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Facing stunning levels of deaths, U.S. and Mexico revamp strained security cooperation

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a morning news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City on Sept. 29. (Mario Guzman/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

MEXICO CITY — In a bid to mend their frayed security relationship, senior U.S. and Mexican officials met Friday to overhaul the Merida Initiative, a pact that has channeled billions of dollars in aid to Mexico but failed to curb massive drug trafficking and spiraling bloodshed.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has repeatedly criticized the 13-year-old security accord, saying it promoted an ineffective “war on drugs.” But his aides say the longtime leftist saw few possibilities to renegotiate it with President Donald Trump, who had suggested sending the U.S. military to tackle Mexican drug violence. López Obrador regards President Biden’s drug policy, with its emphasis on treatment and prevention, as providing political space for a reset, they said.

Homicides in Mexico are stuck at historically high rates, while deaths in the United States from fentanyl smuggled across the border have soared.

“It’s time for a comprehensive approach to our security cooperation” that emphasizes “not only strengthening law enforcement, but also public health, the rule of law, inclusive economic opportunities,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said the agreement, dubbed the Bicentennial Framework, was broader than the Merida Initiative. The new plan would seek to drive down homicides in Mexico, decrease drug abuse, tackle arms trafficking and seize chemicals used in making drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamines, he said.

“The success of this accord will not be measured by the capture of one drug lord and a big news conference,” he said.

Frustrated by violence, Mexico declares Merida Initiative 'dead'

The main effect of the new accord may be political. López Obrador has been wary of an initiative that’s closely associated with former president Felipe Calderón, whose deployment of the military to fight traffickers became unpopular as violence surged. The Biden administration, for its part, has sought to break from the Trump administration’s focus on irregular migration as the overriding issue in the relationship.

“The bilateral relationship during the Trump years was radically narrowed, both thematically and structurally,” said Dan Restrepo, who was the top Latin American official on the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012. “And what you’re now seeing is a slow reexpansion.”

Although migration was not the central issue of the trip, López Obrador held a breakfast meeting with Blinken in which he urged the United States to commit more to development programs in Central America to deter migration, officials said. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas joined Blinken at the security meeting.

The encounter comes at a rocky moment in security relations between the neighbors. Mexico was furious last October when the U.S. government arrested its former defense minister, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, on drug-trafficking charges in Los Angeles. The Justice Department eventually dropped the case, but Mexican authorities still retaliated, charging that U.S. agents had carried out a sensitive investigation behind their backs. The Mexican government passed a law in December putting new limits on the actions of Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

In shock, U.S. drops drug-trafficking charges against former Mexican defense minister

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have been frustrated by López Obrador’s attacks on the DEA and his unconventional approach to narcotics trafficking. The Mexican leader has declared that using force against cartels “doesn’t resolve anything”; he has emphasized social programs to prevent young people from joining organized crime groups. The army’s arrests of drug suspects plummeted from 9,052 in 2019 to 6,673 last year. Meanwhile, U.S. border seizures of fentanyl have doubled in the past year.

The tensions between the sides surfaced last week when DEA Administrator Anne Milgram told reporters that she had asked Mexico’s attorney general “for us to be able to engage in law-enforcement activity in partnership with Mexican law enforcement, that Mexico will take seriously extraditions … that we get access to illicit financing information and other critical evidence that we need” to fight organized crime.

A key source of concern to the DEA are what officials call long delays in getting Mexican visas for agents posted to the country. CNN reported this week that almost two dozen agents were affected.

The Merida Initiative, launched by President George W. Bush and Calderón, was initially seen as a transformational pact with a country that had cold-shouldered security cooperation because of a history of U.S. interference. Early on, the agreement provided hundreds of millions of dollars for aircraft, helicopters and other hardware for Mexican security forces. The aid eventually shifted to technical assistance and training for the police and justice system. In total, Washington has appropriated more than $3 billion for the initiative.

“The real advance of the Merida Initiative was really trying to frame this chronic problem of drug violence, drug trafficking, as a common threat and common challenge that you needed to work on together,” said Eric Olson, a specialist in Mexican and Central American justice issues who works at the Seattle International Foundation.

In the end, he said, “a lot of things didn’t pan out.”

Mexico still spends only around 1 percent of its gross domestic product on security, and has failed to create a professional, effective police or justice system. Corruption remains a persistent problem. Organized crime groups have expanded beyond drug trafficking into extortion, migrant-smuggling and kidnapping, gaining increasing control over territory. Meanwhile, Mexican officials complain that U.S. guns have flooded the country, fueling the carnage.

Officials say the new agreement will retain parts of the Merida Initiative that were successful and — at least in the short term — rely on the same funding. U.S. authorities say programs to train judges and police instructors, and transfer equipment to dismantle drug labs, have been effective. In a joint statement issued Friday, the two sides said they were studying new initiatives including homicide task forces in Mexico, expanded training and ballistics labs to identify trafficked weapons, and regulatory measures to prevent legally available chemicals from being used to produce synthetic drugs like methamphetamines.

Ricardo Márquez Blas, a former senior security official, said that it was late in López Obrador’s six-year term to begin such initiatives, which often take time to put in place. “We’re in the third year. How long will it take to launch a new program?” he said.

Olson said the challenge would be for two governments with different agendas and mutual suspicion to find common ground. “Where are they going to be able to work together in an environment which, today, is a lot less optimistic than it was in 2006 and 2007?” he said.

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