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.

Evan Vucci/AP/file
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.

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.

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.

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. 

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. 

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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