Responding to a growing sense that the military-led fight against drug trafficking organizations has failed to curb violence across our southern border, the United States and Mexico formally announced a shift in their counternarcotics strategy last week. The “new stage” in bilateral cooperation will aim to strengthen civilian law enforcement institutions and rebuild communities crippled by poverty and crime.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Mexico City last Tuesday with a delegation that included the U.S.’ top military officer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and top officials from the DEA, Justice Department, border security, and other agencies. Their visit marked the second High Level Consultation Meeting held under the auspices of the Merida Initiative. (Although the meeting had been planned for months, it took on greater urgency in the aftermath of the killing of three persons – two of them U.S. citizens – with ties to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez.)

The meeting laid the foundations for the second phase of the Merida Initiative. The first phase, launched in 2008, was designed to spend $1.12 billion to battle organized crime in Mexico through the provision of military hardware and training for police officers, judges, prosecutors and public defenders. However, as turf war violence escalated across a string of border cities, the 45,000 troops deployed onto Mexico’s streets increasingly became the visible face of Calderón’s strategy – and frontloaded Merida with military assistance.

The growing list of allegations against the army – long Mexico’s most trusted institution — is undermining its credibility — and its success. Troops field tips, filter intelligence, search safe houses and detain and interrogate suspects – tasks the military was never trained to perform. As the wars between DTOs, their allied gangs, and the army claim innocent lives, silence reporters, close businesses, and propel families north of the border, Mexican public opinion is galvanizing to demand an alternative strategy and many want the army out of the picture. According to a poll published last week, 59 percent of Mexicans believe the drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are winning the drug war.  Only 21 percent believe the government is.

Merida: new and improved

Endemic corruption in Mexico’s police force mean that for the short term at least, the military will remain the central actor in fighting the DTOs on the ground. But Merida II aims to expand bilateral cooperation beyond enhancing Mexico’s military capacity and law enforcement by incorporating initiatives to improve border surveillance and address the social and economic factors that underpin the violence. The strategy is based on a four-pronged approach:

  1. Disrupting the capacity of DTOs
  2. Reforming and enhancing the capacity of Mexico’s security and justice institutions
  3. Creating a twenty-first century border that advances commerce and security
  4. Building strong, resilient communities that tackle the drivers of violence and defy the influence of the DTOs

Security cooperation

The first and second components aren’t new, but there’s a change in the allocation of the $310 million requested budget for 2011 away from hardware. After all, much of the hardware originally included in the first phase of Merida will have been delivered by the end of this year. Instead, the bulk of the new money will go toward institutional strengthening with $207 million of the total budget supporting Mexico’s judicial reforms and ‘good governance.’

Pilot projects implemented at the local-level that facilitate policy coordination and information sharing will also be expanded. These include DEA agents, ATF and FBI analysts working together and sharing information with the Mexican military and federal police in Ciudad Juarez, and the U.S. Border Patrol working with the Mexican federal police in various localities.

To further aid intelligence sharing, the two governments are planning a new hub in Mexico City where the highest level law enforcement and intelligence agency representatives from both countries will work under the same roof to coordinate interagency policy, and review and develop new agendas.

Addressing long-term development

While the first two components are key to tackling the operations of drug traffickers, the new strategy recognizes that, in isolation, they fail to offer long-term economic and social alternatives. Without an eye to improving the competitiveness of border states by integrating the two nations’ economies through modernized infrastructure, the U.S.-dependent Mexican economy will struggle to recover. Without the promise of education and professional opportunities, communities have little to offer to youth than the alternative source of ‘social status’ granted by gangs.

The plan reconceptualizes the way a dynamic border should function: new transport hubs will ensure speedy crossings; pre-screening cargo at plants away from the border will improve security and free up capacity at customs; GPS on pre-screened trucks will deter deviation; and southbound (not just northbound) vehicles will undergo increased inspection as a U.S. system for scanning license plates with databases of stolen cars will be linked to Mexican customs.

To support the emergence of border communities resilient to the penetration of organized crime, the United States will provide technical and financial support to hinder the social and socioeconomic variables that perpetuate violence. The strategy is predominantly focused on youth, who make up 70 percent of those killed in Ciudad Juarez. In this city,  the scene of one third of all drug-related murders in Mexico, 40 percent of the city’s youth are neither employed nor in school, its maquila factories offer only low-wage labor, and unequal access to education offers no prospects for social advancement. Federal, state and municipal-level interventions will bring in urban planners to construct public spaces, launch job creation programs, open new schools and expand university campuses, establish scholarships to bring drop-outs back to school, raise funding for public health, and create after-school, youth development and rehabilitation programs. (The strategy is reflected in “We Are All Juarez,” unveiled in the aftermath of the January murder of sixteen youths).

Challenges to making the policy operational

Although the U.S.-Mexico security partnership is deeper today than ever before, an overarching strategy to deal with organized crime or address other issues on the bilateral agenda has been difficult to discern. Beyond the provision of equipment, counternarcotics cooperation has largely been based on an informal, case by case basis. On the security front, it is unclear how last Tuesday’s announcements will lead to a formal cooperation framework beyond intelligence sharing.

Convening disparate agencies on both sides of the border to work together will be no easy feat, but coordinating across Mexico’s local, state and federal law enforcement bodies will pose a more significant challenge. (The relatively swift success of Plan Colombia can be attributed to ease of coordination with Colombia’s national police force; Mexico’s over 1300 local, state and federal law enforcement bodies will make the strategy much more difficult to harmonize and implement).

Administrative hurdles and questions about institutional capacity also abound. Of the $1.12 billion appropriated for Mexico under Merida since 2008, to date the United States has delivered $128 million – less than 10 percent. It is unclear how the new “soft” initiatives—which increasingly aim to move resources into the hands of state and municipal actors and local NGOs—will be better equipped to absorb funds than Mexico’s well-structured security apparatus. Many of the state and local offices and projects that will be recipients of the new institution-building and community development assistance lack rigorous methods for implementing programs and measuring their effects.  The State Department and USAID will need to be more flexible in disbursing funds and in measuring the effectiveness of programs that are, by nature, long-term.

Testing the partnership

Today, unlike in the 1970s and ‘80s when DEA agents vetted and trained elite Mexican units and pursued kingpins in tandem, most of the operational responsibilities are in Mexico’s hands, with the United States playing a supporting role. As fears of spillover violence (no matter how exaggerated) increase, the U.S. will look to press its southern neighbor to formulate a clear plan of action to curb the bloodshed and may aspire to a greater role in strategy design. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ presence on the delegation was no coincidence.

While the issue of placing more active U.S. operations—military training and deployment in operational tasks or in intelligence gathering –is a politically touchy subject for Mexico, the successfully embedded U.S. intelligence analysts in the Juarez intelligence center suggests there may be some room for careful maneuver. To sustain the positive note, Washington will have to demonstrate equal partnership in information sharing: until now, it has been reluctant to fully disclose sensitive intelligence to Mexico for fear of corruption and incompetence.

The big picture

Beyond the lofty rhetoric, tangible results are a long way off and both sides of the partnership will need to demonstrate sustained focus and real commitments to maintain today’s positive tone underlying the partnership: Mexico, to root out corruption, reform its institutions, and rebuild its social fabric; the United States, to curb the flow of guns and cash south, and reduce domestic demand for drugs.

For Mexico, the overarching strategy, over and beyond attacking the drug cartels, is to reinforce the rule of law by strengthening the police, prosecutors and courts and rooting out the systemic and pervasive corruption of the Mexican security and law enforcement apparatus.  This is no small feat given the corrupting and coercive pressure that DTOs can exert on officials at every level and across both sides of the border. At the same time, Mexico is seeking increased commitment from the United States to shift its focus from border enforcement to tracking assault weapons at the point of sale and tackling the source of the estimated $18 to $38 billion (most in bulk cash) in narcotics sales that flow back to Mexico each year. Interrupting these flows before they reach the border and are divided into smaller shipments will be vital. The Obama administration has reiterated the U.S. co-responsibility on these issues during the meeting, but politically it will remain hamstrung to address them by domestic political factors, including the existing policy emphasis on attacking supply rather than demand and the power of a number of advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association that will likely oppose efforts to reduce gun sales. And, Mexico’s biggest demand—for the United States to undercut its drugs market—is viewed with skepticism: Hillary rebuffed the issue of decriminalization with a terse no, while federal demand-reduction programs were reduced in the 2010 budget.

The results of this more comprehensive approach will be slow in coming, and, as the grim toll continues, both parties may find it difficult to hew to the same coordinated plan.  Maintaining their focus on all four aspects of the strategy, though, offers the best chance that the next generation of youth in Ciudad Juarez will not become the cannon fodder to the cartels.