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National Security / NATIONAL SECURITY

Hard Times South of the Border

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will head Friday's summit.(Chet Susslin)

photo of Chris Strohm
April 29, 2011

When they come together in Washington for a summit on Friday, it will have been more than a year since U.S. and Mexican officials reviewed progress and ongoing problems in the so-called Merida Initiative. The United States is giving Mexico $1.5 billion in security and economic assistance to combat violent drug cartels and root out corruption across the border.

And it comes as relations between the two countries are at a low point, punctuated by the resignation of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual. He announced in March he would step down after confidential cables made public by WikiLeaks have him labeling the Mexican government as risk-averse and saying official corruption is widespread.

No imminent replacement may endanger progress, says David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "The question now is whether Merida is headed in the right direction without a captain,” Shirk said. “It is unlikely, I think, that the United States will be able to appoint and get approval for a new ambassador in the near future. Frankly, it leaves Mexico with no one to talk to.”

 

“We lost our ambassador because he had the audacity to tell the truth,” said a U.S. government official who asked to not be identified. “I think that everyone here is very, very worried about Mexico and the power of the cartels and the extent to which they have now infiltrated most aspects of Mexican society.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will head the summit, along with Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs, Patricia Espinosa. Other U.S. officials expected to attend include Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Pascual is also expected to attend, as he has not yet left his post.

The status report on the Merida Initiative so far is uneven to date. Violence in Mexico has spiked as the Mexican government cracks down on the drug cartels, which, in turn, are warring with each other. The government said nearly 200 bodies were dug up in mass graves since early April in Mexico’s northeastern state of Tamaulipas, which straddles the border with Texas.

The Mexican government estimates nearly 35,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon announced a crackdown on cartels in December 2006. And, in February, two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents were shot by men belonging to the Zetas criminal gang while driving in an SUV in northern Mexico. One of the agents, Jaime Zapata, died from his wounds, representing the first U.S. law enforcement officer to be killed inside Mexico since the Merida Initiative began four years ago. In March last year gunmen killed a U.S. consulate employee and her husband as they drove through Juarez with their baby in the back seat, minutes after the husband of another consular employee was shot to death and his two children wounded. At the time, security forces suspected a drug gang hit, but offered no motive.

Mexican government officials readily acknowledge there is still much left to do, but they point the finger back at the United States for not doing enough to stop the flow of illegal arms and illicit money being smuggled into Mexico to fuel the drug cartels.

“You’re giving them the firepower to go along with their business,” said a Mexican government official. “It makes it very hard for our armed forces and law enforcement offices to fight these guys when they are completely overpowered by those arms.”

One particular sore spot is a controversial program called Operation Fast and Furious, under which the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed more than 1,700 guns to be smuggled from Arizona to Mexico. The arms were meant to be traced to their buyers, but they were lost track of because of a lack of proper oversight.

Officials from Mexico also point to government statistics that between $19 billion and $29 billion in illicit proceeds flow from the United States to drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico each year.

Officials at the summit are also expected to plan a new U.S. aid package to Mexico. The Obama administration requested about $334 million in assistance to Mexico for the next fiscal year in its budget request to Congress.

“Regarding new developments going forward, the Merida Initiative is well into a strategic shift in two areas: from large and big ticket equipment to training and technical assistance; and from assistance targeted primarily to Mexican federal agencies to expanding assistance to state and local institutions,” State Department spokeswoman Susan Pittman said. “We also expect to see further progress, supported by significant Merida programming, in judicial reforms at both the federal and state levels.”

But those big-ticket items are still coming. For example, 60 percent of the $500 million the State Department plans to provide Mexico this year will go to aircraft and non-intrusive inspection equipment. That includes six Black Hawk UH-60M helicopters, four CASA 235 maritime surveillance aircraft, and one Dornier 328-JET aircraft to support intelligence and surveillance operations, according to the Mexican government.

Additionally, the U.S. government has been flying unmanned drones in Mexico to support operations when requested by the Mexican government, the official from Mexico said.

Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said shifting the strategy to help Mexico build its civil and law enforcement institutions is one of the best steps the United States can take, especially during lean fiscal times when spending will be constrained.

“I think really our best value-added in the Merida Initiative is training and software and things we can move quickly that help the Mexican government strengthen the rule of law,” he said.

Both Selee and Shirk said the Merida Initiative has made progress, but it has been slow and uneven. The Mexico Institute issued a report April 27 to that effect.

“To date, there is little concrete to show for the two governments’ efforts to stop the flow of illegal weapons and money across the border, although some incremental steps taken so far may prove to be important in the long-term," the report said. “These are, to be sure, difficult challenges, but the timid efforts undertaken so far do not seem to augur well for future progress."

 

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