If the US-Mexico relationship were a baseball game (humor me), the High-Level Economic Dialogue would be on second base (on position for scoring a run but needing help from its teammates) while the conversation on security would be anxiously waiting on-deck: knowing it needs to get a hit in but unsure if it really knows what pitches are coming.
On October 8th, Secretaries Blinken and Mayorkas and Attorney General Garland will visit Mexico to discuss where security cooperation is headed. This happens in the aftermath of General Cienfuegos’ arrest in the US and subsequent acquittal in Mexico, Mexico’s legal changes restricting activities by foreign agents, the lawsuit against US gun-makers, and Foreign Minister Ebrard declaring the Mérida Initiative extinct.
U.S.-Mexico security cooperation is a must because transnational challenges require transnational solutions (on this hill I will die). However, security cooperation is also urgent in view of the excess mortality both countries are facing. Covid-19 deaths for the U.S. and Mexico are close to one million in addition to 90,000 lives lost in 2020 to overdose deaths in the US and 36,379 homicides in Mexico. For decades, cooperation on security has been characterized by distrust and friction but this need not to be the standard. If I were the general manager (humor me again) these would be my talking points for the dugout and the bullpen:
What I would tell Mexico
Given the asymmetry in the relationship, institutionalization is beneficial for Mexico. The Mérida Initiative could be called the Tabasco Initiative for all the U.S. government cares. The key is having a framework for engaging challenging topics that prioritizes certainty over reactivity.
The need for a framework goes beyond a question of names. As it stands, U.S. officials perceive low levels of institutionalization and a high degree of variability in cooperation contingent on personalities. This will hardly help Mexico achieve security objectives with the U.S.. A framework, therefore, benefits Mexico and provides assurances to the U.S.
The Biden administration is prioritizing an anti-corruption agenda. This is a unique window of opportunity for addressing—meaningfully—an issue area that has been a constant irritant in the relationship. The U.S. has been waiting on a home run, nay, a grand slam, for years on this matter.
Did I mention 90,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2020? Ah, yes, I did. A binational fentanyl interdiction taskforce remains a low-cost high reward policy option to lead by example when saying that loss of life should matter to our neighbor (I’m looking at you, firearm lawsuit).
What I would tell the US delegation
Politically, it is understandable that Foreign Minister Ebrard seeks to distance this administration from the Mérida Initiative. After all, you cannot call this sexenio the Fourth Transformation while maintaining links with the Calderón years. So far, you have not swung at what is clearly a bad pitch.
Rhetoric aside, two pillars of the Mérida Initiative closely align with President López Obrador’s social agenda: Institutionalizing capacity to sustain rule of law and building strong and resilient communities. This is to say, that while the Mexican government proclaims it does not want any more helicopters, there is no need to reinvent the wheel on some programmatic aspects that have yielded results such as capacity building programs for the judicial branch.
The magnitude of Mexico’s forensic crisis provides a space for finding common ground. I have previously explained that this is not only a technical problem but one of political will. Yet, results in this area could generate good will among Mexican officials who are committed to showing they are not indifferent to the pain of thousands of families. This will require working with the subnational level and I trust you will find allies outside Mexico City.
One last thing, remember Tommy Lasorda’s words: There are three types of baseball players: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happens.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc