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  • Center for Binational Institutions

A Renewed Institutional Approach to U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation

Link to publication in Mexico Today

Three years into Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term and almost one year into president Joe Biden’s presidency, the bilateral institutional framework on security and law enforcement cooperation has been renewed. For Mexico and the United States cooperation in this area has always been complex and the tension intensified during Trump presidency. Last month, governments moved from the Mérida Initiative to the Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities.

The Mérida Initiative was created in 2007 by presidents George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón. Under the principle of shared responsibility, each side committed to addressing and taking responsibility for their part in the issue. Mexico committed to tackling corruption, and the United States committed to addressing drug demand and the illegal trafficking of firearms and bulk currency to Mexico.

Initially, the United States assistance focused on counternarcotics, border security, counterterrorism, public security, and institution building. Since 2011, the Initiative operated under four main pillars: combating transnational criminal organizations through intelligence sharing and law enforcement operations; strengthening the rule of law while protecting human rights through justice sector reform, forensic equipment, training, and police and prison reform; creating a 21st-century U.S. – Mexican border while improving immigration enforcement in Mexico; and building stronger and more resilient communities by piloting approaches to address root causes of violence, reduce drug demand, and build a culture of lawfulness through education programs.

Despite the initial praise of the Initiative, some experts remained skeptical about the program. Some of the main criticisms were: the lack of evaluation mechanisms, its failure to reduce violence, and its focus on the U.S. providing equipment. Fourteen years after its launching, the need for more reporting on the outcomes has become clear. For example the Government Accountability Office (GAO) urged U.S. agencies to adopt outcome instead of output measures. While the Mérida Initiative led to increased intelligence sharing, police cooperation, the creation of national training standards for Mexico, and the international accreditation of Mexican prisons, labs and police training institutes, violence in Mexico as well as overdose deaths in the U.S. persisted.

It is often argued that the strategy of militarizing the police and going after kingpins caused some questionable outcomes like the fragmentation of criminal organizations, which translated into an increase in homicides and disappearances. Furthermore, it has also been pointed out that the militarized war on crime unchained high levels of human rights violations, with several reports forced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detentions committed by different security forces at all levels.

The López Obrador Administration has been highly critical of the Mérida Initiative's approach described as coercive and militarized. López Obrador has changed the security structural approach by implementing programs that are aimed at addressing the economic causes of insecurity. The president has, however, failed to demilitarize public security, assigning a wide range of policing tasks to the armed forces until 2024. and creating the National Guard, a federal militarized security force that operates under the Ministry of Defense.

On October 8, officials from both governments held the High Level Security Dialogue and kick-off the Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities. This Framework focuses on protecting people through public health, safe communities, and homicide and high-impact crime reduction; preventing transborder crime through secure modes of travel and commerce, arms trafficking reduction, disruption of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and their supply chains, and reduction of human smuggling and trafficking; and pursuing criminal networks by disrupting illicit financiers, strengthening the capacity of the security and justice sector actors to investigate and prosecute organized crime, and increasing cooperation on extraditions.

Without a doubt, the U.S.-Mexico relationship faces several security challenges. Although the new Bicentennial Framework is still being defined, it is a positive thing that both the U.S. and the Mexican governments are working together on security through an institutional channel. The Framework has the potential to prove that regardless of the political context, institutions work.

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