U.S. Partnership Tries to Tamp Down Stubborn Violence in Mexico

WASHINGTON – The joint security agreement between the U.S. and Mexico known as the Merida Initiative has resulted in some obvious improvements in the justice system south of the border and the disruption of some of the most vicious drug cartels operating in the country.

But violence has expanded into much of the countryside and continues seemingly unabated, the Senate Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and Global Narcotics Affairs was told last week, and the new government taking up residence in Los Pinos is looking at making some changes in the overall strategy.

“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,” Ambassador William R. Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics & Law Enforcement Affairs, told the panel. “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.”

The Merida Initiative was conceived by the U.S. and Mexico in 2007 to combat the drug trade and develop a more effective and efficient justice system south of the border.

The agreement was reached during a time when drug-cartel violence was rising dramatically throughout Mexico and corruption was widespread. Law enforcement and the judiciary were ill equipped to deal with the obvious problems.

In 2008, Mexico adopted constitutional reforms that overhauled the police, the courts, and the corrections systems at every administrative level in an effort to build stronger institutions and provide the public with a new degree of confidence that justice could be achieved.

As part of Merida, the U.S. has provided the Mexican government with about $1.2 billion in funding for training, capacity building, and equipment to help implement the reforms. Mexico has invested 10 times that amount.

“Because our assistance was designed jointly with the Government of Mexico, many programs formed integral parts of Mexico’s justice sector reforms and today enjoy a high level of sustainability,” Brownfield said. “Our partnership with Mexico has demonstrated results.”

Since the adoption of the constitutional changes, Mexico has provided training to more than 19,000 federal and state police officers, trained more than 8,500 federal justice personnel, and improved the detection of narcotics, arms, and money, seizing almost $3 billion in illicit goods.

On the corrections side, the number of prisons has expanded from five facilities with a capacity of 3,500 to 14 facilities with a capacity of 20,000. Since 2009, Mexico has apprehended more than 50 senior- and mid-level leaders of drug trafficking organizations, which the government maintains has significantly disrupted the trade.

The election of President Enrique Peña Nieto, a member of the PRI, last August signaled a change of focus for the Merida Initiative but Brownfield and others maintain the cooperative relationship between the two countries continues.

During his successful campaign, Peña Nieto vowed to shift the country's security strategy away from combating drug trafficking toward reducing violence. Throughout his first six months in office, however, he has been slow to define his new security approach, though the general announcements reflect more continuity than change.

The Peña Nieto administration has announced some plans. It intends to create a 40,000-member gendarmerie. It also has begun the process of centralizing control and command of the security apparatus under the Ministry of the Interior.

“Deliberations between our governments on how to proceed under the Merida Initiative have been productive and comprehensive,” Brownfield said. “President Peña Nieto and his administration are committed to continuing our close collaboration on security issues under the four-pillar Merida framework, with a sharper focus on crime prevention and rule of law.”