New bilateral security agreement with Mexico aims to combat root causes of violence

The Mexican and American flags stand tall on opposite sides of the border.
Clara Migoya
Arizona Republic

High-level officials from the United States and Mexico met last week to consolidate a new security framework between the two countries.

They laid out the priorities and basis of cooperation in the "U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities" that seeks to move away from the 2007 Merida Initiative.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard welcomed the new approach. 

“After 13 years of the Merida Initiative, we’re really due for an updated look at bilateral security cooperation across the full range of issues and concerns for our governments and our peoples,” Blinken said.

The Bicentennial Framework — named for 200 years of binational relations — consists of three objectives and 10 measures: protect communities, prevent smuggling and trafficking, and disrupt criminal networks.

The framework puts an emphasis on a long-term approach that prioritizes both public health and public safety, and addresses the root causes of violence. 

The measures include preventing drug abuse and improving recovery support; reducing homicides in Mexico by professionalizing the criminal justice and law enforcement systems; strengthening oversight and detection of drug precursors; and reducing illicit arms trafficking.

The framework is guided by a "shared responsibility" and driven by the interest to diminish the activities and the harm caused by transnational criminal organizations.

An action plan is expected before Jan. 30, 2022, senior U.S. administration officials said last week in a briefing.

Takeaways from the past

The Merida Initiative was born in 2007 under the former administrations of George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón. Throughout the multi-year initiative, Congress appropriated nearly $3 billion, which mainly was used for providing resources in weapons, training and judicial reform support. 

Its commitments were somewhat similar to the new framework: Mexico would work in tackling corruption and drug trafficking and the U.S. would address drug demand and stop the southbound flow of illicit arms.

However, that cooperation "neither protected US citizens from toxic illegal drugs nor Mexicans from vicious criminal gangs," the U.S. Congress' Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission concluded in a December 2020 report.

The initiative was in "urgent need of reassessment," it said.

The Merida Initiative made clear the "dangers and limits of kingpin targeting," the report said. Studies show every kingpin capture provoked an increase in local homicides, and it became clear that those strategies were not enough to dismantle corruption in the country. Instead, Mexican cartels have fragmented, re-organized and grown. 

This approach was coupled with the Mexican administration's crackdown on drug cartels.

As soon as he took office, former Mexican President Calderón declared a "war against drugs" and three years later deployed 50,000 military troops. The aftermath took a deadly toll on citizens and led to pervasive human rights abuses.

In the last decade, the Mexican National Human Rights Commission received nearly 11,000 complaints from human rights violations perpetrated by the military. Since 2006, more than 66,000 people in Mexico have disappeared.

The report says that, if judged by the number of extraditions from Mexico to the U.S., the initiative of targeting drug lords has been successful. Even before the Merida Initiative, former Mexican administrations extradited between 68 and 587 criminal suspects.

However, the exoneration of former Mexican Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos last year damaged binational relations and undermined trust.

After Cienfuegos was arrested in the U.S. for drug smuggling and money laundering, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to drop the charges and turn the evidence to Mexican authorities. As soon as the retired general set foot in the country, Mexican prosecutors dropped the case. President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of "fabricating" evidence.

The decision caused outrage in the U.S. and Mexico. Critics saw it as more evidence that the military in the country is untouchable.

The Bicentennial Agreement faces increasing challenges as transnational criminal organizations diversify into new illicit industries — such as fentanyl smuggling — while old threats such as illicit arms- and human trafficking linger.

U.S. officials said the new framework “will make clear the commitment of both countries, and, of course, especially the United States in this regard, to work to deal with the flow of arms into Mexico.”

So far, the framework does not sketch out any plan of action. The Mexican foreign affairs secretary explained that while the former initiative was focused on kingpin-targeting, this new framework presents a more holistic view.

U.S. officials never clarified how much funding will go into the new bilateral agreement. Funding will be determined based on the goals, and not the other way around, Blinken said.

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Reach the reporter at cmigoya@arizonarepublic.com or send a direct message on Twitter to @ClaraMigoya.