Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Changing the Merida Initiative Priorities

by Shannon K. O'Neil
January 7, 2008

I’ve finally seen a full breakdown and explanation of the numbers behind the first year of the Merida Initiative, the Bush Administration’s proposal to cooperate with and aid Mexico in the fight against drugs and terrorism. It can be found here in the second Appendix. This ambitious plan aims to better arm Mexico’s front line civilian and military agencies, to create new roles and offices necessary to better monitor and fight crime, to transform the workings of police and judicial institutions, and to increase the role of civil society organizations in these processes.

Looking at the actual budget breakdown, the focus on long-term institutional changes and professionalization of law enforcement and judicial agencies—which are essential for the sustainability of any success in the war against drugs—is not particularly impressive. Direct training for police and judicial officials comprises only $35mn of the $500 mn. Adding in office equipment, computer systems, forensic labs, and support for civil society that is directly tied toward increasing transparency and accountability increases the amount for institutional improvements to nearly $100 mn. Yet this is still just 20% of the money designated for FY2008.

Instead, the Merida expenditure is front-loaded toward the gear. These include over $100 mn for 8 transport helicopters, $100 mn for 2 surveillance planes, and $140 mn for other equipment including satellite communication systems, ion scanners, x-ray technologies, and extensive database development.

The main reason given for this breakdown is that the Mexican military and civilian agencies need more sophisticated machinery right now to combat the drug trade. While this may be true, there are significant drawbacks to this approach. First, institutional changes and professionalization take a long time to take root and achieve real results—so the sooner these changes begin the better for Mexico and the United States.

Second, policies to reduce corruption and strengthen the rule of law provide less quantifiable benefits. They are much more likely to get cut from future budgets, particularly if the Merida Initiative is not deemed an rapid success (which, without improvements in the performance of the police and judiciary, is likely).

Finally, given the real deficiencies in law enforcement and judicial institutions in Mexico, does the United States really want to equip them with sophisticated technologies before beginning expansive efforts at professionalization? Until these institutions are more transparent and accountable, improving surveillance and other capacities may be counterproductive.

These issues need to be debated when Congress takes up the Merida Initiative, most likely in February. While this agreement is an important step for U.S. security and for bilateral relations, its success will depend in large part on its structure. In order to make the most of this opportunity to work closely with Mexico and to improve the safety of citizens on both sides of the border, greater support for real changes to Mexico’s institutions—from the start—is vital.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Edward

    Actually, the war on drugs in Mexico is a big waste of time as long as the huge demand in the United States provides enormous amounts of money to drug traffikers. I just saw an estimate of how big estimated marijuana sales were in California last year–3 billion dollars. If that was just for marijuana and in just California how big are all drug revenues for all the U.S. and all drugs put together. They don’t have a chance. 400 million dollars won’t do anything. The real solution is 100% legalization of all drugs. Merida initiative is pure hype and will and has caused a sharp increase in violence in Mexico. Mexico is going to be much worse off now. Money would be much better spent on technological exchange, health services, and education instead of an endless and useless drug war.

  • Posted by R. B. Ramos

    Contrary to what most people in the US believes the war on drugs in Mexico is not a new thing. The Mexican Army has been in this fight for 3 decades with thousands of dead soldiers. It is truth however, that President Calderon has given more support and more freedom to the Army to operate against the Cartels, but this is a necessity rather than a strategy.
    The 400,000 policemen in Mexico are completely useless. After decades of neglect, they are either corrupt or incapable- in terms of training and equipment- to stand up to the Cartels.

    With a record 85 billion dollars in reserves, a 400 million dollars aid from the Merida Initiative is really useless; the problem is not money, the problem is the police and judicial systems are heavily infiltrated. The Army can only detain drug dealers in fraganti -red handed-, and are not allowed- by the constitution- to investigate or follow up, hence the ones detained are later freed by the corrupted system.

    To say that the Cartels out gun the Mexican Army is an exaggeration; it is truth that they have an impressive arsenal for a civilian criminal organization, including grenades, diverse assault rifles, 50mm Barret guns and even maybe Rocket Propelled Grenades -which if they have they have not used yet-, but the Army can handle this, they have done it so far. Every fight or battle, either on the streets or the sierras or mountains of Mexico, invariably ends up with the drug dealers running or dead.

    As for the allegations that the Cartels “frequently steal from the Mexican Army stockpiles”, it’s completely false and lacks any support. The Mexican Army has a limited arsenal and is very closely guarded; the weapons used by the Cartels do not come from there. They don’t come from the gun shops in the border either; the weapons used by the Cartels come from the US Army stockpiles and/or directly from the manufacturers like Armalite, Colt and Bushmaster to name a few.

    Why is the US backing Mexican Cartels?
    Here is why: there are 30 to 40 million consumers of drugs in the USA that demand their daily fix. Billions or drug dollars move freely and are laundered every year in the USA with the complacency of US Government and the public. The American public has been indoctrinated into believing that drug cartels come only from the south; but what about the American cartels that distribute and have the lion’s share of the drug business? Why does the DEA only arrest low level street distributors? – Mexico with very limited resources and a corrupted judicial system arrests many more cartel heads than the US-, Where are all the big fish? Apparently drugs distribute themselves in the USA.

    You can have all the international cooperation and support that you want, but the fundamental problem remains: as long as the American society keeps focused on money instead of family, more and more consumers will join the market, demand will increase and the drug business will thrive.

  • Posted by Forexfires

    I’m saving this to show my friends

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