Shannon O’Neil, CFR’s Mexico expert, says that although many members of Congress are upset at not being consulted on the details of a new $1.4 billion multiyear initiative to bolster Mexico’s crackdown on drug and criminal rings, she believes that it will get congressional approval. “There is political will on both sides to help Mexico out,” she says.
You’ve just come back from a trip to Mexico. How did you find the overall state of U.S.-Mexico relations right now? The Mexicans have a relatively new president, Felipe Calderon, and our president, of course, is on his way out. How do the two men and the two governments get along?
The relationship of the United States and Mexico is fairly good, with a couple of caveats. Right now Bush and Calderon have a very respectful relationship. Calderon is much more of a technocrat, of a policymaker, but they have a very respectful relationship.
There are some areas of strong cooperation. One of these is the newly announced Merida Initiative. This is an initiative to improve security on both sides of the border and particularly to go after the drug cartels in Mexico.
Now where did this initiative come from?
It actually came from the Mexican side. Calderon proposed to Bush to do some sort of joint project back in March when they met together in Merida, so hence it becomes the Merida Initiative. In the first year, Bush is proposing $500 million of aid to Mexico and over the next three years $1.4 billion worth of aid to help Calderon build up his technological equipment and police and military forces to combat the drug cartels.
It’s always been reported that the Mexican police are very corrupt and that because of the drug rings everywhere in Mexico, there is corruption throughout. Will this money really help or just go down the drain?
This is a big question. The exact amounts and where they are going haven’t been released yet. But it looks like 50 percent is going to equipment. There will be new helicopters, boats, surveillance equipment, x-ray machinery for the border, that sort of thing. Another 25 percent is going to training to use this equipment and then only about 25 percent to the strengthening of police forces and judicial systems. In the short term, Mexico needs this equipment. The drug cartels are very well armed and they are very sophisticated so to fight them the government needs similar materials. In the long term what needs to be done is strengthening the institutions of the police, the military, and the judicial system. There is some money for that but it’s not a lot.
Is there a bill now before Congress?
Sure. It is a supplementary funding bill mainly for Iraq, in which the Merida Initiative is included. It is $500 million as a part of a larger $50 billion package. So it’s tied in some ways to the state of the Iraq funding as well, which is of course an issue in its own right.
Has the initiative gone to any committee for consideration?
This is just added on. So the people in the House and Senate foreign relations committees are discussing this but the administration hasn’t sent someone yet to really discuss the nitty-gritty of this bill to either of the subcommittees yet. So they haven’t really yet started hatching up the issues yet. Congress has complained that its members were left out of the negotiation process.
Usually when there is a major initiative, people from the State Department or the Defense Department go to Capitol Hill and brief the staff people on what’s up. Why was this done so secretively?
It’s hard to know. In fact the House subcommittee on the western hemisphere had asked the State Department to come right after it was really released. The department said, “Not yet. We’re going to come in a couple of weeks with more information.” So it’s a little unclear why they have been so secretive. But perhaps it’s because they were really hammering out these negotiations with the Mexican government and trying to deal with the sensitivities of Mexico.
Congress has complained that its members were left out of the negotiation process.
Mexico, as much as it needs this funding, and Calderon is really open to working with Bush on the security issues, there are some long-standing historical sensitivities in getting money from the United States and particularly what strings would be attached to it. Mexico is very protective of its sovereignty and very worried about any incursion of U.S. security forces or private contractors—like Blackwater—coming in to train Mexicans. So that’s the big sticking point between the two governments and I think they are probably trying to work through those issues.
Is there much opposition to this in the Mexican press?
There is token opposition, particularly on the issue of sovereignty—what are the strings that are going to be attached by the U.S. government in order to get this funding? But overall the security issue is hugely important for all the parties and Calderon has been incredibly popular. He came into government almost a year ago and the first big initiative was a “get tough” type policy, a law-and-order presidency, and that’s been incredibly popular. His approval ratings have soared. Even the opposition parties are really behind him in terms of supporting some sort of crackdown on this violence, trying to return law and order to the streets.
Is Calderon’s popularity higher than when he was elected by a narrow margin?
Much higher. It is exactly double the numbers from when he was elected. There are worries about whether or not this is sustainable, even with this new equipment, even with sending the military to combat the drug cartels, can he be successful in the long term? And this comes back to the institutions. But right now, people are glad the government is actually trying to do something, so it enhances his popularity.
I may be naïve here but when you hear about Mexico these days, everyone is talking about illegal immigration. Is this part of the selling point to Congress?
It is not part of this actual agreement. And when I said the relationship between Mexico and the United States was quite good with a few caveats, the main caveat is the immigration issue. And there, Mexicans of all political stripes are very united in what they believe. They believe the United States needs Mexican migrants and they believe the migrants are treated poorly in the United States. And particularly the U.S. plan to build a frontier wall is seen as an affront to Mexico and to the relations between the countries.
It is true that many businessmen in this country rely on immigrants, and there is probably no question that many of them are treated poorly. There’s no possibility of any change in immigration laws in this Congress, is there?
I don’t think in this Congress or under this presidency there is going to be any change. We saw them try to do that in the comprehensive immigration reform which we saw fail. The debates became very bitter in the last few months and even when they tried to resurrect the DREAM Act, which was an act that would allowed children who have been here throughout their childhood if they entered college or wanted to be in the armed services to stay. They tried to revise the act, which had some support before the comprehensive immigration bill, and that also was shot down just in the last couple of weeks. So I don’t see any real reforms happening to immigration at least under this administration.
What have the Democratic Party candidates said about this issue?
Almost all the Democratic candidates say that some sort of reform is needed. They say some sort of way of increasing and improving our guest-worker program, allowing more work flexibility, and some sort of path to regularizing the situation of the twelve million undocumented immigrants who live here in the United States now. The details of course are very unclear and no one is going to into those.
And the Republican candidates?
Almost all the Republican candidates have really turned toward the hard line, focusing just on border enforcement and the problems of the illegal immigrants, not a solution that would really provide them a path toward citizenship, or even a more regularized stay here. So we do see in the debates actually quite different positions between the Republican candidates overall and the Democrats.
And Democrats in Congress?
This is a tough issue and it really depends on the member’s districts. But overall Democrats have been more accepting of this population and the need to find some sort of happy medium where you enforce the border and you improve security issues, but to also find a way to regularize the situation of these illegal immigrants going forward. It depends on the different areas and it’s a very tense issue because people come down to this issue in different ways.
But does this carry over into this Merida Initiative?
It doesn’t as much as in this initiative. There have been a couple of things said in passing by administrative officials that by improving security in Mexico, we’ll limit the desire to migrate to the United States. I don’t think that’s actually true. What really in the long run would stop the migration to the United States is economic development and creation of jobs in Mexico, which isn’t going to come out of this particular initiative.
Is there still a lot of unemployment in Mexico?
That is an issue, but the other issue in Mexico is that Mexico is right now experiencing a bubble of people between the ages of twelve and eighteen. So we have seen over the last decade a huge amount of people, a million people a year, coming into the workforce from Mexico. Over the next five or ten years we’ll continue to see this large bubble of people entering the workforce, which the government hasn’t been able to provide jobs for, or the private sector as well. But that’s going to fade in 2015 to 2020. This bubble is going to change. Mexico’s demographics have shifted to look much more like the United States, so we won’t see this influx of new workers, say ten to fifteen years from now. We’re going to see changes in the dynamics in migration just because of the demographic changes that are already in the works.
Mexico is very protective of its sovereignty and very worried about any incursion of U. S. security forces or private contractors, like Blackwater, coming in to train Mexicans.
When people take polls, what do Americans say about immigrants?
It depends on the ways the questions are phrased but in almost every poll you see 60 percent of the people in the United States want some sort of reform. They see these people work hard, and they see there is a need to fix this problem. They are worried about security and they see a problem that there’s twelve million people without documents that aren’t part of society and that we don’t know who they are. They see that problem. But 60 percent of the people want us to find a path where they can regularize the situation, not sending them all back. The problem is that the extremes are much more vocal and loud and this is a priority issue for them. So that is what we hear when we listen to the news or look at the media.
Coming back to where we started, is the Merida Initiative going to pass?
There is support in both Mexico and the United States for this to pass. There will be some strings attached and other stipulations as the initiative works its way through Congress. There is political will on both sides to help Mexico out. Mexico’s president is trying very hard to combat his country’s violence, which often is very close to our borders. So unlike Colombia, which is relatively far away, where we have invested over $5 billion in security assistance, Mexico is right on our border. So it’s really imperative that we help this country out in its quest to stop its violence.