The failures and successes of the Merida Initiative: the bilateral plan that promised to end violence
A conversation with Richard Miles, former intelligence officer during the Bush administration and co-author of the initiative, and Alejandro Hope, security specialist and former Mexican intelligence officer.

Over a month after assuming office, President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa kickstarted his administration wearing a soldier costume. For the first time since civilian Miguel Alemán, a Mexican president wore a dark green jacket and a cap with the five stars that signaled him as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

The Op eds in the newspapers that week did not take long in tearing apart such a move. The then new President clothed himself in green to legitimize his disputed victory in the urns. A president who saw himself forced to assume office in record time due to the protests of the opposition and the marches and demonstrations orchestrated by his rival in that election, the current President.

In the face of later events, the warning sent by journalist Carmen Aristegui in her op ed of that week in 2007 reads heartbreakingly innocent: "The weakening of Mexican political forces from a disordered dispute, intervened and violated by the Mexican President's Office, has not just left the country divided, but has made the Army structure burst as the only noticeable guarantee of national stability".

It is hard to believe that, back then, the military structure was morally unquestionable, before it was sent to fight narco-hitmen. The image of Calderón as a soldier would leave an indelible mark as the bloodiest era this country has seen since the Cristero War.

But the age of militarization, which began with a spectacular operation in Michoacán, would not fully begin until a year and a half later, when George W. Bush and the US Congress responded to the request for support that the Mexican President made in March of 2007. Their answer was the Merida Initiative.

In its first stage, between 2008 and 2010, the plan included an investment equivalent to a billion and a half dollars and contemplated three main objectives: 1) counterterrorism, countertrafficking and -eternal favorite of the US Congress- border security; 2) public safety; and 3) institutional construction. Later, in the era of centrist Obama, while the carnage was at its peak, a fourth point was added: "The building of strong and resilient communities".

November 2010: Carlos Pascual, former US Ambassador in Mexico, delivers three Blackhawk helicopters to then Security Secretary Genaro García Luna.

This week, Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that he will direct the funds of the Merida Initiative towards the development plan for the Mexican southeast. "We do not want a cooperation for the use of strength, we want a cooperation for development, we do not want the so-called Merida Initiative".

Twelve years after Calderón demanded support from the US in his war against drug trafficking, LPO consulted with two specialists that directly contributed to this controversial plan. On the American side, we talked to Richard Miles, senior associate of the Program for the Americas of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Miles was part of the National Security Council in Bush's White House and member of the team which developed the Merida Initiative. His expertise in security matters is extensive and spans twenty years between the Department of State and as an intelligence officer in the US Army.

On the Mexican side we spoke to Alejandro Hope Pinson, who back then worked at the CISEN -the Mexican intelligence agency- and since then has distinguished himself as one of the foremost analysts in security and drug trafficking matters in Mexico. Last year, he was a part of Margarita Zavala's presidential campaign as a security advisor.

In your opinion, what is the positive legacy of the Merida Initiative?

Miles: I believe it failed in the objectives it tried to reach, reducing violence and drug trafficking. But I do believe it did establish a very deep and broad relationship between Mexico and the US in terms of security and justice. It has been ten years in which we have been having a warm relationship between high commands -and not only high ones, but also between mid and low-ranking officers. You can see it in both, security and intelligence services. That is one of the reasons why, in spite of having a right-wing populist in the White House and a left-wing one in Mexico, the relationship is better than what one could predict. If, three or four years ago, you had said that AMLO and Trump were going to be presidents, people would have said: "Oh, that is going to be a mess, they won't be talking to each other". On the contrary, on a bilateral level, things are not bad at all, and part of this is because they have almost half a generation of high ranking commands in Mexico and the US, who have worked hand in hand, and this works as a buffer. Our relationship with Mexico thanks to the Merida Initiative, is much closer than with Canada or any other country in the region. We do not have a relationship like this with Brazil, or Argentina, or Chile. So many contacts in so many levels. That was the great shift of the Merida Initiative. Trust is so deep that you can have two presidents that do not like each other, and it does not affect the bilateral relationship.

What do you think of President López Obrador's pronunciations regarding the Merida Initiative?

Hope: There is a lot to unravel from his statement. First, it contradicts what Alfonso Durazo said, who brought up the theme of directing resources from the Initiative to the National Guard. Second, I believe there is confusion regarding the amount of money involved. Since 2007, around three billion dollars have been spent. Half of it was sent to Mexico between 2007 and 2011. The last eight years the amount has slowly diminished. This fiscal year eighty something million dollars were budgeted and another sixty million were added, making a total of one hundred forty-five millions. For 2020, the Trump administration is asking for seventy-six million dollars. Even if the President wanted to use that money for development matters, it is not that much money. Besides, the Merida Initiative already has a social side to it, which is its fourth pillar, not too large, but it is there. Building strong and resilient communities.

Another important point is that the Merida Initiative was never about money. Assistance was never the focus. From the Mexican perspective, it was sought that the US accepted its share of responsibility with the organized delinquency problem, particularly drug trafficking. A material expression of this co-responsibility principle. Some of the most important points in the Merida Initiative never had a budgetary expression. Particularly, the intelligence exchange and the institutionalization of certain forms of cooperation between agencies. If the President wants economic assistance for the southeast, he has to take into account that, given the political realities in the US, any assistance program in Mexico is going to need a security component. Something similar to Merida, but with a different name.

In the Peña Nieto-Obama era the Merida Initiative adopted its fourth pillar: building resilient communities.

Richard, how important was the co-responsibility aspect? It is one of the points that Alejandro highlighted the most in his analysis of Merida.

Miles: One of the reasons why the Initiative worked was because it shared the responsibility. It was an extraordinary shift in the US-Mexico relationship, regarding security. Before the initiative, the relationship between the Armed Forces of each country and law enforcement agencies were not good. Sometimes, they were hostile. Since then, we have cooperation, an acknowledgement that both governments are dealing with similar problems in many regards.

What are the Initiative's main problems?

Hope: It has many problems. One of the most specific problems is how the advancement in cooperation is measured. The metrics have been a continuous headache since it began, on both sides of the border. Must it be measured by the level of violence in Mexico? By more traditional drug trafficking combat measures, such as confiscation, detentions, or extraditions? Should it be measured by institutional strengthening? And if so, which ones? That has been the problem when US officers go to the Congress to defend the program.

That being said, I believe that if the President wants to re-direct the cooperation, it would be more useful to build upon the Initiative than to discard it, building other cooperation programs on the institutional architecture that the Initiative has created.

Is there a different focus to approach the violence crisis that Mexico has been facing for the last twelve years?

Miles: I think there is another focus to deal with the security crisis, but it is one that is going to take a long time and demands a lot of patience from both governments. I believe the US Government acknowledges that chasing cartel leaders has been successful to capture them, but not to reduce violence. Nowadays, getting heroin or cocaine is as easy as it was twelve years ago in the streets of the US.

What metrics should be considered to determine the advancements of the Initiative?

Hope: Institutional strengthening, for example. The performance of the judiciary system. Not only how many people you convict, or send to jail. There are metrics that suggest that the penal reformation has worked, in which sense the Initiative's backup is important. Specific measures for the social component, the impact on the criminal chains, how much impact it has had. There are many ways to get into it, none is simple and none is going to keep the world satisfied.

Is there an interest from the US to explore other plans to attack drug trafficking in Mexico?

Miles: The most recent funds dispatch for the Merida Initiative seems to me that is destined to the judiciary reformation, to provide assistance for the training of judges and attorneys and lawyers; to reduce corruption and build a more efficient judiciary system. I have seen some improvements in Mexican states regarding the number of processed cases, but it has been too little. There is still a lot of work to do in judiciary matters. The exception to this is that the US Congress's interest in combating heroin is very, very high. I know that both governments are working hard on this. In fact, the Congress doubled what the Trump administration had requested to go after heroin and fentanyl.

December 2009: John Brennan, former CIA director, and former ambassador Pascual.

How did the panorama of intelligence services change with the arrival of the AMLO administration?

Hope: I don't know. Look, CISEN had a change of name and administration. I understand that they also have broadened their scope, and it is more explicitly devoted to security matters. Public and national security are more entangled. These changes are still happening. My greatest fears have to do with the intelligence machinery in the Federal Police. What is going to happen now that their powers are transferred to the National Guard? Will this machinery survive?

I am worried that analysts and police officers leave and that they hold a grudge against an institution dominated by the Army. Many of them are civilians, and there might be massive desertions.

Can the Mexican President use these funds as he deems best?

Miles: These budgetary requests are elaborated with the cooperation of Mexican authorities, of course, but in the end, the US Congress is the one that decides how the money must be spent. There is a margin for social, educational and entertainment programs, which is why the Mexican government has a margin to operate. They can say: "Look, we don't need another helicopter, we prefer entertainment". But it is not a money pot for them to say: "Well, I think I'm going to spend this money on Chiapas". It is not that simple. Of course, there would be a disagreement between both governments and the US Congress would have to decide. I do not think they would approve money for social development, unless it is linked to stop drug production, or to build institutions, work in prisons, penal reformation. But I do not think they would agree with job creation programs in southern Mexico.

What would you say is the greatest triumph of the Merida Initiative in the last twelve years?

Hope: The fact that the US acknowledges that they are also responsible of the problem. Think how the situation was in the 90s. The US, unilaterally, certified if any country was cooperating or not with combatting drug trafficking. Cooperation in several matters is considerably better, partly because the US has acknowledged its share of responsibility. A larger cooperation in border security matters, between intelligence agencies. More communication channels have been opened between the two governments. It is not a minor concern.

Now, has the security equation changed in Mexico? Certainly. Has it had a more significant impact on the drug flow towards the US? Probably not. Has it modified the criminal underworld? Yes. Partly because of Mexican politics, and partly because of the Initiative. I believe a nuanced approach to the theme is needed. It is not black and white.

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