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Mexico: The Merida Initiative discussed

July 8, 2008 |  9:19 am

At the end of last month, the Merida Initiative -- a $400 million aid package for Mexico aimed at helping the country fight its powerful drug cartels and organized crime networks -- was approved by the United States Congress.

The Merida Bill faced stiff opposition across the political spectrum and from both sides of the border. Detractors in the United States worry that the funding will put more resources into already corrupt law enforcement agencies in Mexico. Here in Mexico, critics are concerned that the help from the U.S. administration signals American interference in the country's affairs.

Here on La Plaza, we receive many comments and questions in response to posts on the issue of what is also known as Plan Mexico, which we have covered extensively. So today, we put questions about the aid package to two specialists on the subject.

Laura_carlsen Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas program for the Center for International Policy, which advocates foreign policy based on demilitarization and a respect for human rights. She writes extensively on Mexico.

Officialphotothumbnail_2 Senator Patrick Leahy is a Vermont Democrat who heads the foreign operations subcommittee and is an advocate of the package.

How significant an amount of money do you think $400 million is in helping Mexico fight its drug cartels and organized crime networks? How can it compare to initiatives such as Plan, which involved more than $7 billion?

Laura Carlsen

The Merida Initiative is both too little and too much — it’s too little aid to have any appreciable impact on the flow of illegal drugs to the U.S. market and the power of the Mexican drug cartels, and it’s too much since the aid forms part of a misguided and ineffective model. The fundamental flaw of the initiative is not the amount of aid but the terms in which the Bush administration presented it and Congress approved it.

The appropriation of $400 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the market for illegal drugs in the United States, which runs into the tens of billions a year. According to the General Accounting Office, 90% of imported illegal drugs come through Mexico. Experience has shown that as long as an underground market of this size exists, criminal organizations will find ways to supply it. Plan Colombia is the best example of the failure of these enforcement/interdiction models that focus on supply rather than demand. After nearly eight years, Colombia has registered an increase in acreage dedicated to drug cultivation and the flow of illegal drugs to the U.S. market has not decreased.

The Merida Initiative copies this failed model. Billed as a “regional security cooperation initiative,” it focuses exclusively on security forces and supply-side interdiction without going to the root causes of the bilateral drug trade. Faced with a growing consumption problem, Mexico receives no aid to expand prevention and rehabilitation programs or promote crop conversion in the bill, and although heralded as a major step forward in binational cooperation, it contains no commitments or performance goals for U.S. interdiction, demand reduction, gun-running or money laundering programs.
Senator Patrick Leahy

It is a significant amount, and if it shows results it will be the beginning of a multi-year commitment.

[Re Plan Columbia] That is the amount we have provided Columbia over the past 8 years, so one cannot compare it to the first year of the Merida Initiative.

Also, at the start of Plan Colombia, half the country was under the control of the FARC, bombs were exploding in Bogotá and the Government was no match for the drug traffickers. While the challenge facing Mexico is serious, it is of a different scale and the Government is more capable.

How do you think the money will be spent, and how accountable will that spending be? And is this just a one-off aid injection, or the beginning of a much longer cash flow agreement between the two countries?

Laura Carlsen

The $400 million appropriated for 2008-2009 is the first installment of the originally $1.4 billion three-year plan announced by the Bush administration on Oct. 22, 2007, if subsequent years are funded. Some sources say the aid commitment could last much longer given that Mexico’s “war on drugs” will not be won by 2011 when this initiative ends. Congress has stipulated that Mexico receives no cash payments or budget support under the plan. All the resources will be given in kind, through military and hi-tech equipment and training programs.

This means that most of the money will remain in the United States with defense contractors, information technology firms and private security firms. This raises ethical issues of what constitutes foreign aid, and the impunity that these private security firms enjoy on foreign soil, where they have allegedly been involved in the murder of civilians and other human rights violations. The degree of unprecedented U.S. government involvement in Mexico’s intelligence and national security apparatus has also raised valid concerns over sovereignty within Mexico that could end up increasing friction between the two nations.
Senator Patrick Leahy

The legislation requires the U.S and Mexican governments to develop a strategy and spending plan and then to consult with Congress.

We do not provide cash payments. Rather, the funds are used to purchase equipment and training. A portion of the funds will be used to pay for helicopters and other hardware. Some will be used for institution building.

The Merida Initiative is for three years, but I believe this is the beginning of a long-term partnership that should expand beyond the law-enforcement focus of the initiative. The reasons why drug-related violence, corruption and organized crime have been able to flourish in Mexico are complex. Establishing the rule of law and respect for human rights requires reforming and strengthening the capacity and independence of Mexico’s judicial institutions.

Also, the U.S is the primary market for illegal drugs, and the source of most of the guns used by Mexican cartels. Solving these problems will only be possible if each country does its part.


There has been opposition to the bill because of Mexico's poor human rights record and corrupt law enforcement agencies. What exactly are the conditions of the bill in terms of human rights and accountability on spending? How will they work and be measured? Or has the United States just given Mexico a shot of money to spend as it sees fit?   

Laura Carlsen

It’s a well-documented fact that elements of Mexican security forces have direct working relationships with the drug cartels. This is especially true of the police but as the army becomes more involved in the drug war, it becomes more susceptible to corruption. Both the army and police have committed numerous human rights violations since launching the war on drugs under the Calderon administration. Mexicans want to control organized crime but in some areas populations report feeling a double threat — from the delinquents and from the security forces.

Under the conditions, 15% of the aid package will be released only after the Secretary of State reports that Mexico is: enforcing the prohibition on the use of testimony obtained through torture, establishing a police complaints mechanisms, creating a non-binding civil society commission to monitor anti-organized crime programs, transferring cases involving military personnel to civil courts where Mexican law permits, and assuring that security forces are cooperating with investigations and their crimes are effectively prosecuted in the court system. Mexico is also required to create a police registry, and provide human rights training to security forces.

Conditions originally proposed by Congress included 25% of funds withheld, transferral of military cases to civil courts, a vetting process in the U.S. for Mexican security forces, and an international monitoring committee with greater powers. These were removed following an outcry by the Mexican government. The disastrous result of attempting to condition this bill was not so much that the conditions were for the most part abandoned, but that they diverted attention from the dangerous implications of the bill itself on Mexico’s transition to democracy and the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

Evidence from the Mexico drug war so far shows that empowering corrupt and abusive security forces and militarizing society does not have a salutary effect; it has increased both drug-related violence and the number of abuses against civilians. Particularly at risk are women, indigenous peoples and leaders of opposition movements. We anticipate that this U.S. aid package will increase the number of violations as well as the likelihood that aid will end up in the wrong hands.

The U.S. government had an opportunity to finally show a real commitment to its southern neighbor. Mexico has received on average only around $40 million dollars a year in aid since NAFTA, despite that when the European Union entered into an economic integration plan with less-developed countries it created a multi-year transition fund that enabled those countries to successfully implement economic development programs and reduce immigration flows. Mexico today faces intransigent poverty, high emigration and increasing violence in its communities. Organized crime must be combated internationally. But with the Merida Initiative, Congress has appropriated funds that will not solve the problems they address, and ultimately will have the reverse effect of holding back Mexico’s progress toward fuller democracy and rule of law.
Senator Patrick Leahy

There have been inaccurate statements in the Mexican press about the human rights requirements.

Here is what the legislation says:

Fifteen percent of the funds for the military and law enforcement agencies may not be made available until the U.S. Secretary of State reports to the Congress that the Mexico Government meets the following requirements:

-- Ensuring that civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities are investigating and prosecuting, in accordance with Mexican and international law, members of the federal police and military forces who violate human rights, and the police and military forces are fully cooperating with the investigations;

-- Consulting regularly with Mexican human rights organizations and other relevant civil society organizations, to make recommendations concerning implementation of the Merida Initiative in accordance with Mexican and international law;

-- Enforcing the prohibition, in accordance with Mexican and international law, on the use of testimony obtained through torture or other ill treatment;

and

-- Improving the transparency and accountability of the police forces, including through police commissions with authority and independence to investigate.

These requirements, if met, will improve accountability and respect for human rights by Mexican Police and military forces, who have historically violated the law with impunity.   

The legislation gives the U.S. Secretary of State the responsibility for determining that the requirements have been met, in order to be able to report to Congress.

There needs to be a spending plan that Congress has to sign off. We also have mechanisms for monitoring the use of the funds, such as the Government accountability office and the State Department Inspector General.

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