By Ariana García Reyna *
Throughout the 12 years of its implementation, the Mérida Initiative has comprised all the major programs and strategies regarding bilateral security cooperation between Mexico and the United States. Since its establishment in 2008 by former presidents Felipe Calderón and George W. Bush, the U.S. through the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) -along with other U.S. agencies- has coordinated the delivery of US $3.1 billion dollars in assistance to Mexico, making the Mérida Initiative one of the most important public policies between both countries. Nevertheless, there are still exist disagreements about the program’s overall results and effectiveness.
The Mérida Initiative has become victim to misinformation regarding its actions and capacities, due mainly to evolving objectives from changes in leadership both in the U.S. and Mexico that reflected different priorities and challenges. The Mérida Initiative has undoubtedly promoted greater cooperation between the U.S. and Mexico providing tangible support to judicial and public institutions in Mexico, and making possible to combat and prosecute transnational criminal organizations. Furthermore, the programs coordinated by INL’s -with the participation of U.S. agencies- have strengthened border security and facilitated inter-institutional communication. From 2008 to 2010, US $420.7 million of the Mérida Initiative were used to purchase equipment for the police and military. However, from 2011 to 2017, the focus of the Mérida Initiative was on promoting institutional capacity. This strategy was based on four strategic pillars: 1) Disrupt the capacity of organized crime to operate; 2) Institutionalize the capacity to uphold the rule of law 3) Create a 21st century border infrastructure; 4) Build strong and resilient communities.
What are the outcomes of this bilateral security agreement? Among many things, the Mérida Initiative has produced concrete results such as: provided canines to Mexican law enforcement, supported the accreditation of Mexican prisons and facilitated exchange and training programs for Mexican public officials and law students. These programs have been implemented throughout all 32 states in Mexico. However, the effectiveness of these programs varies from state to state due to limited compliance with the principles of the bilateral initiative. A lack of political will, corruption, and low budgets allocated for security by some Mexican state governments have caused a delay in the implementation of certain programs, accreditations, and equipment donations.
For example, until 2016, communication with the state of Tamaulipas was limited compared to other border states with similar security problems. The lack of political will of the state government caused a delay in the implementation of some of the programs of the Mérida Initiative in Tamaulipas. Let’s look at the example of one of the most important INL assistance programs: the accreditation of Mexican prison institutions. Since the beginning of the program, the American Corrections Association (ACA) has accredited 98 Mexican institutions. Despite it being a border state, none of these institutions are located in Tamaulipas. Fortunately, communication with Tamaulipas state government officials has improved remarkably since then. In 2018, for the first time, law students from the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas had the opportunity to see an oral trial hearing and American lawyer facilitated trainings and capacity-building programs for law students, prosecutors, and lawyers in Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, and Tampico. INL has donated recording equipment to courts and trained state police officers. Earlier this year, INL donated 33 pieces of equipment for processing and conserving biological samples to the Forensic Genetics Laboratory at the Attorney General’s Office of Tamaulipas, and in August the University of Security and Justice of Tamaulipas (USJT) received the donation of a Virtual Shooting Simulator.
Despite all the resources and programs that the Mérida Initiative has successfully carried out, in February 2020, Richard H. Glenn, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, acknowledged in a public hearing that the objectives that had been proposed for the Mérida Initiative had not been achieved. Assistance programs have not contributed substantially to the reduction in the availability of drugs in the U.S. or contributed to reducing the levels of violence in Mexico.
Despite many success stories, equipment donations and institution accreditations, we remain wary about the overall results and effectiveness of the Mérida Initiative, largely because it has not been properly evaluated. In May 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report stating that INL “did not generally follow the key practices for developing monitoring plans that identify project goals and objectives and address risks to achieving them. Furthermore, the State Department/INL did not consistently track project performance data”.
This does not mean that the Mérida Initiative was not successful, but that it has not been properly evaluated due to lack of or inaccuracy in the data. The indicators and effectiveness of the programs should be analyzed on a state-by-state basis, taking into consideration the variables and risks that impact their implementation and consequently their results. At the beginning of 2020, the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute facilitated a meeting between 12 former Mexican and U.S. ambassadors to discuss the direction of the bilateral relationship and the new priorities of both governments. They agreed that Mexico and the U.S. should analyze and create strategies to work together against new shared problems such as the increasing use of fentanyl and large flows of irregular migration.
For the Mérida Initiative to be successful going forward, each Mexican state must ensure that it has a budget and the political will leading to an effective communication with U.S. Consulates and the U.S Embassy in Mexico City. On the other side, the U.S Department of State and INL specifically must continue their efforts to modernize and improve the monitoring and evaluation of their assistance programs.
* Ariana García Reyna is a Fellow at the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and has worked as local staff both for the U.S. Department of State mission Mexico and for the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The U.S.-Mexico Foundation is a binational non-profit organization dedicated to fostering bilateral cooperation and improving the understanding between the United States and Mexico by activating key people in the relationship that once were dormant. Twitter: @usmexicofound