Mexican Aid Package Passed

(International Relations and Security Network 02/7/2008)


The US Congress approved an aid package to Mexico over the last week of June in an unprecedented admission that the so-called war on drugs has reached America's back door.

The US$400 million allotment is part of a larger aid package destined to bolster a wide range of anti-narcotic efforts inside Mexico, from judicial reform to helicopters, training and human rights support.


Called the Merida Initiative, this supply-side strategy represents many months of negotiation and drafting of a language that respects Mexican sovereignty, placing relatively few restrictions on good behavior in exchange for aid - a classic carrot-and-stick approach the US government has used in Latin America for decades with mixed results.


Yet despite the bilateral goodwill, the plan contains some fundamental flaws.


Also known as Plan Mexico, the aid package places a heavy funding focus on military components, bolstering the involvement of soldiers in what most across the region consider a problem for the police, not the military.


Increasing the involvement of the military through the Merida Initiative - with at least US$116 million of the initial US$400 million installment directed to assisting the Mexican military with helicopters, training and other equipment - could result in an increase in violence, opportunities for corruption, desertion and human rights abuses.


By taking Mexico's drug smuggling organizations head on, President Felipe Calderon has learned he is dealing with a formidable opponent, one that can easily outspend and outgun anything the Mexican government can muster. This direct approach has been blamed repeatedly for the country's continued high levels of violence.


June was the most violent month Mexico has seen since the beginning of the president's administration, with at least 505 reported assassinations across the country.


During this time, 468 civilians were killed in Mexico and 509 in Iraq, a comparison recently made by Mexico's El Universal daily.


Apart from the military assistance, at least US$73.5 million will be allotted to judicial reform. Another US$3 million will be used to create a nationwide police registry, which may work toward plugging some of the gaps exploited by criminals who disguise themselves as federal police officers before conducting raids and assassination missions.


The bilateral cooperation born from this aid package has also opened doors for closer cooperation between the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and its Mexican counterparts. The so-called "iron river" of guns flowing south has long been a point of contention inside Mexico, where some believe that as many as 80 percent of the weapons used by organized crime comes from the US, where gun control laws are relatively relaxed.


A recently announced program, called Armas Cruzadas, formalizes information sharing between US and Mexican customs officials. Most notably, Mexican law enforcement officers will soon receive access to eTrace, a program designed to trace the illicit movement of grey and black market weapons. Adding their own information to the database, Mexican officials will soon be able to assist the ATF and other agencies in determining the destination of weapons purchased in the US for illicit use in Mexico.


The inauguration of Armas Cruzadas and the passage of the Merida Initiative over the last week of June both represent a boost in bilateral cooperation, one Mexican lawmakers claim is an admission on the part of Washington that Mexico's security problem is one shared by the US.


The US government can provide training, military assistance, computer equipment and any number of support mechanisms, but it could have done much more to bolster the resolve required to reform Mexico's police and improve upon its deplorable corruption record.


In the past, corruption has been one of the primary drivers behind the US government's reluctance to share information or offer assistance to Mexico. Many Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other law enforcement officers working in Colombia in the 1990s remember well the unbelievable levels of corruption within that country's police forces. Its presence affected every decision and skewed the outcome of most missions. US legislators should apply lessons learned in Colombia concerning the effects of corruption to their assistance for their neighbor across the border.


Mexico today cannot be compared with Colombia in the early 1990s, but the country has a demonstrable problem with corruption, one the Merida Initiative couldn't begin to eradicate.


That said, a heavier focus on police reform, and other strategies directed at the professionalization of Mexico's police forces specifically, and the security sector in general, could travel a long way toward creating a solid foundation for a modernized and professional police force at both federal and state levels.


The war on drugs has moved north from Colombia to Mexico, at times with violence spilling over into the US, and Washington still maintains a strong focus on a supply-side strategy. The battle has now shifted to Mexico, and the most assured path toward a long-term reduction of violence there is directly tied to a significant reduction in drug demand inside the US.


As the latest installment of an aid package in the decades-old fight to contain the flow of drugs into the US, the Merida Initiative is an excellent step in the right direction despite its inherent flaws, but it cannot defeat the simple laws of economics.