Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, a virulent war
has raged with the Mexican drug cartels, and this drug-related
violence has spilled across the U.S. border, threatening U.S. lives and
public safety. Geostrategic pessimists fear that the U.S. has been
taking Mexico's stability for granted and warn that Mexico is teetering
on the brink of a drug-induced disaster.
seriousness of the drug threat to Mexico also presents a strategic
opportunity. At the invitation of the Mexican government, the Bush
Administration is working to establish a partnership to make Mexico
safer and more secure without sacrificing the sovereignty of either
The Bush Administration's Merida Initiative—a
three-year, $1.5 billion anti-drug assistance package for Mexico and
Central America—is a quantitative and qualitative jump in support for
the drug fight in the region. Unlike Plan Colombia, which helped to
rescue Colombia from the throes of a narco-war, the Merida Initiative
will provide assistance in equipment, technology, and training without
a significant U.S. military footprint in Mexico. President George W.
Bush signed the Merida Initiative into law as part of the Supplemental
Appropriations Act of 2008 on June 30, 2008.
Mexico and in the press, the Merida Initiative is being viewed as a
critical test of U.S.–Mexican relations. Its implementation will be
closely scrutinized on both sides of the aisle in Congress. The Merida
Initiative could become an important legacy of the Bush presidency in
the Western Hemisphere and should create a solid platform for
U.S.–Mexican cooperation for the next Administration.
initiative, however, is just a start. The U.S. needs to do more to
secure the border, reduce the flows of illegal arms and illicit cash
south into Mexico, and alter immigration laws to permit temporary
workers to cross the border legally to help fill the U.S. demand for
labor. Policymakers need to develop a comprehensive strategy that
covers all transit and source countries.
Mexico needs to
continue exercising the political will to combat the deadly drug
cartels and continue reforming its judicial system, overhauling police
and law enforcement, and modernizing and developing its economy.
Finally, the Mexican government needs to take an active role in
preventing illegal third-country nationals from transiting Mexican
territory, as well as in closing down smuggling organizations that
operate on Mexican soil and discouraging Mexican citizens from
entering the U.S. illegally. Both nations would benefit substantially
from a return to law and order on both sides of the border.
Bordering on Insecurity
since the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1917 has violence in Mexico
presented such a worrisome challenge to U.S. security. In 1917,
Mexico's revolution spilled across the border, leading to U.S.
intervention, with General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing and his
Punitive Expedition riding deep into Mexico hunting the elusive Pancho
Villa. Since that revolutionary period, the U.S. has presumed a
sometimes distant but generally stable neighbor to the south.
a different sort of violence is spreading across the border and
threatening U.S. lives and security. The passage of the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 has led to significant economic
development in Mexico and dramatically expanded bilateral trade.
Mexico is the third-largest U.S. trading partner, with bilateral trade
exceeding $350 billion annually. Mexico is also the third-largest
supplier of crude petroleum to the United States, and U.S. direct
foreign investment in Mexico exceeds $84 billion. At the point of
entry in Laredo, Texas, alone, an average of 7,000 trucks and a nearly
equal number of rail cars cross the border every day.
globalization, the transnational trade in illicit drugs, 9/11 and the
exposure of U.S. vulnerability to Islamist terrorism, and the movement
of an estimated 500,000 illegal migrants annually across the sparsely
guarded, 2,000-mile border with Mexico have awakened the U.S. to the
challenges it faces to the south.
The Merida Initiative
his March 2007 trip to Latin America, President Bush met with President
Calderón at Merida in the Yucatan. The two leaders agreed to develop a
multi-year program to strengthen Mexico's capabilities to fight
organized crime. They further discussed and reviewed the program at
the August 2007 meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in
On October 22, 2007, the U.S. and Mexico
issued a joint statement of principles launching the Merida Initiative.
Mexico pledged to strengthen its capabilities to fight drug cartels and
organized crime, and the U.S. promised to reduce demand for illegal
drugs and to combat trafficking in weapons and bulk cash. Both sides
committed to improving international cooperation, coordination, and
The Merida Initiative has several
distinctive features that are quite different from Plan Colombia.
First, no U.S. troops will be deployed in Mexico, and the overall law
enforcement footprint should remain very low. The delivery of goods and
the training to Mexicans will take place largely on U.S. soil. Both
parties appear very mindful of respecting each other's national
About 41 percent of Merida Initiative funding is
slated for the purchase of helicopters (Bell 412 helicopters) and
fixed-wing surveillance aircraft (Casa 245 twin-engine aircraft) to
support interdiction activities and facilitate rapid response by
Mexican law enforcement agencies. The rest of the money will be used to
purchase non-intrusive inspection equipment, ion scanners, and canine
units to interdict trafficking of drugs, arms, cash, and people across
Other components of the assistance package include
providing technical advice and training to strengthen the institutions
of justice, helping to vet new police force members, creating new
offices to handle citizen complaints and promote professional
responsibility, and establishing witness protection programs. The
package will also support Mexican efforts to reduce the demand for
drugs, fight corruption, protect human rights, and enhance Mexico's
ability to manage its border.
The price tag for the three-year
program is $1.5 billion. This is a substantial increase over $369.6
million in U.S. assistance for counternarcotics activities between
2000 and 2006.
The Reaction in the U.S. Congress.
Initial congressional reception of the Merida Initiative was generally
lukewarm, and many legislators expressed dissatisfaction that the
Administration did not consult with them during development of the
Merida Initiative proposals. Several critics challenged the merits of
creating yet another resource drain, while others pointed to the dearth
of funding to meet domestic needs for improving border security and
funding demand reduction in the U.S.
on the Merida Initiative was also delayed by a lengthy debate over the
conditions to be placed on the aid. Several Members of Congress pressed
for a return to a certification process and the establishment of tough
human rights benchmarks such as trials for military offenders in
civilian courts. The Mexican government objected to these attempts to
legislate changes in their domestic laws. In late May, the Merida
Initiative appeared to be floundering because of Mexico's rejection of
human rights conditions.
Following critical meetings between
U.S. and Mexican legislators in Monterrey, Mexico, the U.S.
congressional leadership agreed to develop conditions that would not
offend Mexico's sense of national sovereignty. The conditionality
written into the law requires the U.S. Secretary of State to report to
Congress on steps that the Mexicans take to improve transparency and
accountability of their police forces, to monitor and investigate human
rights violations, and to prohibit the use of testimony obtained
through torture or other forms of ill treatment. The Merida Initiative
also requires the Secretary of State to submit a detailed spending plan
within 45 days and a strategy with concrete goals and benchmarks for
combating drug trafficking and related violence and promoting judicial
reform, institution building, and rule of law.
A Paradigm Shift.
The Merida Initiative is more than a spending bill to purchase
equipment and provide training to Mexican law enforcement. As many
experts note, it represents a significant paradigm shift that
recognizes that the U.S. and Mexico share responsibility for fighting
the drug trade and the Mexican cartels.
The success of the Merida Initiative and U.S.– Mexican cooperation in general will hinge on the ability of both nations to:
the serious erosion of national security, public order, and the quality
of life in the U.S. and Mexico that is caused by the trade and
consumption of illicit drugs. These illicit drugs are largely either
produced in or imported via Mexico to the U.S. Both countries need to
reduce the dangerous linkages between Mexican drug cartels and crime
and trafficking groups in the U.S.
- Build a Mexico where the
rule of law prevails and reduce the national security threat from drug
cartels to a level that Mexican law enforcement agencies can handle.
and build on the Calderón administration's efforts to develop Mexico's
law enforcement and counternarcotics capabilities and encourage Mexico
to take vigorous action to re-establish security, protect human rights,
and expand the rule of law.
- Establish a platform for
comprehensive regional cooperation that includes the Andean–Central
American corridor and the Caribbean to address the persistent challenge
of the international drug trade and organized crime.
- Create a
climate in the bilateral relationship that is conducive to addressing
other critical issues, including border security, illegal immigration
into the U.S., and preventing foreign terrorists from using Mexico as a
Curbing the U.S. Drug Habit
consumption and the resulting international trade in controlled
substances remain one of the greatest man-made catastrophes of the past
30 years. Worldwide, the illegal drug trade totals $300 billion per
year. The loss of human life resulting from the drug trade runs in the
tens of thousands.
modest progress, continued U.S. drug consumption is a root cause and a
central driver of drug-related violence in Mexico. John P. Walters,
director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP),
recently exclaimed, "We will all need to come to grips that American
consumers are funding the violence. We share responsibility, and we
need to do more to help!"
citizens regularly turn to Mexico to feed their voracious demand for
illicit drugs. According to the ONDCP, approximately 7 million addicts
live in the U.S. As many as 20 million Americans reported casual use of
controlled substances during the previous 30 days. A study of 2005 data
by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that
approximately 34,000 Americans died as a direct result of drug abuse.
An estimated 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. enters via
Mexico. This means that between 300 metric tons (MTs) and 460 MTs of
cocaine is smuggled into the U.S. annually. Approximately 10 percent
is seized by law enforcement, and the rest is sold on the street. The
cartels use Mexico as a safe haven for large shipments from Colombia,
which are then broken down and smuggled in smaller lots into the U.S.
In addition, the U.S. consumes an average of 19 MTs of export-quality
heroin and 9,400 MTs of marijuana that is grown and refined in Mexico.
have also turned to methamphetamine as a new drug of choice. To meet
the U.S. demand, Mexican cartels and entrepreneurs have established an
extensive network of laboratories to convert precursors—pseudoephedrine
and ephedrine—into methamphetamine. According to the 2008 National
Drug Threat Assessment Report, Mexico is the primary source of
methamphetamine in the United States. Most of the precursor chemicals
used to make methamphetamine are produced in India, China, and Germany
and enter North America through the port of Long Beach, California.
They are then illegally transported to Mexico.
Mexico has very stringent gun laws. Mexican officials claim that an
"iron river" of illegal firearms is flowing south from the U.S. into
Mexico. According to Jane's Intelligence Review, Mexican
authorities believe that 86 percent of the illegal weapons used and in
circulation in Mexico were smuggled in from the U.S.
The lethality of captured armaments has increased alarmingly. The
arsenals of Mexico's drug cartels include .50-caliber machine guns,
anti-tank rockets, grenade launchers, fragmentation grenades, and
mortars. Ordinary police units are often simply outgunned.
Mexican cartels compartmentalize their arms procurement. "Straw buyers"
purchase arms legally in the border states of the U.S. Southwest and
either knowingly or unwittingly resell them to representatives of the
drug cartels, who secretly ship them to Mexico. In other cases, stolen
weapons are smuggled into Mexico. Until recently, the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had only 100 special agents to monitor
the sales of 6,700 licensed gun sellers between Texas and San Diego.
The Bush Administration has promised to increase the number of agents
and to strengthen Operation Gunrunner to stop the flow of illegal arms
Cash. Another key export from the U.S. to
Mexico is bulk cash. The National Drug Intelligence Council estimates
that between $8 billion and $24 billion in bulk currency is smuggled
annually out of the U.S. into Mexico.
However, the U.S. has not ignored the situation with Mexico. The
National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy seeks to bring to
bear intelligence collection and information sharing, interdiction at
and between border points of entry, aerial interdiction, investigation
and prosecution, anti–money laundering efforts, and cooperation with
States, including Texas, have also stepped up efforts to "take back the border from those who exploit it."
The Texas Border Security strategy is working to overcome a tangle of
jurisdictional disputes among underresourced local law enforcement
agencies to build capacity for high-profile, intelligence-driven
operations against targets operating along the U.S.–Mexico border in
Texas and New Mexico. In Texas, efforts to coordinate county, state,
and federal assets, such as Operation Border Star and the establishment
of the Border Security Operations Center, are yielding positive
Turning Around Mexico's Drug War
the Mexican and U.S. media offer daily reports of a gruesome yield.
Tortured, mutilated, and sometimes decapitated corpses are routinely
dumped on roads and city streets, advertising the cartel's savagery. In
Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, more than 300
people have been murdered since the beginning of 2008. On June 9, 2008,
12-year-old Alexia Belem Moreno died after gunmen used her as a human
shield. According to Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora, as
of May 25, 2008, 1,378 people had been killed in 2008 compared to 940
in the first five months of 2007.
June 27, 2008, the day that the U.S. Senate passed the Merida
Initiative bill, drug traffickers ambushed and killed six policemen in
Culiacan, the state capital of Sinaloa. The drug-related violence has
claimed 450 law enforcement officials in the past 18 months.
is not just the number of officers that have been killed that is
worrisome. In May and June 2008, three senior Mexican law enforcement
officials were assassinated in Mexico City:
- Roberto Velasco Bravo, Director of Investigations of the Sensitive Investigations Unit of the Federal Police;
- Edgar Millan Gomez, General Coordinator for Regional Security at the Mexican Secretariat of Public Security; and
- Commander Igor Labastida Calderón of the Federal Investigation Agency.
All three had worked closely with U.S. law enforcement agents.
violence has also crossed the border. On January 19, 2008, senior U.S.
Border Patrol Agent Luis Aguilar was deliberately run down and killed
by a Hummer making an illegal border crossing about 20 miles west of
violence inevitably translates into economic losses as well as human
loses. Where the violence has hit hardest, it has created pockets of
insecurity that depress revenue from tourism and scare away investors.
It could even force some maquiladoras (assembly plants)to
close, enlarging the pool of potential illegal migrants. It has also
prompted heavy investments in security guards and equipment—money that
could have been invested more productively.
The Mexican people are besieged by the continuing drug violence. A recent public opinion poll by Mexico City's Reforma
newspaper reported that 53 percent of Mexicans believe that the cartels
are winning the battle against government security forces. Only 24
percent of respondents believe that the government is prevailing.
victory by the drug cartels would look much different from a victory by
a guerrilla insurgency or Islamist terrorists. The drug cartels prefer
to intimidate and subvert a government rather than topple it. They
want a return to the golden days when corrupt police and judges looked
the other way. The cartels want the impunity that a hollow government
brings, a right to trade freely in illicit goods, and an equal
opportunity to violate the sovereignty of any nation that gets in their
way. Once secure in their bases in Culiacan and Matamoros, the cartel
bosses could then concentrate on outwitting U.S. officials to deliver
drugs to U.S. markets.
This is a nightmarish scenario that
neither the U.S. nor Mexico wants. Bolstering the hand of the Calderón
administration with U.S. leadership and counternarcotics support
improves the prospects for winning the fight.
Mexico's Drug Cartels
Mexican drug trade has produced highly sophisticated, dangerous, and
lucrative criminal networks that are highly resistant to law
enforcement and judicial action. In Mexico, as elsewhere, a key factor
that explains the rise of the drug cartels is the "balloon effect"—as
law enforcement increases its presence in one area, the problem moves
another place under less pressure, like air in a balloon.
first entered the U.S. market as "donkeys" for the marijuana market.
During the 1990s, drug trafficking through Mexico increased as routes
through Florida closed down and the U.S. and Colombian governments
began to score successes against the Medellin and Cali cartels. By the
late 1990s, the U.S. observed that rising Mexican organizations were
leveraging a greater share of the cocaine trade with the U.S. and
muscling aside Colombian suppliers and distributors.
Several major cartels dominate the Mexican drug trade. (See Map 1.)
They form shifting alliances against the Mexican state, but they also
fight ferociously among themselves for plazas (space) and control of routes and distribution systems.
They rise and fall with changes in leadership. Much of the intensified
drug violence in Mexico is the result of open warfare among the
different trafficking organizations. Undoubtedly, many of Mexico's
mounting drug casualties are traffickers murdered by traffickers.
Cárdenas Guillén, a Mexican drug baron, is credited with building up
the powerful Gulf Cartel. Mexican authorities captured him in 2003, but
he still ran the cartel's operations from prison until the Calderón
administration extradited him to the U.S. in 2007. The Gulf Cartel
operates out of Matamoros, controls the border state of Tamaulipas,
and uses the neighboring state of Nuevo Laredo as a major transit
point. The Gulf Cartel is now led by Ezequiel Cárdenas and Heriberto
"El Lazca" Lazcano and is expanding into the states of Nuevo Leon and
Alliance, also known as the Federation [and/ or Sinaloa Cartel], is a
cooperating group of Mexican drug trafficking organizations that shares
resources such as transportation routes and money launderers."
The historic leader of the Alliance is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Lorea.
In a career spanning more than 20 years, Guzman has become a legend in
Mexico, celebrated in corridos (ballads) for repeatedly
escaping from Mexican prisons and avoiding extradition. Guzman
pioneered in organizing cocaine purchases from the remnants of the Cali
and Medellin Cartels in Colombia. A deadly blood feud has developed
recently between Guzman's wing and the Beltrán-Leyva brothers, Arturo
and Hector, and is another major source of the recent violence.
Tijuana Cartel exercises extensive control over northwest Mexico, the
Tijuana/Mexicali routes across the border with California, and the
streets of San Diego. The cartel is also known as the Arellano Felix
Organization because numerous members of the Arellano Felix family hold
prominent positions in its leadership.
The Juarez Cartel
operates in Ciudad Juarez in the border state of Chihuahua. It was
Mexico's dominant drug organization until Amado Carillo Fuentes died
while undergoing plastic surgery in 1997. Vincente Carrillo Fuentes,
Amado's brother, is the key figure today, but the Juarez Cartel has
lost power and influence.
Trafficking. Cocaine arrives in
Mexico by sea or air. The bulk of cocaine is increasingly moved by sea,
but the "air bridge" remains essential. The traffickers are employing
faster and larger planes, including a converted Boeing 727. "Airplane
cemeteries," where drug traffickers crash planes in trackless jungle
just to deliver their cocaine, can be found in northern Guatemala and
southern Mexico. A recent innovation is the proliferating use of
sea-going, semi-submersible craft that travel close to the ocean
surface and have little or no radar profile. These semi-submersibles
can carry as much as 12 tons of cocaine. The cartels have also used
sophisticated tunneling operations and other ingenious ways of
transporting drugs into the U.S.
While running cocaine into the
U.S. is the most lucrative operation, the Mexican cartels are also
selling their cocaine in Mexico and developing lucrative routes to
European and Asian markets. U.S. intelligence experts report that the
Mexican cartels are also interested in muscling aside organizations
that specialize in drug transport and smuggling operations to get
closer to the sources of cocaine in Colombia and the Andean region.
are also branching out in other directions, such as human smuggling.
As the price of smuggling an individual into the U.S. has increased
from $1,500 or $2,000 to $5,000, mom-and-pop smugglers have been
displaced by more professional organizations. Competition by smugglers
for clients and routes has fueled border violence.
Mexican cartels are also moving into the U.S., where they are beginning
to produce, often with the help of illegal migrants, sinsemilla,
a higher-potency variety of marijuana that commands a wholesale price
that is five to 10 times higher than the price of conventional Mexican
With the cartels comes escalating violence. In some communities, such
as the border towns of Nuevo Laredo, drug traffickers have
systematically taken over entire communities, including public
offices and the police. The cartels rely on lethal foot soldiers or scicarios (ruthless assassins)to target rival traffickers, police officers, and journalists.
Most feared are the Zetas,
a quasi-military force of renegade military and police personnel, who
until recently have worked primarily for the Gulf Cartel under the
control of the Cárdenas clan. The founding members of the Zetas are believed to be a small group of junior officers who deserted from a Mexican military elite unit in the late 1990s. The Zetas
have brought dangerous sophistication in heavy weapons, communications,
and intelligence collection to the killing fields of the cartels.
They are believed to number between less than 50 and several hundred.
Other recruits have apparently come from Guatemalan special forces (Kabiles) and Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13). The Zetas
have brazenly advertised for recruits, inviting renegade military
personnel to join their ranks. Sinaloa Cartel and other traffickers
field their own enforcer gangs— such as the Gente Nueva, Negros,and Pelones— whose prior security experience is more limited.
fear that the Mexican cartels are sinking their roots deeper into the
U.S. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican drug
cartels sell methamphetamine to gangs including the Latin Kings, the
Mexican Mafia, la EME, and MS-13 for control of retail
distribution and sales in the U.S. Southwest and elsewhere. MS-13 has
an estimated membership of more than 10,000 and a visible presence in
U.S. cities from Baltimore to Los Angeles. More Mexico-connected
violence is likely on the way.
However, Mexico's situation does
not compare to Colombia's problems. Mexico does not have an active
insurgency like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and
the drug trade has not yet spawned a counterforce like the Colombian
paramilitaries. The isolated activities of the largely inactive
Zapatista Liberation Army and the Popular Revolutionary Army, a new
group that has bombed oil pipelines, do not present major threats to
Mexican security. There have been no credible reports of Islamist
terrorists in Mexico, although "subjects of special interest" have been
observed and tracked. However, outsiders hostile to the U.S. could
certainly exploit a more anarchical Mexico.
Supporting President Calderón's Prescription for Victory
the monolithic control of the Revolutionary Institutional Party,
Mexico was once called the "perfect dictatorship," with a
well-scripted, machine-like circulation of elites. Since 2000 and the
election of President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN),
Mexico has become more competitive and democratic, governed by three
major parties. In the extremely close presidential election of July
2006, Felipe Calderón turned back the challenge of the
populist-nationalist Manuel López Obrador. He governs with a divided
legislature in which the PAN must build coalitions to enact reforms. From President Fox, Calderón inherited a Mexico with a security situation in considerable disarray.
taking office in December 2006, President Calderón moved to strengthen
the rule of law and confront the drug cartels. He has also vowed to
transform Mexico's law enforcement community and has placed the fight
against organized crime at the center of his administration's national
priorities. Some Mexicans quipped that while Fox looked like a
president, Calderón acts like one. Like Álvaro Uribe in Colombia,
Calderón has made a long-term commitment to recovering what was being
lost to the cartels. Most Mexicans recognize that this battle will be
long, costly, and sometimes ugly.
President Calderón moved to
provide new resources for the overhaul of public security, including a
24 percent increase for security agencies in Mexico's fiscal year (FY)
2007 federal budget. From the $2.6 billion spent for FY 2007, Calderón plans to increase spending to $3.9 billion for FY 2008.
approximately 1,600 different police and law enforcement bodies,
Calderón initiated further overhaul of the Public Security Ministry in
a broad security program. The overhaul began at the federal level, but
it seeks to coordinate federal efforts with the state and municipal
Calderón's master plan of 2007 centers on creating a
single Federal Police Corps to operate in cities and larger towns. It
would combine the Federal Investigative Agency, an arm of the Attorney
General's Office, and the Federal Preventive Police, a civilian force
in the Ministry of Public Security. In addition, the Plataforma Mexico
initiative will facilitate the sharing of critical anti-drug
information among police agencies at all levels from federal to
municipal, extending coverage to some 5,000 police stations by 2009.
Training and reforming the approximately 300,000 state and local law
enforcement officials has not yet begun.
administration has attacked corruption in the police ranks, seeking to
weed out bad officers. In June 2007, Calderón purged 284 federal police
commanders, including federal commanders of all 31 states and the
federal district. Vetting measures that include polygraph tests, drug
testing, and background investigations have increasingly been
incorporated into standard police administration procedures.
December 2006, President Calderón ordered the Mexican Army to deploy as
many as 25,000 troops against the cartels in nine of Mexico's 32
states, in part to counter their growing firepower advantage over the
police. Military surge operations have targeted several epicenters of
the drug violence, including Acapulco, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas,
and Ciudad Juarez.
The move was also intended to give the
government a breathing space to conduct investigations and to train
and equip the regular police and security forces. The move was
generally popular with the populace, who place much more trust in the
Mexican Army than they do in the police authorities, according to
Mexican opinion polls.
Nevertheless, the military is unprepared for preventive work and
investigation, and many in Mexico and the U.S. worry about the Mexican
military's tendency to violate human rights and its ability to operate
with comparative impunity. The Calderón government estimates that the
military will remain deployed in an anti-drug capacity well into 2010.
Calderón government has also made improving the rule of law a central
pillar of its national policy. In June, the Mexican Senate passed a
series of constitutional reforms to overhaul criminal procedures, and
President Calderón signed the legislation on June 17, 2008.
Implementation will begin shortly.
These reforms have begun to
move the Mexican judicial system away from the Napoleonic
inquisitorial system, in which judges work independently from written
evidence and which relies heavily on confessions for convictions. The
reforms include a presumption of innocence of the accused, oral trials
with public proceedings, provision for plea bargaining, and sentencing
based on evidence presented during trial. After objections by human
rights groups, a proposal to permit warrantless searches was replaced
by a provision that creates a new class of judges to rule quickly on
requests for warrants. Mexico still needs to enact reforms to protect human rights and overhaul its military justice system.
of weaknesses in its judicial and prison systems, Mexico, like
Colombia, is using extradition aggressively as a powerful weapon
against the drug cartels. In 2007, 81 criminals were extradited to the
U.S. to stand trial on drug-related charges, including Osiel Cárdenas
Guillén, former head of the Gulf Cartel. The Calderón administration
also appears to have discontinued senior Mexican politicians' informal
immunity to prosecution, as evidenced by the June 2008 conviction of
Mario Villanueva, a former governor of Quintana Roo, on charges of drug
Mexico is also employing new stringent measures to
curb the production of methamphetamine and block imports of precursor
chemicals. As of January 2008, Mexico banned the sale of ephedrine and
pseudoephedrine in Mexico. In December 2006, joint U.S.–Mexican
investigations resulted in the seizure of 19.5 metric tons of
pseudoephedrine bound for a pharmaceutical company in Mexico. Three
months later, the Mexican police raided the factory and the residence
of Zhenli Ye Gon, the company's president, and seized $207 million in
cash hidden in the basement of a new home in a Mexico City suburb. Ye
Gon was arrested near Washington, D.C., in July 2007.
statistics show that the street price of cocaine has risen from $91.62
per gram in the third quarter of 2006 to $136.93 in the third quarter
of 2007, while the purity has declined from 67.8 percent to 56.7
percent. Cocaine street prices have risen by 86 percent in Boston, 50 percent in New York, and 33 percent in Los Angeles. During a similar timeframe, the price of methamphetamine has increased by 73 percent.
most reasonable yardsticks, President Calderón and the Mexican
government are demonstrating a serious desire and political will to
stand up to the Mexican drug cartels. By enacting the Merida
Initiative, the U.S. recognized this radical change in direction.
Building on the Merida Initiative
Merida Initiative opens a door to multiple challenges and
opportunities. It recognizes that fighting and prevailing in the war on
drugs, first declared in the 1980s, remains central to U.S. strategy
and security in the region. Despite obvious fatigue and frustration
with the war, the threat posed by drug cartels, hired assassins, gangs,
and other criminal associations remains deeply rooted in modern
society. The Merida Initiative requires the U.S. and Mexico to work
through previous misunderstandings and national and cultural
misperceptions and overcome comparatively high levels of mistrust.
However much more needs to be done. In the months and years ahead, the Administration and Congress need to:
- Implement a robust Merida Initiative.
Congress has already reduced the funding to Mexico for the Merida
Initiative by $100 million. This reduction means that the original
package will need to be cut, and this could slow the delivery of aid.
The next Congress should consider restoring the cut funding and resist
the temptation to raid the Merida Initiative's funding in the coming
years. If results meet expectations and the Mexican government begins
to prevail over the cartels, Congress should be prepared to provide
funding above the originally proposed $1.5 billion.
- Use the Merida Initiative to leverage additional cooperation agreements with Mexico.
The Administration should use the Merida Initiative to leverage other
changes in bilateral counterdrug cooperation, such as negotiating a
comprehensive maritime agreement that allows the U.S. to intercept and
board Mexican-flagged vessels on the high seas. (Mexico now allows U.S.
participation on a case-by-case basis.) The U.S. should also seek to
resolve the accident liability issues that forced termination of
Operation Halcon, a successful helicopter-based border surveillance
operation in 2006. On a more general level, the Merida Initiative
could be a starting point for bilateral cooperation that encourages
the Mexican government to pursue criminal organizations that capitalize
on migrant smuggling and to help to restore law and order on both sides
of the border.
- Use public diplomacy and offer quick, tangible assistance.
The Administration should also use the Merida Initiative to full
advantage in public diplomacy. It should look specifically for
short-term measures, either as part of the initiative or by using
other resources, to bolster the morale of the Mexican law enforcement
community and to provide immediate help with non-lethal items, such as
body armor, training, and real-time intelligence.
- Strengthen border security.
The border remains a sore point in U.S.–Mexican relations. The
Administration should not relent in efforts to secure the border. The
U.S. needs to exercise better control over the north–south flows of
guns and cash into Mexico. The Administration should do so without
reducing resources for other programs that are designed to secure the
border against illegal migration, illicit trade, and infiltration by
foreign terrorists. Such an effort could build on the successes of the
Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy and the Texas Border
- Make immigration reforms part of the solution.
Creating a new, streamlined, effective approach that allows temporary
workers to enter the U.S. legally should be central to restarting the
immigration reform process and curbing the lucrative and
violence-prone smuggling of migrants into the U.S.
- Set appropriate benchmarks for the Merida Initiative.
Success and sustainability in the Merida Initiative will rely heavily
on encouraging the Mexican government to reform and modernize state
institutions and exercise the political will to break the Mexican drug
cartels. Over the past six years, Plan Colombia has succeeded in
strengthening the Colombian state and introducing a concept of
democratic security. The U.S. should look for similar outcomes in
Mexico. Colombia matched the U.S. investment with a threefold to
fourfold increase in its own spending. Mexico needs to act in a similar
fashion by continuing to increase investments in law enforcement and
judicial reform. Finally, Mexico should undertake the deeper economic
and structural reforms that will underpin its future viability and
- Develop a comprehensive strategic framework.
Containing and defeating the drug threat cannot be confined to Mexico
and Central America. The balloon effect is a reality. The long-term
sustainability and success of the Merida Initiative will require a
broader approach that incorporates the Caribbean, the Mexican–Central
American corridor, the Andean source areas, and the U.S. market into a
single integrated bipartisan counterdrug strategy.
is teetering on the brink of another crisis, which involves bullets
rather than banking policies and exchange rates. The victims of this
crisis range from honest cops and Mexican children to American youth
who become hooked on cocaine or methamphetamines.
Mexico and the
U.S. face the same enemy: elusive, sophisticated, resourceful, and
violent transnational criminal networks that exploit U.S. and Mexican
weaknesses and vulnerabilities, defy historical concepts of
sovereignty and nationhood, supply the most dangerous and darkest human
desires, and undermine the foundations of democratic governance and
the basic concepts of free societies. Making common cause against such
an enemy makes eminently good sense.