The Merida Initiative: Challenges in the Fight against Crime and Drug Trafficking in Mexico (ARI)

The Merida Initiative: Challenges in the Fight against Crime and Drug Trafficking in Mexico (ARI)

Theme: The Presidents of Mexico and the US, Felipe Calderón and George W. Bush, agreed that Mexico would receive an aid package totalling US$1.4 billion over three years. The first US$500 million would be delivered in financial year 2008. The package was called the Merida Initiative so as to avoid being compared to the controversial Plan Colombia. It is a plan to fight organised crime, mainly drug trafficking, and it commits an additional amount in cooperation to Central American countries, which in the first year will total US$50 million.

Summary: This paper examines the background to cooperation programmes in the realm of security and defence between Mexico and the US, based on the fact that Mexico has traditionally received very little aid. This was due to nationalistic opposition within the Mexican armed forces, and also because the political elites disagreed with the US’ policies on communism during the Cold War period. However, since the entry into force of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, and also due to the increase in cocaine trafficking from Colombia to the US in the 80s, mainly through Mexican territory, the strategic positions of the two countries have gradually converged. The increase in bilateral economic and social ties (the US is Mexico’s third-largest trade partner and 20 million Mexicans and their descendants live in the US) led steadily to a kind of strategic partnership on security and defence matters. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mexico began cooperating more closely with the US on anti-terrorism and the US government started considering the need to back the Mexican government in its fight against organised crime, especially drug trafficking, due to the increasing role of Mexican criminal organisations in moving cocaine (it is estimated that 90% of Columbian cocaine enters the US via Mexico). The Merida Initiative was aimed at enhancing cooperation between the two countries’ security and defence systems, in order to make the fight against organised crime more efficient.

Analysis: It is increasingly evident that Mexico’s democratisation process is being hampered by so-called illegal players: institutions which hold effective control, pressure groups and mafia-like structures. Mexican drug-traffickers, at the helm of organised crime in the country, were catapulted to a powerful position by the effects of the war on drugs in Colombia and in the Andean region in general. In Colombia, in the early 90s, the economic and political power of the cartels was unrivalled. The symbol was the Cartel of Medellín and its leader Pablo Escobar. He was captured in 1993 with the help of the US. The success of the US support for Colombia in dismantling the powerful mafias had a negative impact on Mexico. The business was dispersed, the heirs of the great capos spread their operations throughout Colombia and this prevented medium-sized cocaine producers and traffickers from forming large monopolies. The big business, namely exports to the US, helped by Mexican traffickers, underwent a metamorphosis: Mexicans saw their role change completely and they became the sole cocaine suppliers to their northern neighbours (there are an estimated 1.5-2 million consumers of the drug in the US). Some 275 tonnes of cocaine are estimated to enter the US every year, and only 36 tonnes are seized in Mexico (2006). Similarly, marihuana and heroin exports from Mexico to the US have also increased, as have exports of what is currently the most fashionable drug, methamphetamine. In 2000, 500 kilograms of methamphetamine were seized, whereas in 2006 the figure was 2,700 kilograms. The raw materials for this new drug come mainly from China. The Colombian phenomenon was emulated in Peru and Bolivia, where the great capos were hit by US anti-drug strategies and the programmes to eradicate plantations and to seize the drugs, making the Mexicans the owners of the businesses in these countries too. This made the Mexican cartels the most powerful criminal organisations in Latin America.

In the last 20 years, US security doctrine and policies have undergone major changes, making its national security highly inconsistent. From the Cold War and the prevailing bipolar paradigm of 45 years, there was suddenly disproportionate optimism as the communist regimes were dismantled. This singular perception of superiority led to the unipolar-multipolar era of the 90s, with one superpower competing and co-existing with regions and countries that were readjusting to the new global geopolitical situation. President Clinton’s policy on Latin America hinged on the quest for free trade and the consolidation of democratic regimes. But an enemy soon emerged outside the continent: terrorism, and Latin American countries were urged and indeed pressured to cooperate in its defeat. The superpower was attacked, but terrorism is not very widely accepted as a hypothetical threat to security in Latin America. However, countries could not break away from the superpower and anti-terrorist cooperation was not called into question. Islamic fundamentalism and its terrorist offshoots remained little more than a hypothesis or an imported abstraction. This was the case of Mexico, as well as the other Western Hemisphere countries, including even those whose rhetoric was anti-imperialist, such as Cuba and Venezuela. They cooperated with the power that was attacked on 9/11. Mexico signed the border alliance agreements in March 2002 and the Alliance for Security and Prosperity in North America (ASPNA) was signed in 2005 (ASPNA is a tri-national agreement between Mexico, the US and Canada).

Throughout the hemisphere there was talk of cooperative security. This was more realistic in some sub-regions than in others, most notably South and Central America, and commitments were secured (which were difficult to fulfil) at the meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) on Hemispheric Security in October 2003. Since the efforts to combat the terrorist threat were not widely popular due to the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes in Iraq, the weakness of States emerged as a source of instability, due mainly to the fragility of public security and judicial institutions.

In Central America, the population began to be terrorised by transnational gangs, known as maras, and it was asserted that the real insecurity came from inside the countries themselves: public insecurity, the spread of petty crime and the increasing presence of organised crime rings. Thus, the paradigm of the 80s and 90s returned: drug trafficking and its offshoots (in other words, organised crime) became the new threat. This blight, unlike that of terrorism, is real, and exists in all the countries and is gaining strength. Latin American governments do not have efficient instruments with which to fight it. Laws are inconsistent, if indeed there are laws, and they do not manage to develop human and material resources and structures to combat the problem. This is not a military issue, as one might think based on a simplistic view. Organised crime is invisible and has considerable capacity to penetrate into the State itself via corruption. Military personnel are equally susceptible to being corrupted by the power of money. The intelligence services are hardly developing any investigative capacities to combat this problem and the armed forces can scarcely be deployed efficiently if they do not work in partnership and coordination with other State institutions and with broad international cooperation. Furthermore, the new organised crime in Latin America is, by nature, transnational, so that one of the obstacles is the sovereignty of individual countries.

Organised crime takes advantage of the different legal systems and their vacuums and inconsistencies, the lack of physical border control (Mexico-Guatemala and Mexico-US), the lack of transparency in the control of civil servants’ assets, the lack of professionalism on the part of police corps, the lack of adaptation of military doctrine and training systems, submerged economies and the inability to control people’s revenues on the part of the tax authority, the diverting of intelligence services to monitor other issues earmarked as priorities by governments, as well as the institutional weaknesses of these services, and the scant international cooperation in place to tackle the problem. Furthermore, there is mistrust among the institutions of some countries with respect to those of others. For example, the mistrust on the part of the US security system in their Mexican counterparts is notorious, and with good reason, and it is well known that Guatemalan institutions do not trust Mexican security agencies. This is perpetuated ad infinitum, especially in neighbouring countries with long-running or bitter disputes, or due to a lack of communication in a context of different policies implemented by their various leaders.

The US is experiencing the consequences of having focused its national security strategy on other parts of the world. There is a kind of ‘vacuum’ in its Latin American policy, and the latter is plagued with contradictions which place it in confrontation with most other countries, including those which are considered to be strategic allies, like Mexico and Colombia. The debate regarding migration has fuelled unprecedented tensions with Mexico since 2004, with the construction of a wall to prevent illegal migration seen as an affront to Mexico and symbolically viewed as a kind of Berlin Wall. The subject has become politically charged and in Mexico there is a powerful campaign to prevent the wall from being built. The Bush Administration did not manage to secure the signing of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, in early 2007. If this is the case with its closest allies, the distances are considerably greater with those who openly do not share the aggressive discourse of the Bush Administration, not to mention those who are actually striving to build a Bolivarian counter-hegemony, with Venezuela at the helm.

The shift in the policy of cooperation with Latin America, and the de facto abandonment of the focus on terrorism, to concentrate more on organised crime (which is a real threat that is present in all the countries alike, although in different ways) has paved the way for more realistic relations. The new threat is everywhere, all-corrupting and justifies a new integrated cooperation policy. The problem lies at the very top of the pyramid, especially with the large drug cartels and their leaders, since governments’ capacity to tackle this threat is very limited. Strengthening institutional security structures is a priority. This can be done with internal resources or external aid. Accordingly, the Merida Initiative, which is popularly known as the Plan Mexico, is the first experiment in hemispheric cooperation of its kind. Plan Colombia, which was devised during the last few years of the Clinton Administration, involved, from the very outset, a component that does not exist in Mexico: on the one hand were the armed left-wing groups, led by the FARC, and on the other the right-wing paramilitary groups. To justify it and secure Congress’s approval for granting the aid, Plan Colombia always had an “antiterrorist” component which the Merida Initiative does not.

Both the promoters of the Merida Initiative and its critics have raised the level of expectations of Mexico in combating organised crime. Anyone who believes that US%1.4 billion over three years, of which US$500 million will be for the first year, will eradicate or reduce drug trafficking, is unquestionably wrong. It is an insignificant amount of money in relation to the requirements for an integrated plan to combat organised crime and the big cartels. Similarly, the plan’s critics in Mexico overestimate the capacity of the US and its power to ‘violate sovereignty’. It is a very small sum to be able to affect sovereignty. Whoever believes that this is possible underestimates sovereignty. A country’s sovereignty is an intangible, qualitative asset which is developed at the level of perceptions. For those who support the plan, it is organised crime that violates sovereignty in order to undermine the State and dismantle social cohesion, so that help, however modest, can contribute to reinstating the State’s weakened authority in imposing the Rule of Law. What is serious is that the Mexican State itself has still not devised, on its own and using its own resources, an efficient strategy after 20 years of countless failed attempts at fighting drug trafficking. In other words, the problem is the absence of a real national security strategy.

It is the Mexican State’s fault that this plan to fight organised crime is bi-national, due to its manifest incapacity, since there are sufficient funds. Suffice to say that the country’s reserves amounted to US$75 billion when the initiative was first implemented. And if these funds cannot be used to tackle the single biggest threat to the country’s security, it is because the Mexican Congress cannot agree on assessing the scale of the threat, and it is precisely this institution which can change the way the President spends the country’s reserves.

Under the Vicente Fox government (2000-06), 60,000 people were arrested for drug offences (which in Mexico are classed as infringements of the Public Health Act). However, only 15 were cartel leaders: 50 belonged to their financial structures and only 71 hired assassins were captured. Most of those arrested belonged to the lower part of the distribution chain or were peasant farmers. One of the main arguments of the US government is the low rate of drug seizures in Mexico. A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that on average some 275 tonnes of cocaine enter the US from Mexico annually and that the Mexican government only manages to seize 36 tonnes. The report recommends strengthening cooperation, so as to increase the interception capacity of Mexican counternarcotics agencies.

With the cartels’ capacity to breach borders, the Merida Initiative to help Mexican security and intelligence agencies and armed forces should increase the amount of drugs seized. To combat this threat to the population and the State, the Mexican government’s main tool is the military. This could potentially change the country’s civilian-military balance, since the armed forces will have to be strengthened in terms of equipment, budget and also in powers, which could undermine the reform process in the defence sector. The cooperation plan is based on delivering US$550 million in the first year, US$500 million to Mexico and US$50 million to Central America. The Initiative is aimed at preventing the entry and transit of drugs, arms, persons related to drug trafficking activities, and financial resources, through the region and into the US. It includes providing inspection equipment, ion scanners, canine interception units, communications technology, technical advice and training for legal institutions, witness protection programmes, surveillance helicopters and airplanes for rapid reaction in interception. This Initiative is linked to the National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, implemented along the southern border of the US.

Unlike other countries in Latin America, Mexico has refused to accept significant amounts of funds from the US in military aid or for the war on drugs. In the early 90s the US helped create a centre for intelligence to combat drugs (Centro de Planeación para el Control de Drogas, or CENDRO), backed the creation of the Special Airborne Forces (Grupos Aeromóviles de Fuerzas Especiales, GAFES) within the armed forces, and delivered 73 OH-1H helicopters, which were sent back in 1998, causing not inconsiderable tension between the two countries. In the last 12 years, annual aid for the war on drugs from the US government, delivered to the various security agencies and armed forces, totalled US$440 million, and 5,140 people received training (from 1996 to 2007). In 2007, Mexico received US$59 million in military aid. Under the Merida Initiative, Mexico will receive more funds in a single year than it has in the last 12 years put together.

Military aid, when it is approved by the US Congress, will inject cash which the Mexican armed forces and security and law-enforcement agencies do not have, since the federal institutions’ budgets spend more than 95% on paying personnel, and they do not have the resources to modernise their equipment or infrastructure. In terms of equipment for the war on drugs, modernisation will depend largely on the US. This could apply added pressure to adapt the national defence and security structures to US requirements. Another significant factor is that 40% of the first delivery of the aid package will be used for the armed forces: 20% will go to the National Defence Department and 20% to Mexico’s Navy, in other words, each will receive US$100 million. This could help overcome the ‘nationalistic’ obstacles that are so well-rooted within the armed forces, thereby strengthening bilateral cooperation in the medium and long term.

One of the main weaknesses of the armed forces is their financial fragility. In the proposed budget of the National Defence Department for 2008, of the total Mex$34 billion (US$3.2 billion), 95.5% is for personnel costs. The same is true of the Navy Department. There is an extraordinary draft proposal to inject another Mex$7.1 billion (US$650 million) for the Mexican Defence Department (SEDENA). However, this amount is insufficient for both these Departments, considering that the current equipment is obsolete, much of it has already come to the end of its useful lifespan, and to successfully fulfil the two fundamental missions (counternarcotics and help for the civilian population in the event of natural disasters), military equipment must evidently be modernised.

Comparing the Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia, it is clear that the latter is not a violation of that country’s sovereignty, since it was an intervention at the Colombian government’s invitation to help combat a greater evil. This argument highlights the greater danger of the way in which the guerrilla, paramilitaries and drug trafficking do violate the sovereignty of a State and nation, more than the involvement of a foreign country, its advisors and its military equipment do. In Colombia, those who support Plan Colombia point out that its success is measured by the fact that major cartels have not reappeared in the country, the army has regained control of many rural areas, and if it were not for the Plan, the amount of cocaine entering the US would be at least double what it is. Its critics focus on the abstract issue of the violation of sovereignty. Some people assert that all of the resources deployed in Plan Colombia since its implementation have not managed to eradicate either drug trafficking or the ‘narco-terrorist’ guerrilla movement. Colombia received US$860 million in initial aid in 2000, and until 2005 US$4 billion were spent, of which 80% went to the police forces and military. In 2006, the US Congress approved US$734 million in aid for the ‘Andean Counter-Drug Initiative’ and a further US$278 million for the Colombian police and army.

Another of Mexico’s weak points in its relationship with organised crime is its porous and uncontrolled southern border. In the case of Guatemala, international aid to overcome a grave conflict, culminating in the 1996 peace agreement and, more recently, the creation of the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), on 19 November 2006, led to the realisation that the country is in the clutches of a serious emergency due to the power of organised crime, which prompted its government to call on the help of the UN. Like Mexico in its relationship with the US, recognition of its own incapacity led Guatemala to ask for help in combating this new threat.

Conclusions: Strengthening security and the military in Mexico has been an urgent priority since the government of Felipe Calderón first took power. The increase in aid from the US via the Merida Initiative can have two effects: one positive and one negative. The positive side is that the Mexican government recognises the need to modernise its military equipment, and to update the technology used in its intelligence systems and in the systems for training people who are involved in defence and national security institutions. The negative side is that it could lead to an unwanted increase in the militarisation of the strategy for fighting organised crime, which could have negative consequences in terms of human rights, and which could also imply a dominating role for the armed forces in controlling many police security forces which should, by their institutional nature, be civilian. Based on these two factors, the Merida Initiative could have the collateral effect that decision-making processes in defence matters are not modernised, and this could undermine the process to fully democratise the State.

Another factor to take into account is the collateral effect on markets. Drug trafficking is a global phenomenon and should be tackled globally, based on multinational cooperation. If the amount of cocaine entering the US is reduced, then the traffickers will seek to tap European markets. And there is already evidence that the drug routes between the Andes and Africa and Europe are being consolidated. Accordingly, these cooperative efforts must be transformed into a multinational strategy, not only focused on bilateral programmes. Drug traffickers are successful businessmen and have shown considerable flexibility and capacity to adapt to the various strategies which have sought, and failed, to control and remove them.

Raúl Benítez Manaut
Analyst at the Centre for Research into North America (Centro de Investigaciones sobre América del Norte), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, and chairman of the Group for the Analysis of Security with Democracy (Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia)



I)           Counternarcotics, Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Programme (US$306.3 million)

·         US$208.3 million for eight Bell 412 transport helicopters, US$24 million for logistics equipment, parts and training package; 87 manual ion scanners for the Army and Air Force; and two reconnaissance aircraft (CASA CN-235-300, each costing US$50 million, furnished with Coast-Guard equipment) for the Navy.

·         US$31.3 million to help the National Institute for Migration (Instituto Nacional de Migración) modernise its database and information verification system, digitalised migration forms and training and equipment of personnel in rescue techniques, for use on Mexico’s southern border.

·         US$25.3 million to set up a secure communications system at facilities belonging to national security agencies and to monitor e-mail passwords.

·      US$2 million to expand the capacity of the Attorney General’s Office in working to fight drug traffickers: Operation against Smuggling, Initiative on Safety and Security (OASISS), to identify and prosecute traffickers of people on the Mexican-US border.

·         US$31.5 million for X-ray scanners and training for drug-sniffer dogs and customs agents at entry points.

·         US$7.9 million to boost inter-connectivity of intelligence services’ databases, to operate a secure communications network.

II)        Public Safety and Law Enforcement Programme (US$56.1 million)

·         US$30 million for non-intrusive inspection equipment (X-ray scanners in Vans) for the Federal Police (SSP), and establishing new sniffer dog unit for use in inspections.

·       US$6 million for security equipment (armoured vehicles at US$120,000 each, radios, bullet-proof jackets and helmets, and related training and equipment) to protect law enforcement personnel acting against criminal organisations.

·         US$5 million to help the Financial Intelligence Unit improve the IT infrastructure and tools for data analysis.

·    US$15.1 million to help the Health Department install IT systems to create a national database and to reduce demand and consumption; this will also help underpin the efforts of non-governmental organisations and other non-State players to help reduce demand and boost rehabilitation processes.

III)      Institutional Construction and Law Enforcement (US$100.6 million)

·         US$60.7 million to renew forensic information systems at the Attorney General’s Office, and to provide training in court management, prison management and professional training of the police force, as well as support for the anti-crime units, victim and witness protection programmes, and training in extradition procedures.

·         US$5 million to support the National Forensic Science Institute (Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses). 

·         US$19.9 million to help the Attorney General’s Office digitalise all judge’s functions, providing management systems and rebuilding databases. 

·         US$15 million for anti-corruption, transparency and human rights programmes.

IV)      Support Programme

·         US$37 million: administrative expenses of US personnel, budget services to support programmes and delivery of related equipment with the aid package to Mexico.