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Mexico declares $3 billion U.S. security deal ‘dead,’ seeks revamp

Mexican troops patrol roads this month in response to violence in the southern state of Chiapas. (Carlos Lopez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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MEXICO CITY — Frustrated by raging violence, the Mexican government is seeking to overhaul the Merida Initiative, a $3 billion U.S. aid program that’s been the centerpiece of security cooperation between the two nations for more than a decade — but has failed to reduce bloodshed.

Mexican officials say they have been meeting with Biden administration officials since late spring to refocus their cooperation against drug cartels and other criminal groups, amid growing concerns that such gangs are expanding their control over Mexican territory.

“The Merida Initiative is dead. It doesn’t work, okay?” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard told The Washington Post in the government’s first detailed comments on the discussions. “We are now in another era.”

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Launched during the presidency of George W. Bush, the Merida Initiative initially provided hundreds of millions of dollars for aircraft, helicopters and other hardware for Mexico’s security forces. In recent years, the funding shifted to technical aid and training to strengthen Mexico’s police and justice system.

The plan represented a historic departure for Mexico, which had long been wary of allowing the United States to get too involved in its affairs.

But despite the billions of dollars in aid, there has been a “huge, huge increase in violence,” Ebrard noted. Homicides in Mexico have quadrupled since the initiative was announced in 2007. Drug overdose deaths in the United States, meanwhile, soared to a record 93,331 last year, fueled by the rising use of fentanyl, much of it smuggled across the southwest border.

“We haven’t reduced either trafficking or drug abuse,” Ebrard said. “So we have to do something else.”

He said Mexico’s priorities included a greater focus on reducing homicides, rather than capturing cartel kingpins; stepped-up efforts to seize chemicals used to make fentanyl and other drugs; and slashing the number of U.S. guns trafficked illegally over the border.

Mexican officials say they didn’t attempt to renegotiate Merida with the Trump administration because the sides had clear disagreements over security strategy. The divergence became especially obvious in 2019, they say, when then-President Donald Trump offered to send troops to Mexico to “wage WAR” on drug cartels after the massacre of nine people with dual U.S.-Mexican nationality.

The bilateral relationship under Trump was focused largely on illegal migration. The Biden administration is eager to “engender more robust cooperation” on security, according to a senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomacy. U.S. authorities have proposed a Cabinet-level meeting with their Mexican counterparts this fall to discuss a revamped Merida Initiative. “We do want to see this sooner rather than later,” the official said.

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The talks come amid heightened tensions between the neighbors. Mexico’s Congress passed a law in December that curbed the ability of U.S. law enforcement agents to work in the country. That was in retaliation for the arrest in Los Angeles of a former Mexican defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos, on drug-trafficking charges. The Justice Department subsequently dropped that case amid an outcry in Mexico and questions about the strength of the evidence.

Meanwhile, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, has altered Mexico’s security strategy, scrambling bilateral cooperation. He’s created a military-dominated national guard to replace the corruption-riddled federal police, and cut funds to state and local police. The U.S. government had poured millions of dollars into improving civilian law enforcement and the justice system.

“The two agendas don’t match up,” said Shannon O’Neil, a Latin America analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The U.S. agenda is more about community policing, professionalization, areas of the security process from police to courts to prison. That really isn’t what the AMLO administration focuses on.”

The organized crime threat in Mexico has changed considerably since the Merida Initiative was launched. Mexican forces, aided by U.S. intelligence, have captured or killed dozens of drug kingpins. But instead of collapsing, the cartels have splintered into scores of groups that have diversified into oil theft, extortion, migrant-smuggling and sales of methamphetamine to Mexican addicts. Increasingly they have sought to control territory. Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the head of U.S. Northern Command, said in March that transnational crime groups operate in “ungoverned areas — 30 percent to 35 percent of Mexico.”

Ebrard said his government wanted help in developing a better infrastructure to solve homicides, “the major concern for Mexico.” Murders have plateaued at about 36,000 per year — or 29 per 100,000 people — the highest rate in more than a half-century. Only about 1 in 10 homicides is solved by Mexico’s weak, overburdened justice system, according to the research group Impunidad Cero.

A revamped Merida Initiative could provide training and forensic equipment for specialized Mexican teams that would track homicide cases from investigation to sentencing, Ebrard said. He said the plan could also provide sophisticated technology that would allow the two countries to inspect containers arriving at Mexican ports that might contain ingredients for fentanyl or other narcotics.

“We’re going to draw up an action plan on the areas in which we agree” with Washington, he said, including reducing U.S. arms trafficking, and cooperating to lessen drug abuse. Mexican authorities said they have discussed the ideas with U.S. diplomats, members of the National Security Council and Vice President Harris during her June visit.

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The U.S. official said the Biden administration welcomed the talks. “Generally, our priorities are remarkably similar,” she said. “Certainly reducing homicides is something across the board we want to see.”

The official rejected Ebrard’s assertion that the Merida Initiative had failed. She said the initiative had trained thousands of police instructors, judges, prosecutors and other employees of the justice system, and provided equipment to dismantle drug labs, detect narcotics shipments and identify criminals trying to cross the U.S. border. But she acknowledged that some parts of a successful strategy to defeat crime groups “are beyond our control. We can’t do it all.”

Security analysts say Mexico hasn’t done enough to transform a system of police and courts developed under decades of authoritarian, one-party rule. “Mexico today spends less on security than just about any other place in Latin America,” measured as a percentage of its GDP, O’Neil noted.

López Obrador has called the “drug war” model a flop and created new social programs in an effort to prevent young people from joining crime gangs. But that hasn’t made much of a dent in the violence, either.

Congress is likely to continue funding the Merida Initiative to prevent security conditions in Mexico from deteriorating further, said a Democratic foreign affairs staff member in the House. But he said lawmakers were frustrated with the results.

Among their concerns was López Obrador’s decision to give the army a growing role in crime-fighting, instead of building up the civilian police forces, said the staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

“The U.S. has poured a ton of money into training them, professionalizing them,” he said. “So what exactly is this going to look like in the next few years, if the trajectory continues?”