Major Mexico update: recent attacks and Merida 2.0
Hillary Clinton in Mexico: “Stop in the name of… drugs.” Photo via The Economist.
The Mérida Initiative’s High-Level Consultative Group met last week in Mexico City, bringing together top US and Mexican officials to discuss progress and future cooperation since their first meeting in December 2008.
Before breaking down what happened at this oh-so-important meeting, a quick recap of recent incidents highlighting the challenges of drug-related violence and law enforcement:
- Authorities have arrested a member of the Barrio Azteca gang allegedly responsible for the killing of three US citizens related to the US consulate — Ricardo Valles de la Rosa, a hitman who split his time between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Interestingly, the El Paso Times reports that the target of the March 13 attack was not the female consulate employee, but instead her husband, an El Paso County sheriff’s detention officer who had allegedly mistreated fellow gang members in jail, and who also died.
- According to the El Paso Times, Barrio Azteca is aligned with the Juárez cartel and its leader, Eduardo “Tablas” Ravelo, is on the FBI’s top 10 most wanted list. Along with 26 fellow gang members, Ravelo was indicted in 2008 “as part of a 5-year Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) investigation that led to 30 federal indictments, 61 federal and local arrests, and 23 convictions of gang members.” Nevertheless, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Shannon O’Neil is right to point out that, “In places like Ciudad Juarez, the prevalent depiction of a battle between highly organized and disciplined drug cartels is misleading. Instead, these ‘organizations’ are sprawling networks full of freelancers who might work one day for a cartel, the next on their own or with a local gang.”
- Last Monday, ten youths, aged 8-21, were killed in Durango traveling along rural roads to pick up their federally-provided scholarships for low-income students. The LA Times writes that they were fired upon when the vehicle in which they were traveling failed to stop at a checkpoint: “the ad hoc type of roadblock often set up by drug traffickers who control parts of Durango, not a military installation,” according to state prosecutors. The mayor of a town in the region, in a Mexican TV interview, stated, “We need more military presence… more police who are trained and equipped to fight the kind of criminals we are facing.” (This brings us to the problem: this incident, if indeed the result of an illegal roadblock, reveals the true challenge to territorial integrity posed by drug traffickers and their criminal allies. Yet the answer isn’t, and can’t be, simply military. See more below.)
- In US-side enforcement, the Department of the Treasury announces the conclusion of a major effort targeting traffickers’ finances through the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act; some small-level smugglers are sent back to Mexico for trial; and the Border Patrol coordinates with Mexican authorities to double-duty surveillance and security.
Considering these challenges, what was discussed in Mexico City? How have the two countries evaluated their security cooperation thus far, and how are they developing new policies? Beyond releasing a slew of documents for the meeting evaluating cooperation up to now, the US delegation also announced a series of new proposals, part of what Shannon O’Neil over at the Center on Foreign Relations is calling Mérida 2.0.
The bottom line? “The White House is shifting its support away from military-style hardware and toward investments designed to strengthen Mexican communities and help dissuade young people from enlisting as cartel gunmen.” The FY 2011 budget request totals $331 million.
- Pilot programs in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez will include “customised attempts to dismantle each gang through intelligence; spending on social development in violent areas; and a promise to speed up a glacial effort to overhaul police forces and the courts,” according to The Economist.
- Intelligence sharing will be enhanced and institutionalized via “fusion centers” where American agents will be embedded with their Mexican counterparts, and a joint command center based in Mexico City. As the New York Times reports, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said “she had made several trips to the border in recent months to work with Mexican authorities on new law enforcement techniques, including the kind of community policing efforts credited with significantly reducing violent crime in Los Angeles and Chicago.”
- The US will conduct a survey on drug consumption in concert with Mexico, and has promised to do more “within its laws” to impede the southward traffic of guns and bulk drug cash, according to the Washington Post.
So, what to make of all this? Both governments, especially the US, are labeling this new effort as “unprecedented.” (Let us not lose sight of the fact that the original Mérida was a “new paradigm.”) Before noting any concerns with the proposals, I must say that this is, at least facially, a step in the right direction: it would be a major fail were the new plan to be as hardware, technology-heavy as the already appropriated funds. The violence and corruption associated with organized crime in Mexico deserve a thorough treatment that contemplates not only combat, but also the underlying social and economic factors so centrally at play.
A few aspects of the new plan, though, are worrisome.
- First, the US has stated it will ramp up its own efforts, but has not put in writing a commitment with clear goals — thereby limiting the ability to evaluate progress and demand accountability. They have promised to combat southward traffic of weapons and laundered cash; but this has been promised before. Hillary Clinton further responded to an inquiry regarding any consideration of decriminalization as a means of countering the cartels with a one-word answer (“No.”).
- Second, the evaluation documents (which are a must-read for anyone interested in the development of US supply-side drug policy) highlight the same old problem: focus on numbers and process, and not on results. The main paper reviewing US-Mexico security cooperation thus far mentions “successes” — number of helicopters sold, drugs seized, police trained — but not the effects of these steps. Looking at effects would reveal a different picture: Mexican nationals, for example, do not feel or experience safety, with 59% believing the drug cartels are winning the war.
I was in Mexico City two weeks ago, after a year away. I was heartbroken to read the newspapers and see the discussion taking place within their pages had barely changed. “The violence is too much.” “There must be violence in the short-term; it is a sign we are winning.” … “The army needs to go back to the barracks; police should be doing police work.” “There is no other force with the needed capacity; in the short-term, the military must take the lead.” As the violence drags on, becoming ever more degraded and prevalent, how long is the short term?
Let us hope that Mexico and the US dive in to this new phase of cooperation, dedicated to developing a relationship based on mutual trust and accountability, unafraid to ask the hard questions, and motivated to implement policies that truly contain the violence and pain being inflicted daily on the Mexican people. They deserve it.