By Mariana Raphael *
On October 8, Mexico hosted the United States for the High-Level Security Dialogue with the objective of resetting security cooperation and drafting an updated framework in response to both countries’ current challenges. With this in mind, an agreement was reached to move beyond the Merida Initiative and its focus on strengthening Mexico’s crime-fighting capabilities and rule of law projects to a revamped “U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities.”
The revival of the security dialogue comes at a critical moment, as it follows the tensions triggered by the case of General Salvador Cienfuegos, changes introduced by Mexico to restrict foreign agents, and the Mexican government’s lawsuit against American arms producers. Altogether, these factors significantly weakened the trust between the two countries, thus making evident the urgency of a new cooperative framework to tackle binational security issues.
The meeting, led by Secretaries Marcelo Ebrard and Antony Blinken, emphasized the need for an alliance not only focused on dismantling criminal organizations, but also on understanding the root causes behind continued crime and violence. To this end, each government emphasized its main concerns, Mexico’s being illicit arms trafficking and the United States’ being the flow of fentanyl and the need for greater cooperation regarding the control of Pacific ports.
To better understand the main differences between the new Bicentennial Agreement and the Merida Initiative, here is some additional context:
From 2008 to 2020, the U.S. allocated more than US $3 billion in equipment, training, and capacity-building support through the Merida Initiative. In this first stage, resources were allocated to purchase equipment – including airplanes and helicopters – to support Mexico’s security forces. Subsequently, four pillars were established: the disruption of organized crime operating capacities; the strengthening the institutionalized capacity to enforce the rule of law; the creation a 21st-century border structure; and the building of strong and resilient communities. However, during the Trump administration, the initiative shifted priorities to focus primarily on border and port control, as well as combating synthetic drug production.
While the Merida Initiative was designed to be a malleable mechanism that could adapt to changing challenges and needs, the escalation of violence in Mexico and growing number of drug-related deaths in the U.S. raised serious questions about the Initiative’s effectiveness. According to World Bank figures, during the first ten years of the initiative, the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Mexico grew from 12.63 (2008) to 29.07 (2018). Furthermore, according to the Global Organized Crime Index, Mexico is among the top 5 countries with the highest criminality levels, only behind the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, and Myanmar. Finally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 52,623 overdose deaths were reported in the United States in 2015, while the figure reached nearly 93,000 in 2020.
Perhaps the Merida Initiative’s greatest contribution, and undoubtedly one of its most valuable, was its work to further the principle of shared responsibility in countering drug-fueled violence. Under this concept, the need to address the problem from both sides of the border was acknowledged. Mexico committed to dealing with corruption, and the United States pledged to address the domestic demand for drugs and arms trafficking. While the diagnosis seemed correct, the truth is that the initiative’s heavy focus on militarization, as well as its short-term vision and reactive strategies, not only failed in terms of curbing the escalation of violence, but also triggered the diversification of criminal organizations, an increase in human rights violations, and a rise in forced disappearances across Mexico.
The Bicentennial Agreement’s approach is certainly a step in the right direction as it incorporates lessons learned based on some of the shortcomings and elements missing from the previous accord. In this regard, the new agreement is a departure from the focus on capturing drug kingpins, confiscating drugs, and shipping weapons and equipment. Rather, it seeks to address the social causes of violence; promote development and public health; reduce addictions; and maintain the principle of shared responsibility in addressing security challenges.
Incorporating educational and social elements to prevent cross-border crime, acknowledging the need to fight against addictions from a public health perspective, and pursuing the reduction of arms and human trafficking, suggest good intentions in terms of cooperation. However, it will be equally essential to ensure issues like transparency in resource management, intelligence sharing, extraditions, migration, strengthening the rule of law, and private sector participation to achieve the established objectives are not left to fall by the wayside.
The meeting took place just a month after the relaunch of the U.S.-Mexico High-Level Economic Dialogue, signaling the return of an institutionalized relationship between both nations. Although a successful security collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico will require a significant rebuild of trust and confidence, as well as realistic action plans, the establishment of mechanisms led by high-level officials is a reassuring sign amid challenging times in Mexico.
As such, the resumption of the security dialogue is undoubtedly excellent news for the bilateral relationship. The joint declaration from both governments shows their shared willingness to work under a new approach, learning from the experiences over the last few years while simultaneously recognizing the need for a new perspective. The challenges will be to maintain this balance, preserve trust, avoid unilateral actions, and prioritize the recognition of a transnational approach as being necessary to address security issues relevant to the bilateral relationship.
* Mariana Raphael is a Public Affairs Advisor and an External Consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank. She is a member of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (Programa de Jóvenes COMEXI). 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: @marianaraphael_