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Opinion

Obama, Peña Nieto must save a vital part of effort to fight drug trafficking

Mexico is radically changing the way it cooperates with the US to fight drug trafficking. When President Obama meets with President Peña Nieto today, the two must find a way to save the US-Mexico working groups that have led to arrests in both countries.

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However, violence continues, and broad bilateral cooperation can help to stop it. Indeed, during our research we have met US state prosecutors who exchanged information with their Mexican counterparts that led to arrests and prosecutions in both countries. We also heard positive assessments about coordination on cargo inspection. Officers in both countries have also used the US e-trace system, which tracks weapons found at crime scenes. 

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Despite such progress, our discussions with senior Mexican officials suggest the future of bilateral cooperation is in doubt. Many newly appointed senior officials were shocked at the full extent of cooperation with the US during Calderón’s administration. Several officials used words like “penetration” and “infiltration” to describe US involvement – words that suggest suspicion about US motives. 

They also argued that such close cooperation was problematic because Calderón’s goals for the Mérida security agreement with the US were unclear. We hope Peña Nieto will clarify these goals, or discuss new ones in his meeting with Mr. Obama. 

In our recent trip to Mexico, we also discovered that many binational working groups – cornerstones of the collaborative effort – are not meeting. Peña Nieto should reconvene these groups, even if only to discuss a new way forward.

Progress on legal reform is also in question. A senior Mexican official told us the government was still deciding on the type and scope of changes to adopt. Delay is unfair to those in clogged prisons awaiting trial and to the thousands of families who have never received justice for murdered loved ones. 

Finally, the human capital behind cooperation is being swiftly eroded. Many officials in Mérida working groups have left government or fear losing their jobs. Executive agencies are cleaning house. The Ministry of Public Security, which received significant Mérida funding, was absorbed into the Interior Ministry and has since witnessed an exodus of employees.

Peña Nieto’s administration says it will take its time crafting a new security strategy. It should consider three things while doing so. 

First, it should focus on violence reduction, targeting crimes that contribute to public insecurity, such as kidnapping and extortion. 

Second, it must complete long-promised judicial reform, especially at the federal level. The Mexican Congress needs to pass new criminal and procedural codes. Without them, the status quo – wide-scale impunity – continues. 

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Third, Mexico should harness the cooperative structures of Mérida to achieve these goals. At their best, Mérida’s working groups put people on both sides of the border in touch with their counterparts, allowing for practical cooperation on security issues big and small. Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto should find a way to preserve these groups even as they refocus how they will be used.

Carolyn Gallaher and Dan Schneider are professors in the School of International Service at American University.

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