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Mérida Initiative: Building a stronger security partnership

Brandi Lowell and Keith Mines

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Photo: U.S. Embassy Mexico City

At the 2009 North American Leaders’ Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico jointly reaffirmed their commitment supporting the battle against drug trafficking.

The United States and Mexico designed the Mérida Initiative in December 2008, initially as a three-year, $1.4-billion program to support the Mexican government’s efforts to fight organized crime and drug trafficking. A parallel program is being carried out in Central America. For the U.S., the initiative was also an opportunity to act upon its responsibility in the equation: fueling a high demand for drugs and sending guns and money southbound into Mexico.

The Mérida Initiative began a major shift in scale and scope of U.S. support for Mexico and opened the door for vastly increased collaboration. Now roughly two years into the initiative, policy-makers have had the opportunity to reflect on progress made. The two most striking outcomes have been the success in increasing the capacity of Mexican institutions to disrupt transnational criminal organizations and sustain the rule of law, and a new U.S.-Mexico relationship marked by collaboration and partnership.

Yet the initiative has faced challenges on both sides. For the U.S. there have been the structural difficulties of increasing staffing sixfold and managing a very complex procurement process to find technical solutions for a host of sophisticated and unique projects. The Mérida Initiative is not boots and socks and basic training, but rather complex information platforms, specialized training and biometric systems. Inter-agency co-operation has been excellent and there is tremendous energy by all U.S. law enforcement and judicial agencies to support the initiative, but it has often been complicated and new mechanisms had to be developed to accommodate this.

Increased institutional capacity

The initial focus of the Mérida Initiative was on acquiring critical hardware components, such as Bell 412 and Black Hawk UH-60M helicopters and mobile ZBV Backscatter X-ray inspection vans that required long lead times to acquire. With this equipment now in place, Mexico has shifted its priority to strengthening the backbone of the institutions that uphold citizens’ right to justice and rule of law.

Two of the more remarkable initiatives include the reforms of the federal police and of the judiciary.

Mexico’s police and security forces are currently undergoing the most intensive reforms in their history. At the heart of these reforms is a new police model that emphasizes technical sophistication, vetting and internal controls, and a rebranding effort that emphasizes police work as a professional career. An aggressive recruiting program has enlisted an impressive force of middle-class college graduates to work as investigative agents. All other elements of the force are now required to have high-school diplomas and salaries have increased significantly to compete with white-collar jobs.

A key component of the new federal police force is the ability to conduct technical criminal investigations. To develop this capability it worked with the Mérida Initiative to train more than 4,500 police in basic investigation tactics, evidence collection, crime scene management and trial testimony at Mexico’s Federal Police Academy in San Luis Potosí. The instructors were law enforcement professionals from Canada, Colombia, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and the U.S., making the program a remarkable peer-to-peer exchange and a powerful illustration of professional police work for young Mexican recruits who have sometimes lacked homegrown models. High-potential mid-level officers have received intensive training in high-priority areas such as arms trafficking, money laundering, intelligence, cyber crime, police management, forensics and technology. In total, more than 6,700 officers have been trained in 204 courses covering criminal investigations, drug interdiction and counter-narcotics work.

A stronger police force will be of limited utility, however, if the judicial system is not similarly reformed and able to effectively prosecute those accused of committing crimes. The keystone of any democratic government, the judiciary also carries important economic implications. Corruption and incompetence in court systems can increase the risk and cost of doing business, in turn decreasing the competitiveness of Mexico’s economy and marginalizing meaningful employment opportunities for those looking for a life outside of organized crime. This is another area in which the Mérida Initiative is making a difference.

Once Mexican President Felipe Calderón pushed through critical judicial reforms in the summer of 2008, Mexico began to shift from a closed, paper-based inquisitorial system to an oral accusatorial system that guarantees defendants’ fundamental rights. Thus a new framework for a strengthened judicial sector was created.

At the state level, the U.S. has provided Mérida Initiative funding to support state-to-state workshops and study tours for Mexican officials, tapping the experience of technical experts in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Spain. Mérida Initiative funding has also provided advanced investigation, forensic and prosecution skills training under the new system for federal prosecutors, investigators, forensics experts and police in all 32 Mexican state jurisdictions.

Training funded as part of this partnership has also been provided to the Federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR). Officials have undergone courses on homicide investigations, document fraud, crime-scene digital photography, sexual assault, narcotics investigations, human rights, judicial administration and how to properly present evidence in oral trials. Applying the “train-the-trainer” model, Mexican instructors leave with valuable teaching methods they can apply to independent training courses, building skills and leadership to buttress the foundation of Mexico’s own training programs.

Both the major transformation of the legal and constitutional framework for Mexico’s judicial system and the re-structuring of its public security forces have been complex processes given the federal nature of the country’s political system. While federalism adds complexity to the undertaking at the outset, it will of course ultimately make the management of new judicial and public security forces both easier and more effective. But for now Mexico still finds itself in the more difficult phase, in which divisions of labour and jurisdiction and resource flows are still being worked out. For Mexico and the U.S. it has been a challenge to develop metrics to measure success, something increasingly sought by lawmakers and appropriators.

A new era of collaboration

One of the most important facets of the Mérida Initiative is that the programs are prepared in direct response to Mexico’s needs and requests. The majority of projects in place deal with issues Mexico began prioritizing long ago. The Mérida Initiative simply facilitates U.S. and third-country technical expertise and equipment to leverage the maximum benefit for Mexico. The U.S. plays a purely supportive role, and a modest one in contrast to Mexico’s own investment.

From the highest levels of government through the various layers of Mexican and U.S. agency employees, the Mérida Initiative has provided the platform to deepen Mexico-U.S. relations. Constant, and in some cases daily, meetings between Mexican and U.S. program co-ordinators have resulted in strong, collegial relationships backed by trust and a common goal of strengthening hemispheric security. And thus the Mérida Initiative has achieved remarkable success in a second area: fostering an entirely new set of relationships between the two governments.

The embodiment of this new relationship is best illustrated by the recently opened Mexico-U.S. bilateral implementation office (“BIO”) in Mexico City. The “BIO” houses program officers and liaisons from Mexican and U.S. government agencies involved in the Mérida Initiative. The bi-national workspace is designed to facilitate closer consultation and decision-making between the two governments, further develop the existing bilateral working groups, and expedite resolution of bottlenecks that will allow for faster delivery of Mérida Initiative programming and equipment. Equally as important, the new office represents an historic and unprecedented level of co-operation and serves as a potent symbol of the significant, ever-deepening growth in the Mexican-U.S. relationship.

As the Mérida Initiative continues to evolve, citizens on both sides of the border can expect to see the relationship deepen while Mexico’s institutions become increasingly capable in confronting violence and organized crime.

Brandi Lowell manages the Narcotics Affairs Section’s public affairs in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Keith Mines is the Narcotics Affairs Director in the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and has a distinguished career as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. 


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