Having just written about the need for performance measures in the Mérida Initiative for the Harvard National Security Journal, I was excited to read the new Congressional Research Service report on US-Mexican security cooperation. The section about measuring Mérida’s success was well-written — highlighting the debates and challenges in evaluation — but really blew my mind in terms of the State Department’s claims. From the CRS report:
[The State Department's June 11, 2010 report to congressional appropriators] continues to document progress in terms of the amount of equipment that has been delivered and training courses that have been carried out, but does not include information on any other performance indicators.
If, for example, the speed of equipment deliveries or the number of Mexican officials trained are used as benchmarks for success, it is unclear whether the Mérida Initiative may still be considered a success if equipment is delivered and training programs are carried out, but the Mexican government is still unable to make significant inroads against drug trafficking organizations and organized criminal groups.
I hope the CRS is being snarky here. Let’s say my doctor writes me a prescription for medication to cure a serious ailment. I take the medication, as prescribed, yet my ailment continues (or worsens). Arguing that my medical consultation was “successful” doesn’t pass the straight-face test.
Nevertheless, recent State Department fact sheets have shown that, with respect to arrests and seizures of some drugs (i.e. cocaine and methamphetamine), the Mérida Initiative may have had some success. Arrests and seizures on both sides of the border have increased… Another example of Mérida success—in the form of bilateral cooperation—cited by the State Department is the increasing number of extraditions from Mexico to the United States…
No, no, no. The State Department said themselves, back in July 2008, that these were not adequate indicators. I quote then (and current) Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs David T. Johnson: “I wouldn’t necessarily consider extraditions as a numeral indicator of how well or how poorly we’re doing. That’s a quality of the relationship that we have and a trust that we have in each other’s justice institutions more than anything else… [S]eizures are of course one measure, but really, the target here is not – not to up the amount of seizures, it’s to assist our partners and help them build institutions so that the organizations themselves can be taken down and destroyed and no longer be a threat to either them or to us.”
On the meaning behind seizures statistics, the CRS gets it right on:
It is also important to note that changes in seizure data and drug prices may not be directly related to U.S.—Mexican efforts to combat the DTOs. For instance, a decrease in drug seizures may be linked to a decrease in drug production and transshipment across the Southwest border, a decrease in the number of border enforcement officers available to search vehicles and people crossing the border, a shift in the smuggling routes used by the DTOs, a diversification of DTO activities to rely upon other illegal activities to generate income, or a success by the United States and Mexico in combating the drug smuggling activities of the DTOs. It is equally difficult to parcel out the reasons for periodic fluctuations in drug prices and purity in the United States.
Please, let us measure what really needs measuring in Mexico: the provision of security, justice and stability so sorely needed. For more, read my NSJ article here, or Vanda Felbab-Brown’s piece on Mérida evaluation here.