Since his election in July 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) has already taken on a wide range of initiatives, bolstered by his MORENA Party winning majorities in both houses of the Mexican Congress and an 85 percent approval rating 100 days into office. Campaigning on the promotion of peace and stability, AMLO is up against a tide of rising crime in the country, which spells out potential for a new phase of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation.
On a March 14 teleconference with the Pacific Council, Dr. Richard Downie, managing director of Delphi Strategic Communications, explained that Mexican voters have become fed up with violence, corruption, and astronomical rates of homicide, which have increased since the start of the Mexican drug war launched by former President Felipe Calderón in 2006. Calderón’s successor President Enrique Peña Nieto continued this fight with the drug cartels when he took office in 2012.
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According to Downie, “since 2007, there have been over 230,000 homicides in Mexico, and the last two years have set records. Well over 90 percent of crimes in Mexico go unpunished.”
Clare Ribando Seelke, specialist in Latin American affairs at the Congressional Research Service, explained that the rise of violence in Mexico is part of what inspired the creation of the Mérida Initiative. President Calderón reached out to President George W. Bush in 2007 requesting the United States’ help on security and controlling violence in Mexico. The resulting Mérida Initiative marked a historic shift in how U.S.-Mexico security cooperation works, as the relationship had previously been marked by distrust on both sides of the border.
Although the Mérida Initiative “is not as well-known, probably particularly out in California,” Seelke explained, “it is basically the way you characterize the current state of U.S.-Mexican security cooperation.” When the initiative was started, it included funding for equipment, police training, rule of law and police reform, military funding, and a small amount for border security.
After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the initiative evolved into a broader partnership and focused more on the causes of corruption and drug-related violence. “Both governments [are] supposed to tackle their domestic issues contributing to the violence in Mexico, and that’s proven very difficult for the United States to address [in terms of] gun trafficking, money laundering, and drug demand,” said Seelke.
"Under AMLO, it is continuing to work with the United States to deal with the flows of Central American migration, even providing humanitarian visas for some migrants to work in Mexico."
Clare Ribando Seelke
Under the Obama administration, the Mérida Initiative began to look more at human rights not just at the U.S.-Mexico border, but also at Mexico’s southern border due to a surge of unaccompanied minors crossing in 2014, and more recently, with Central American families.
“Mexico has become a more transit and destination country,” Seelke explained. “Under AMLO, it is continuing to work with the United States to deal with the flows of Central American migration, even providing humanitarian visas for some migrants to work in Mexico.”
However, Alejandro Hope, consulting partner at GEA Group of Economists and Associates, emphasized that “we’re in the middle of a violence epidemic in Mexico. The level of homicides is going up significantly and there is still no end in sight.”
Compared to the past, violence is becoming more dispersed across Mexico. “In 2010, 15 percent of all homicides occurred in one city, that was Ciudad Juárez on the border with the United States. Last year there wasn’t a single state that had more than 10 percent of all homicides. It is becoming much more complicated to mount a response,” Hope explained.
"We have gone from having six to eight major cartels that were mostly devoted to smuggling drugs into the United States, to a situation where we have hundreds of small gangs that are no longer as completely devoted to drug trafficking."
“We have gone from having six to eight major cartels that were mostly devoted to smuggling drugs into the United States, to a situation where we have hundreds of small gangs that are no longer as completely devoted to drug trafficking. They are more directed at exploiting local economies through activities like kidnapping and theft.” These smaller gangs are much more local in scope and impact. Yet, while they do not threaten the national state as much as the old cartels did, they pose a major threat of violence to local communities throughout Mexico.
While AMLO has yet to develop an overall security strategy, some of his initiatives include daily meetings with the security cabinet, setting up territorial coordination where federal agents try to take over state and local forces, and establishing a national guard. These initiatives demonstrate how AMLO is keen to continue using armed forces to bolster law enforcement’s impact. There have also been talks about alternative approaches to dealing with drugs and violence, including truth commissions on human rights abuses, amnesty to people with petty drug crimes, and legalizing drugs like marijuana.
According to Hope, President López Obrador’s administration says its security policy will be 20 percent pure security measures and 80 percent social policy, such as scholarships, job training programs, and healthcare. However, it remains to be seen whether these attempted social policies will lower rates of violence. Seelke also mentioned soft side programs that Mexico is implementing to build strength and resilience against violence and illicit activities in local communities.
"It looks as though he may in fact be pursuing a pretty traditional approach, continuing in many ways in the close collaboration with the United States."
Before and after winning the election, AMLO made controversial statements, causing some to worry that he would change things too dramatically once he took office. So far, this prediction has not materialized, particularly on security policy.
Eric Olson, director of the Central America-D.C. Platform at the Seattle International Foundation, said that “people have been skeptical about an end to the war on drugs, an amnesty to drug traffickers, demilitarization, and a social program approach to deal with the problem of drugs and violence in Mexico.”
Four months into office, the United States and Mexico have finally begun to understand AMLO’s security strategy. “It looks as though he may in fact be pursuing a pretty traditional approach,” Olson explained, “continuing in many ways in the close collaboration with the United States.”
"There was some concern that if AMLO was a real nationalist, that he might stop or curtail the kinds of cooperation and exchanges that existed between Mexico and the United States, and clearly that hasn’t happened."
For example, Olson stated that “[Mexican] cooperation with the United States on countering narcotics has continued almost without interruption.” In fact, collaboration has increased in “going after money launderers and working together to try and combat this flow of illegal resources in the financial systems.”
Seelke, Hope, and Olson also affirmed that cooperation has continued on fighting the U.S. opioid epidemic, including the creation of a special task force focusing on the supply of fentanyl.
“There was some concern that if AMLO was a real nationalist, that he might stop or curtail the kinds of cooperation and exchanges that existed between Mexico and the United States, and clearly that hasn’t happened,” said Olson. Most intelligence and military cooperation has continued seamlessly, despite some reshaping of Mexico’s intelligence apparatus.
"Since 2007, there have been over 230,000 homicides in Mexico, and the last two years have set records. Well over 90 percent of crimes in Mexico go unpunished."
While U.S.-Mexico relations may encounter friction on energy and economic policy, Olson noted, “in this specific area of security cooperation, I would say it’s even surprising how much it’s continued on smoothly, and will likely continue in the foreseeable future.”
Of course, cooperation does not mean that success will come easily for the United States or Mexico in dealing with their crises. “People might say there’s record drug overdoses in the United States and record levels of homicides in Mexico. So how can this Mérida Initiative claim success?” Seelke remarked.
Ultimately, these issues will “be generational challenges,” given their complexity and historical causes. The silver lining remains, however, that the United States and Mexico continue to work together in order to find solutions for the future.
Sumaya Quillian is a Programs Associate at the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Gemma Stewart is the Communications Project Fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.