By Regina Rosales Talamas *
On October 2021, the U.S. and Mexican governments unveiled a new phase in the bilateral security relationship with the launching of the so-called “U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities”. The new arrangement puts to rest the controversial Mérida Initiative through which both countries engaged on security cooperation since 2008. Past efforts are proof that there is enough political will between the two countries to tackle organized crime, something both agree is a common threat. Yet, the new framework is born from an uneven bilateral relationship in which security priorities are not perfectly aligned. On the one hand, the US is focused on preventing illegal narcotics from entering its territory, while at the same time controlling irregular migration at its Southern border. On the other hand, the Mexican government is more worried about high levels of criminal violence impacting their citizens.
The Bicentennial Framework comes as a ‘holistic’ strategy, based on a new approach regarding narcotics and the structural causes of violence in Mexico. Its three main objectives are: 1) the protection of people through “investing in public health as related to the impacts of drug use, supporting safe communities, and reducing homicides and high-impact crimes;” 2) the prevention of transborder crime “by securing modes of travel and commerce, reducing arms trafficking, targeting illicit supply chains, and reducing human trafficking and smuggling;” and 3) the pursuance of criminal networks “by disrupting illicit financiers and strengthening security and justice sectors”. On paper, the framework deals with the drug crisis as a public health crisis, it agrees on giving youth better opportunities and it focuses in dealing with drug cartels as illegal economic actors dealing with supply chain issues and financial costs.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the new U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework will be able to tackle a multi-faced, very complex and challenging issues as criminality and violence. Even though both governments have committed to try a new approach, some analysts have criticized how effective it could really be and whether both governments have the capacities (and willingness) to actually put it into action.
Violence in Mexico has been on the rise, and the new Bicentennial Framework is unlikely to radically change this trend. Moreover, Mexico’s current security strategy seems more skewed towards a militarized approach, rather than a holistic approach. The Mexican government has taken several steps into giving military authorities power over law enforcement duties thus deepening the country’s militarization process that began more than a decade ago. The Mexican government’s push to transfer the relatively new National Guard from the Ministry of Public Security to the Ministry of Defense could have many implications both political and financial, and for human rights considerations. While originally thought as a temporary move, the involvement of the military to counter crime in Mexico may well extend in time. On October 4th, the Mexican Senate voted in favor of extending the military’s role in public security until 2028.
What are the implications of the Mexican military overseeing public security within the context of the U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework? In principle, the military approach seems to go against the spirit of the agreement altogether and puts at risk its viability. In this regard it is relevant to say that the U.S. Congress has a great sway in U.S.-Mexico cooperation and that it has influence in it through the appropriations process. Given the concerns in the U.S. Congress about militarization, it could also influence the future of the U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework by conditioning security cooperation funds for Mexico. Last March, the U.S. Congress enacted FY2022 Appropriations Act (P.L. 117-103) and assigned US $158.9 million in security assistance to Mexico. In the law’s explanatory statement (H. Rept. 117-84), Congress instructed that “none of the funds appropriated by this Act and made available for assistance for Mexico be used to support military involvement in law enforcement in Mexico.” It remains to be seen where the U.S. will allocate these funds for Mexico, and whether it has some effect in preventing the further militarization of public security in Mexico.
One year after its unveilment, there are still many uncertainties regarding the new phase of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation. Will both governments find a way to align priorities? Or will our security strategies go in separate ways? Both the Biden and AMLO administrations have explicitly expressed their belief in shared responsibility to tackle a mutual threat. Both governments need to find a common ground and deepen cooperation in areas such as intelligence and capacity building in order to address structural issues that aggravate the security crisis.
* Regina Rosales Talamas works at the Unit for Public Credit and International Affairs in Mexico’s Ministry of Finance. She holds a master’s degree in International Relations Research from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from El Colegio de México. The US-Mexico Foundation, 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: @usmexfound