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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.

By Carolyn Gallaher, Dan Schneider / May 2, 2013

President Obama answers questions, including about immigration, during his new conference at the White House April 30. Op-ed contributors Carolyn Gallaher and Dan Schneider write: 'We hope [Mexican President Enrique] Peña Nieto will clarify [anti-drug trafficking] goals, or discuss new ones in his meeting with Mr. Obama' today.

Evan Vucci/AP/file



With President Obama visiting Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, today, it’s time to ask what the future holds for US-Mexican cooperation in reducing drug trafficking – an effort known as the Mérida Initiative.

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The Mexican government is radically restructuring that cooperation. Instead of spreading the work across multiple ministries, which have been working with numerous US agencies, it is coordinating everything under the single roof of its Interior Ministry. We appreciate Mr. Peña Nieto’s desire to change course in the fight against cartels, but the far-reaching cooperative structures Mérida established should continue. 

We recently traveled to Mexico City, where we examined security cooperation between Mexico and the United States. After speaking with senior officials in several Mexican federal agencies, we can say that changes in cross-border cooperation are dramatic.

Some context. In 2006, President-elect Felipe Calderón decided to make the fight against organized crime a central part of his presidency. He had good reason to do so. Drug-related violence was soaring and becoming more gruesome. Since then, more than 60,000 Mexicans have lost their lives to drug-related violence.

The violence is not, however, just a Mexican issue. American demand for drugs fuels the trade, and guns from the US are the cartels’ weapons of choice. In Chicago, the murder rate is on the rise, partly because of drug trafficking. 

In March 2007, President Calderón and President George W. Bush agreed to significantly increase cooperation in fighting drug trafficking. Under the resulting Mérida Initiative, the US pledged $1.4 billion in assistance over four years, a fraction of what Mexico spends on the effort. Initial funds were earmarked for hardware; later allotments were to help Mexico transform its judicial sector to be more transparent and accountable.  Equally important, Mérida sparked the creation of multiple binational working groups.

Fast forward to 2012. Despite the importance of organized crime as an issue in the Mexican presidential race, Peña Nieto’s administration has focused almost exclusively on the economy since the election. Its first major security announcement came a few days ago. Instead of Mexican agencies working directly with their counterparts in US agencies, all communication, intelligence sharing, and joint maneuvers will run through one ministry – Interior. 

As a public relations strategy in Mexico, it makes sense to lower the volume on the cartels and drug violence. Mexicans are worn out after six years of constant media coverage of gruesome violence and Mr. Calderón’s war on those perpetrating it.


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