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Mexico’s president just says no to U.S. cash to fight drug crime

The United States donated 30 trained police dogs to Mexico’s federal police canine unit in 2017 through the Mérida Initiative, a security partnership between the two nations to help Mexico fight organized crime and related violence. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

MEXICO CITY — For 11 years, the United States has tried to help Mexico fight narcotrafficking and other organized crime through a historic, $3 billion plan called the Mérida Initiative. Washington has sent helicopters, trained police and even helped redesign the justice system.

Now Mexico’s new president is saying: Basta.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December as Mexico’s first democratically elected leftist president, says he’d like to “reorient” the program away from crime-fighting and toward investment in social programs.

“It hasn’t worked,” he said this week in Mexico City. “We don’t want cooperation in the use of force, we want cooperation for development.”

The surprise announcement has injected a note of uncertainty into Mexico’s relations with the Trump administration. Until now, López Obrador has sought a cordial relationship with Washington, even as Trump has regularly bashed Mexico on immigration.

“This comes perilously close to upsetting the apple cart and really aggravating the United States,” said Eric Olson, a Latin America expert at the Seattle International Foundation, who has studied the Mérida program.

The U.S. Embassy downplayed López Obrador’s comments, noting in a statement that the initiative had evolved under different Mexican governments, and saying the Trump administration looked forward “to continued dialogue.”

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López Obrador took office promising a new approach to tackling organized crime. He pledged to create social programs to draw young people away from lucrative work for drug gangs. Abrazos, no balazos — “Hugs, not bullets” — was the slogan.

He raised eyebrows by saying he didn’t want to pursue narco bosses — “there is no war” on drugs, he said in January — and would instead prioritize reducing the homicide rate. The U.S.-backed “kingpin strategy” of focusing on drug lords has been widely criticized for causing Mexico’s cartels to fracture into smaller groups, which have expanded into extortion, gasoline theft and other crimes. 

So far, López Obrador’s strategy hasn’t brought much change. The number of killings has continued to rise, hitting a record 8,493 in the first quarter of this year. 

Analysts say López Obrador seems to have a poor understanding of the Mérida Initiative. The Mexican leader, in his news conference on Tuesday, said “We don’t want armed helicopters, we don’t want resources for other types of military support.”

In fact, in recent years, much of the Mérida Initiative funding has gone toward training police and prosecutors as Mexico tries to improve its security forces and build a more independent, professional justice system.

López Obrador suggested the Mérida money be shifted to his ambitious plans for economic development in poverty-stricken southern Mexico and Central America, where he has said development would help deter migration.

The Mérida Initiative represented a break with Mexico’s traditional reluctance to receive U.S. anti-drug aid. In 2007, President George W. Bush agreed to a request from then-President Felipe Calderón for help in fighting a growing challenge from traffickers. This year, Congress provided $145 million for the initiative. 

The U.S. assistance amounts to only about 2 percent of Mexico’s total security budget, according to the Congressional Research Service. But supporters say it has provided security forces here with improved technology and led to closer cooperation between Mexico and the United States.

Detractors point out that violence is worse than ever, and Mexico’s police and justice system remain ineffective and riddled with corruption.  

Ricardo Márquez, a former senior Mexican security official, noted that López Obrador didn’t offer any detail on how anti-drug programs would continue to work without the Mérida Initiative.

If the funds disappeared, Márquez said, “Mexican institutions would have to absorb the costs” — and “there isn’t money” to do that.

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Mike Vigil, a retired senior Drug Enforcement Administration official who worked for 13 years in Mexico, said anti-narcotics cooperation between the two countries had continued under López Obrador. But the president’s proposal was “shocking,” he said.

“If a policy comes into play in Mexico that would detract from that working relationship, it could have disastrous consequences,” he said.

It could also lead to an increase in the amount of illegal drugs flowing over the border, he said. Mexico is the main source of heroin and methamphetamines sold in the United States, and a major corridor for cocaine and fentanyl, according to the DEA.

A U.S. congressional staffer predicted López Obrador’s proposal would go nowhere in Washington.

“Certainly he doesn’t have to accept U.S. assistance, but he also can’t dictate the way it’s crafted,” said the staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive foreign-policy matter. 

But the announcement could open the way to wider talks on security cooperation, he said.

The U.S. Embassy emphasized the importance of bilateral cooperation.

“Only by working together can we successfully confront the common threat of transnational organized crime that is directly responsible for increased violence in Mexico, and the scourge of illicit opioids in the United States,” the embassy said in its statement.

López Obrador said the Mérida program had failed to address the root causes of drug violence, such as poverty. 

“I remember, under previous governments, how Mexican authorities even took photos with the U.S. ambassador when they brought helicopters — and for what?” López Obrador said. “If young people were ignored, if there were no jobs or well-being, these young people were left in the hands of delinquents.”

In addition to confronting violence through social programs, López Obrador has pushed for the creation of a new national guard tasked with “preventing and combating crime.” Many of its members would be transferred from the armed forces and federal police.

López Obrador said he would not seek U.S. aid for the new guard, since the Mexican military could help train its members.

Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this story.

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