The Bicentennial Framework for Security Cooperation: New Approach or Shuffling the Pillars of Mérida?

In October 2007, Presidents George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón gathered in the city of Mérida, united in their concern for the burgeoning power and influence of Mexican transnational organized crime groups. Calderón had campaigned on a promise to fight drug cartels and had recently launched a major crackdown on criminal operations in nine states. From the U.S. perspective, demand for illegal drugs fueled violent crime within its borders and threatened to destabilize its southern neighbor. The subsequent agreement, known as the Mérida Initiative, initially promised over $500 million in U.S. assistance to tackle criminal organizations.

To move beyond issues that had hobbled past negotiations, the agreement was groundbreaking in its use of the term “shared responsibility” to frame U.S.-Mexico security cooperation. Rather than viewing criminal violence as purely a Mexican issue, or the drug trade as purely an American one, the Mérida Initiative correctly noted that success in reducing violence and the demand for illicit drugs hinged upon the efforts of both countries.

During the first three years, the United States spent an eye-popping $1.5 billion, nearly a third of which went to purchases of military equipment to modernize Mexico’s armed forces. In 2011, the second phase of Mérida crystalized around the four pillars of combating transnational criminal organizations, institutionalizing the rule of law, creating a twenty-first-century U.S.-Mexican border, and building strong and resilient communities. The framework of Mérida 2.0 guided the U.S.-Mexico security relationship for the past decade, in which the United States provided another $1.4 billion in assistance. In both countries, Mérida has enjoyed support across parties and through three administrations.

However, the intensified campaign against transnational criminal organizations has exacted a significant toll. As cartels fight back, homicide rates have soared in Mexico over the past decade and a half, leaving more than 150,000 dead. While important advances have been made in the training and professionalization of Mexico’s armed forces, organized crime remains an undiminished threat. The election of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in 2018 further complicated bilateral relations, as his current administration has thrown into question both the priorities of Mérida and the future of security cooperation.

AMLO and the “Death” of Mérida

AMLO famously campaigned on a promise to offer “hugs, not bullets,” by which he meant a more demilitarized response to organized crime, placing greater emphasis on social programs to deter violent crime. Simultaneously, he criticized previous U.S. security assistance for exacerbating Mexico’s violent crime. Mérida’s fourth pillar of communal development, he contended, had been deprioritized or even ignored by U.S. administrations more interested in interdiction efforts than improving the livelihoods of Mexican citizens.

Yet, AMLO’s vision of Mérida is stuck in an earlier incarnation of the agreement. While the United States did spend billions modernizing the equipment of the Mexican armed forces and police, these transfers ended by 2012 with the expansion of Mérida’s pillars. It is true that the “kingpin strategy” prevalent during the Calderón years contributed to increased levels of violence as a result of intra-cartel succession conflicts. Nevertheless, one of the driving forces behind Mérida 2.0 and its broader set of objectives was to move away from a one-dimensional approach to combating transnational criminal groups. With this set of criticisms, the AMLO administration appears to be fighting phantoms of the past rather than addressing the current security landscape and the needs of the U.S.-Mexico security relationship.

Phantoms or not, however, the AMLO administration has made its dislike of Mérida manifest. In a July interview, Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard put it bluntly, stating “The Mérida Initiative is dead. It doesn’t work, okay?” The Mexican government juxtaposes Mérida to a strategy designed to dissuade people from criminal activity by providing a more robust social safety net and cultivating economic development. In doing so, it pairs with some of AMLO’s other flagship initiatives, which include employment programs for young people, as well as subsidies for small rural farmers. AMLO has also championed the new Mexican National Guard, created after the dissolution of the U.S.-trained Federal Police in 2019, as a force that would replace the army in providing internal security.

While AMLO has spoken at length about the transformative nature of this new outlook, the security situation in Mexico has only deteriorated. Homicide rates have remained at record high levels, and the government has declared thousands more missing. Meanwhile, cartels have thrived and expanded operations and in some cases have even directly challenged and won against the Mexican Army with overwhelming force.

The worsening security situation compromises AMLO’s goal of reducing violence through economic development. Last year, Mexico dropped out of AT Kearney’s top 25 most attractive countries for foreign direct investment. Multinational companies have also shut down their operations in Mexico in response to insecurity, criminal extortion, and violence. This comes even as many companies throughout North America are looking to nearshore operations and relocate their supply chains—trends that ought to make Mexico an increasingly attractive destination for foreign investment. Without private sector commitment, AMLO’s goal of preventing crime with targeted development appears destined to fall short.

Furthermore, AMLO’s creation of the National Guard appears as anything but a novel approach to public security. Over three-quarters of its current membership has been transferred from the army and navy. The National Guard has also been deployed haphazardly, taking on a wide range of tasks (some unrelated to security) from policing the border to defending oil pipelines. Several human rights complaints have been lodged against the force, including allegations of arbitrary detention and inhumane treatment. Recently, AMLO has moved to make the National Guard part of the army (likely to protect it from budget cuts under his successor), laying to rest any remaining illusion of the institution as a primarily civilian agency. Thus, while AMLO heralds a new age of demilitarized policing, the National Guard has proven counterproductive, following an expansive and inconsistent mandate with troops drawn almost entirely from the armed forces.

Mérida’s Successes and Failures

A thorough autopsy of the Mérida Initiative is necessary to reveal key lessons for the U.S. and Mexican officials negotiating its replacement. To begin, the initiative made significant headway toward improving military-to-military cooperation between both countries’ armed forces. The Mexican Navy, for instance, has a military intelligence-sharing agreement with the United States, while joint training exercises have helped solidify cooperation between the Mexican and U.S. armies. In the intelligence sphere, bilateral cooperation has been vital, as U.S. agencies provide the Mexican armed forces with key operational intelligence—something Mexico does not produce easily on its own. Perhaps the most famous instance of this cooperation was the 2014 raid that captured the Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, a major victory for Mexico’s security forces who acted on information supplied by the United States.

The Mérida Initiative also launched several ambitious programs to modernize and tackle corruption. Over $400 million in assistance went to training and accreditation programs for police, prosecutors, and judges as part of the initiative’s ambition to remake Mexico’s judicial and law enforcement systems. This also enabled police units at the state and local level to employ modern forensics equipment and establish specialized units to tackle high-profile criminal activity. These reforms aimed at making these systems more efficient and lowering Mexico’s frustratingly high levels of impunity.

Turning to the third pillar, Mérida has resulted in several improvements to the monitoring and inspection practices along the U.S.-Mexico border. Both countries have deployed increasingly sophisticated technologies to detect smuggling while the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol assisted in the creation of a training academy for Mexican Customs to enhance the agency’s ability to monitor southbound trade. Under Mérida, an executive steering committee was also established to formulate bilateral border policy.

Unfortunately, Mérida’s successes have not been sufficient to resolve Mexico’s endemic security challenges. The justice system continues to severely underpay judges and prosecutors, leaving them susceptible to corruption. Also, although the military’s budget has increased in recent years, Mexico still spends far too little on security compared to the threats it faces.

Finally, while interdiction and so-called high-value targeting remain necessary to completely dismantle these organizations, too little emphasis was placed on the middle, operational layers of criminal organizations. Since the first meeting between Presidents Bush and Calderón, the number of active cartels in Mexico has grown as the arrests or deaths of top leaders caused many organizations to splinter. Indeed, it is estimated that over 400 criminal organizations of varying sizes now operate in Mexico.

For all of its successes and failures, the proximate cause of the Mérida Initiative’s demise can be traced to October 2020, when former Mexican defense minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos, was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on charges of collaborating with the shadowy H-2 cartel. The arrest of a high-level official from the Mexican Army (an important domestic institution for its political influence) without advanced notice reportedly took AMLO by surprise and touched off an outpouring of diplomatic pressure from Mexico City for the United States to drop charges against Cienfuegos and repatriate him for trial. A torrent of mutual recriminations followed, and in a stunning development, the U.S. Justice Department decided to return Cienfuegos to Mexico to stand trial the following month, but Mexico’s cycle of retaliation continued. In December 2020, Mexico’s congress passed an amendment to the country’s national security law removing immunity for U.S. law enforcement agencies and requiring them to request permission to meet with Mexican officials and share all information they collect with the Foreign Ministry. The change severely limited the ability of U.S. personnel to perform their duties and share information with Mexican counterparts without fear that it might leak.

The trial of Cienfuegos in January 2021 saw bilateral relations hit a nadir unseen since the kidnapping and murder of Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, as the former defense minister was cleared of all charges. Meanwhile, AMLO accused the U.S. government of “fabricating evidence” and the Mexican government released 751 pages of confidential evidence compiled by U.S. authorities during their investigation. Since this episode, Mexico has refused to grant visas to numerous DEA agents, and in August 2021, AMLO filed a lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers for their role in fueling Mexico’s violence.

The Future of “Shared Responsibility”

On October 8, 2021, a U.S. delegation, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Attorney General Merrick Garland, traveled to Mexico City to participate in a High-Level Security Dialogue—the first in many years between the United States and Mexico. The product of their negotiations, known as the U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities (Bicentennial Framework for short) should be finalized in January 2022. Thus far, it looks to be something of a reshuffled Mérida Initiative with a different name. One leading security analyst accuses AMLO of “Adamism”—the fantasy of recreating the world from scratch.

Whereas the Mérida Initiative rested upon four pillars, the Bicentennial Framework espouses three principal goals: protect our people, prevent transborder crime, and pursue criminal networks. This is a notable reordering of priorities. That “protect our people” is listed first—the functional equivalent to Mérida’s fourth pillar—while efforts to dismantle criminal groups appear last is a major concession to AMLO. The remarks from Mexican officials during the meeting reinforce this perspective, heavy on the use of the word “unprecedented” to describe an agreement in which Mexican interests are taken into account (and ignoring that it was Calderón who requested U.S. assistance in 2007).

However, playing musical chairs with the major pillars of security cooperation does not immediately resolve deep-seated challenges. Hanging over the Bicentennial Framework is the continued fallout from the Cienfuegos incident, a specter that both parties appeared content to leave unmentioned. Already, new divisions could emerge from Mexico’s stance on extradition. Whereas the AMLO administration had previously extradited criminals to the United States, foreign minister Ebrard called for greater equity in extraditions from the United States, pointing specifically to Genaro García Luna, a former secretary of public security who stands accused by the United States of working with cartels. On principle, extraditing García Luna is likely a non-starter given the release of sensitive intelligence and the perfunctory investigation undertaken against Cienfuegos.

The United States should work diligently to convince AMLO of the intrinsic connection between his social agenda and the need to improve citizen security in Mexico. Former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau has estimated that cartels control 35 to 40 percent of Mexico’s territory. AMLO’s assertion that development assistance by itself will reduce violent crime is highly dubious given the entrenched nature of Mexico’s cartels, especially absent effective law enforcement and AMLO’s disinterest in police reform. Both Washington and Mexico City must come to terms with this reality and recognize that even a less-militarized approach to security must take appropriate steps to protect civilians and combat violent criminal enterprises.

In this respect, a practical next step would be to get Mexico to expedite visa approval for DEA agents (none have been approved so far in 2021). Another area where the United States and Mexico may find common ground is on arms trafficking. This issue has been under the spotlight as a result of Mexico’s pending lawsuit against U.S. gun manufacturers but has been a major problem for years. An estimated 2.5 million weapons have been smuggled across the border from the United States since 2010—a large percentage of them finding their way into the armories of criminal organizations. It is in the interest of both countries to stem this illicit flow and cut off cartels’ arms supplies. U.S. recognition and public acknowledgment of the issue would likely be well received by AMLO.

In this endeavor, intelligence cooperation would be especially useful, as Mexico’s armed forces have struggled in the past to interdict significant quantities of weapons higher in the trafficking chain. Intelligence supplied from the United States, coupled with training programs for the armed forces and National Guard could improve Mexico’s ability to halt the flow of guns to cartels. Meanwhile, the United States can work to modernize its border in order to interdict more weapons before they head south.

Significant questions remain to be ironed out in the remaining negotiations. Will the Bicentennial Framework develop a joint mechanism to assess progress toward shared goals? Will AMLO accept the “interference” that comes with training for prosecutors in Mexico’s new accusatory justice system, or the certification process for prison standards and prison reform? Will Mexico accept U.S. funding for nongovernmental organizations, of which it has been critical in the past, in a new framework heavy on development assistance? Will it create the conditions for greater private-sector-led development? Making progress will therefore require a sustained effort and a deeper imagination that both the United States and Mexico are willing to implement over successive administrations.

Ryan C. Berg is a senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.