WASHINGTON – The State Department remains confident it will be able to work with the recently installed Mexican government on vital security matters like combating drug cartels despite changes instituted by President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Since assuming office in December, Peña Nieto has placed a greater focus on addressing his nation’s violent crime rate than tackling the drug trade, a major source of illicit narcotics entering the U.S. The new president also has exhibited, at least for public consumption, more skepticism over America’s involvement in Mexico’s security affairs than his predecessor, Felipe Calderon.
But Washington is betting the cooperative spirit shaped by the signing of the Merida Initiative in 2008, a partnership developed to dismantle the drug cartels, improve Mexico’s regional justice systems, and strengthen border security, will continue.
Ambassador William R. Brownfield, assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, told the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere on Thursday that Foggy Bottom is “currently forging a new way ahead for the Merida Initiative with President Peña Nieto and his team.”
“The discussions and collaboration have been frank and positive and the conversation is ongoing,” Brownfield said. “Building strong and able justice-sector institutions capable of dealing with organized crime and the accompanying violence and corruption is a difficult and long-term endeavor. It takes years of dedicated and sustained work across numerous institutions and sectors, the political will to affect change, and the resources and stamina to see it through.”
Since the signing of the agreement five years ago, Brownfield said, the security relationship between the two nations separated by a nearly 2,000-mile border “has proven steadfast and collaborative while including some notable transitions and changes along the way.”
That relationship, he said, has achieved “positive results” and he expressed confidence it will continue.
At the time of the Merida Initiative’s inception, cartel-related violence was increasing dramatically and corruption was rampant. Mexico’s institutions were ill-equipped to deal with the challenges they faced. Under Calderon, the nation adopted constitutional reforms to overhaul its entire justice sector from the police to the courts to the penal system, measures drawing U.S. support and agreement on the Merida Initiative.
As part of the initiative, the U.S. has provided about $1.2 billion worth of training, capacity building, and equipment to help Mexico implement its reforms, with Mexico itself investing more than $10 billion.
The partnership has produced some positive results. Training provided to more that 19,000 federal and state police officers established a degree of professionalism within the ranks. Secure incarceration facilities were expanded. About $3 billion worth of illicit goods have been seized under the program and more than 50 senior and mid-level drug trafficking organization leaders have been arrested, disrupting operations.
But Francisco Gonzalez, an associate professor in the Latin American Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, testified before the subcommittee that the perception of America’s involvement in Mexican affairs has not proven to be altogether welcomed.
A turning point in Mexican public opinion, Gonzalez said, was the “Fast and Furious” scandal, carried out by the Arizona field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) between 2006 and 2011. The operation allowed more than 2,000 AK-47s to enter Mexico in an effort to track down highly placed drugs kingpins. The plan unraveled only after U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was gunned down by one of the weapons in December 2010.
“The Mexican attorney general’s office confirmed that some of these weapons had been recovered in crime scenes where at least 150 Mexicans were maimed or lost their lives, but few officials from either the U.S. or Mexico even blinked an eye,” Gonzalez said. “As of February 2012, more than 1,000 of these weapons remained ‘walking’ around Mexico.”
The Mexican public was further disturbed by the ambush of a U.S. vehicle with diplomatic plates carrying a pair of CIA agents that came under attack by Mexican federal police on the road between Mexico City and Cuernavaca in August 2012.
“The incident was deeply embarrassing for President Calderón but he decided to retain his trusted head of Public Security in charge of the federal police,” Gonzalez said. “This event was an eye-opener to U.S. government officials because it showed how well-informed and brazen Mexican police could be regarding movements of U.S. covert agents operating in the country. In turn, Mexican politicians of all stripes, including some in president Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN), complained in public about the shambolic lack of control of police forces.”
Gonzalez said the incident aided Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the recent election.
“Mainstream media and social media fed the perception that Calderón had ended up giving U.S. law enforcement, intelligence and military forces no-strings-attached access in Mexican territory,” Gonzalez said. “And this led to a significant backlash against this strategy.”
Despite the efforts under the Merida Initiative Mexico experienced what Steven Dudley, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, characterized as “an unprecedented spike in violence.” Homicide rates tripled during the Calderon years and several cities found themselves under siege by the drug cartels who developed their own paramilitary forces. Targets included politicians, police, military personnel, and civilians.
Peña Nieto assumed office maintaining that he would focus his efforts on reducing violence. He dissolved the Secretariat of Public Security, the prime conduit for U.S. assistance under the Merida Initiative, with its responsibilities shifted to the Interior Ministry, leading to speculation that continued cooperation between the two nations was shaky.
Dudley said the change represents “a step backwards in relations and adds layers of bureaucracy that will make it harder to foster the regular and informal contact that some mid-level managers enjoyed during the previous administration and that led to some of the ‘shared cooperation’ sought under Merida.”
Meanwhile the violence continues apace, Dudley said.
Brownfield and the State Department maintain Peña Nieto and his administration are committed to continuing the close collaboration on security issues although with a sharper focus on crime prevention and the rule of law.
“The Peña Nieto administration has proposed a security strategy which includes establishing a commission for the prevention of crime, revising the practice of pre-trial detention to better protect human rights, strengthening the attorney general’s office and creating a national human rights program,” Brownfield said. “The strategy also focuses on police professionalization by seeking to create a career professional service.”
The shift in emphasis, Brownfield told the subcommittee, jibes with the planning and direction of the State Department under the Merida Initiative.
“Building on the Peña Nieto administration’s agenda for police professionalization, we are prepared to work with the government of Mexico to enhance and professionalize existing law enforcement institutions to develop federal standards for Mexican officials in the areas of recruitment, training, discipline and promotion,” he said.
The U.S. under Merida will also continue to build on the successful changes made within the Mexican corrections system and work toward beefing up Mexican law enforcement presence along the border.