Mexico, this battle would be unproductive.

I also agree with Armand that there is a need to strengthen the Mexican intelligence-gathering capability. This should be the cornerstone of the Mexican strategy against drug trafficking and other threats like terrorism. The recent attacks to oil infrastructure by the Popular Revolutionary Army reveal the weakness of the Mexican intelligence services. The U.S.-Mexico collaboration in this area has been one of the elements that explain the absence of terrorists in Mexican territory. However, the fact that the Mexican Intelligence agency (CISEN) has been used in the past for political purposes has generated big doubts about the professionalization of this office. This is one of the most important security challenges for Mexico.

The efforts developed by the Calderon Administration to unify the federal police forces have faced many obstacles, but this is an ongoing process. Last week the Mexican government announced the creation of a police model based in a new “Federal police” that will have a broad national presence. This model supposes also the establishment of a new police academy that will train police chiefs. An ideal security plan between Mexico and the United States should contemplate some training of Mexican policemen.

Certainly, the Mexican army is still reluctant to change and is less open to globalization than the navy. This is a process that will take years. However, during recent years there has been an important number of Mexican military who have been trained in the United States, which contributes to a better understanding of the foreign world. An ideal framework of cooperation between Mexico and the United States should contemplate this kind of exchanges, including U.S. military spending some time in Mexican military facilities.

Finally, an important aspect of U.S.-Mexico cooperation should be the control of gun smuggling from the United States to Mexico. This requires a clearer commitment from the U.S. government. It is not the only factor that fuels drug-related violence in Mexico but it is an important one. If the United States wants a more stable border, it should make more efforts to control arms sale in American territory.

Armand Peschard-SverdrupOctober 22, 2007

Armand Peschard-Sverdrup

An ideal U.S.-Mexico security cooperation agreement would have to be based on the principle that the governments of the United States and Mexico must undertake various domestic as well as collective measures to more successfully confront the threats posed to both nations by transnational organized crime—such as drug trafficking, the diversion of chemical precursors for the illicit drug trade, human trafficking, arms smuggling, money laundering, and even contraband. Thus, the agreement would have to include both countries’ commitment to a common set of objectives and strategies, as well as an intensified level of cooperation, information sharing, and coordination between the respective agencies.

The agreement would also have to address the institutional asymmetries that currently exist between the United States and Mexico. The countries would need to agree to strengthen the numerous institutions that play differing, yet equally vital, roles in targeting and combating these various security threats. The U.S. government would ideally help Mexico further strengthen the Center for Investigation and National Security [Mexican intelligence agency] and its intelligence-gathering capability so that the agency could more effectively counter the threats posed by nonstate actors—be they terrorists, organized crime, criminal gangs, or the Popular Revolutionary Army [Mexican guerrilla movement].

Mexico’s law enforcement agencies—the Federal Investigative Agency and the Federal Preventive Police—also need to be strengthened. President Calderón has expressed an interest in creating a unified command as well as a single federal police force for Mexico. However, it remains to be seen whether he can pull off such an organizational restructuring politically without the impetus of a compelling event. Strengthening law enforcement will increase Mexico’s ability to combat crime and therefore enhance the nation’s competitiveness from the standpoint of making it a more attractive destination for foreign direct investment. It also will strengthen rule of law, which will aid in the further consolidation of Mexican democracy.   

Given the level of trade between our two countries through the twenty-five ports of entry, we should continue to strengthen the operational capability of Mexico’s customs agency, which has one of the most progressive relationships with its U.S. counterpart—Customs and Border Patrol—and can serve as a model for the other agencies.

Given that Mexico’s army and navy are the only two institutions with a true nationwide deployment capability, it is in the interest of Mexico and the United States to continue to strengthen these institutions so that they can confront twenty-first-century threats. Mexico’s navy has always been more receptive to force transformation, but the army has been more hermetic and reticent to change. However, these days the army has a more progressive outlook not only because of generational change among its leadership, but also out of concern that the army will be passed over in the security-oriented appropriations that the Calderón government and the Mexican Congress will be earmarking in the next few years.

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