By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Although it has been around for more than a decade, the Merida Initiative is one of the most poorly understand bilateral agreements ever established between Mexico and the United States.
Signed into existence back in June 2008 by then-U.S. President George W. Bush and his then-Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón, the multifaceted security cooperation accord was intended to help Mexico overcome a growing wave of organized crime and violence through a partnership with Washington to help update its judicial system, modernize its police forces and renew its technical equipment though nearly $3 billion in funding from the U.S. State Department.
And, while crime is sadly still on the rise in Mexico (due in large part to mounting drug and gang activities, endemic corruption and poor implementation of the law, among other issues), the initiative did accomplish a lot of good nationwide, including a revamping of the judicial system to an oral structure and the modernization of forensic institutions.
But for all the positive advances that the Merida Initiative ushered in, most people in Mexico – and in the United States, for that matter – have very little idea what the agreement is really about or what is encompasses.
Chief among the misinformed appears to be Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who on Tuesday, May 7, said he wanted to scrap the initiative and replace it with an aid program focused on economic development in the south of Mexico and in Central America.
“We don’t want this Merida Initiative,” he told reporters during his early morning press conference at Mexico’s National Palace.
“We don’t want armed helicopters. We want development and job creation.”
But as former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne, who served as the diplomatic head of mission in Mexico City from 2011 to 2015 and who is now a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, pointed out in an interview with Pulse News Mexico, the purchase of helicopters were only a small part of what the Merida Intuitive has entailed.
“It is true that one of the initial requests from the government of Mexico was for helicopters,” Wayne said.
“That was because the Mexican Navy did not have mobility for their Marines, who it wanted to be able to move around quickly to places in the country where they were needed in order to have rapid action against criminal groups.”
More importantly, that handful of helicopters that were granted to Mexico because of the request did not come with guns, Wayne said.
“They were unarmed helicopters,” he explained. “The Mexican government subsequently bought machineguns to put on them, but those guns were not provided by the United States.”
Wayne said that because of the time gap between the signing of the initiative and its implementation, when he first arrived in Mexico in September 2011, the initial delivery of assistance and programs had just gotten underway.
He also said that it is important to understand that the agreement was and is “a joint initiative,” so any actions or purchases done under its auspicies had to be agreed on by both parties.
“These big initial equipment deliveries took place in those first couple of years, 2011 and 2012. And that included some observation cargo airplanes, as I recall, naval planes,” he said.
“But what we always wanted to do was to have the focus of the program be on technical assistance and training, not on heavy equipment. And if there was equipment, it would be equipment that could be used after the training for investigations or for things related to police matters, but not military ends.”
The main thrust of the initiative, Wayne said, has always been programs to help train prosecutors and police investigators and to build up technical capacity in the federal police.
“The idea was (for Mexico and the United States) to work more closely together in going after organized crime more effectively,” he said.
“But it was not just about organized crime in the sense that it was also going to address the institutions of rule of law and respect for human rights. And it was going to look at the (Mexican) border and see how to make it into a 21st century border, as distinguished from a 19th century border. It was also intended to look at ways to help local communities that were suffering from a large presence of criminal activity.”
Regarding border security, Wayne said that one of the biggest projects was improving binational communicate in order to allow enforcement officials to talk directly with one another so as to avoid problems and respond jointly to emergency situations.
He likewise said that, under the initiative, pilot civil projects were established in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey.
“The idea here was to help local government and communities by working to establish programs that would give young people alternatives to being recruited into gangs, to offer them training,” Wayne said.
“Run by USAID, these initial programs were actually quite successful. The idea was that the Mexican government should then take the programs that worked and replicate them in other places in Mexico. But that did not endure. The government did not continue them, and they were eventually eliminated during the (former Mexican President Enrique) Peña Nieto years.”
But Wayne said that the technical assistance programs – which make up the bulk of the Merida Initiative – such as the training of prosecutors and support for the transition to a modern oral justice system, helped Mexico (particularly state justice systems) to establish higher standards by observing international systems.
“For example, a number of prisons around Mexico raised their standards, the way they were caring for prisoners and the way they were running their institutions,” he said.
“Not all Mexican prisons did this, but the ones that did got international recognition for reaching these higher levels and establishing an efficient and effective prison system.”
Wayne said that, unfortunately most of these technical programs never received much media attention.
“Frankly, I was quite alarmed when I saw that people in Mexico are still characterizing the Merida Initiative (as a military operation) just because of the initial deliveries of those helicopter, which the government of Mexico had asked for,” he said.
“Saying that the helicopters represented a militarization – which it wasn’t at all, and isn’t right now – was wrong.”
Wayne admitted that the initiative did and does include some military-to-military cooperation.
“But that wasn’t part of the Merida assistance,” he said.
“The Merida assistance is very largely with civilian agencies, except that part, of course, where Mexico has involved its military in the effort to be trained. The Merida part of it was run by civilians.”
Over the years, Wayne said that the Merida Initiative has evolved, primarily as a result of an evolution of the Mexican government’s objectives.
“The initiative started off largely focused on the federal government with a lot of equipment requests from the Calderon administration,” he said.
“At the end of the Calderon administration, there were more efforts to involve state governments. And the U.S. side argued for more capacity building programs and less equipment. That was accepted as an evolution and that continued under the Peña Nieto administration.”
Wayne said that “if you actually go through and look at all the different programs the Merida Initiative covered, you’ll see a whole series of capacity building programs.”
What equipment has been included, with the exception of the initial helicopters, has been tools to help Mexican officials better do their jobs as law enforcers, such as forensic labs and other technical gear.
Wayne said that the initiative was “always meant to be something jointly defined by the two countries.”
Of the $2.9 billion appropriated by the U.S. Congress for the Merida Initiative, Wayne said that only about $1.6 billion has been spent so far, leaving roughly $1.3 billion still available to Mexico to continue in its fight against crime and corruption.
“There are several other programs that are underway using the rest of the money, such as the training of prosecutors and forensic experts, and helping to train border officials to be able to collect data efficiently on people who are crossing into Mexico,” he said.
Wayne said that the United States is flexible as to how the Merida Initiative can be adapted to current situations.
“If the current government of Mexico wants to call it something other than the Merida Initiative, that’s fine,” he said.
“And if it wants to reorient part of it, that’s fine too. But it should actually understand what it’s reorienting. The basic goal of the program is to be supportive of the government of Mexico in its strategy to strengthen rule of law, to take on organized crime and to make more effective the border between the two countries, to have it work more efficiently and flow more fluidly.”
Wayne said that while he is convinced that there are day-to-day contacts between the United States and Mexico in regards to ongoing Merida Initiative programs and operational issues, “what’s needed still is for the two governments to sit down and actually work through a common agenda on how this program can be more effective and meet Mexico’s needs.”
One area where it could be expanded, he said, is in matters of security.
“The government of Mexico has been understandably very focused on crafting its own security strategy,” he said.
“I think now is a very good time to sit down and talk, not only about Merida, but also about the practical day-to-day collaboration in actually combating these organized criminal elements that are harming both societies.”
Wayne said that with the AMLO government now in the process of creating a National Guard security force, the Merida Initiative could be a very useful tool.
“It is not easy to build a whole new institution and to train people in the combination of what have been traditionally civilian police and semi-military operations and skills,” the ambassador said.
“There may be a number of countries that could help Mexico with those skills, but, certainly, there are some specific areas, technical areas, where the United States could provide some focused technical assistance that could help along the way.”
By the same token, Wayne said that Mexico could benefit from state-of-the-art sensor equipment at its border so that it could actually know what’s coming across in backpacks, cars and trucks.
“One of the biggest challenges that Mexico has faced is guns and bulk cash being smuggled in from the United States,” he said.
“Probably, the United States could help support buying sensors the Mexican authorities could use to improve its ability to track what comes across the border. Of course, that would need to be explored with the United States, but that’s something that, again, could fall under the umbrella of the Merida Initiative, if the government of Mexico would like to pursue it.”
Wayne said that the social-oriented programs that were dismissed under the Peña Nieto administration could also be reactivated, channeling energies toward offering alternatives for underprivileged and marginalized youth.
Overall, he said that he is convinced that the initiative has not yet outlived its potential usefulness for Mexico, and that it will remain “of value as long as the two governments believe it is of value.”
Although he said that it may eventually become redundant and unnecessary, his perception was that “the government of Mexico has a tremendous set of challenges to take on in the security area.”
“Most of these challenges need to be taken on by Mexico, no question about that,” he said.
“But I think there are a number of areas within that realm where technical assistance and training from the United States in specific fields could be of value.”
Although the anti-crime agendas of the United States and Mexico are not the same, Wayne said that there is “a big overlap.”
“Crime is going to remain an important issue in the bilateral relationship as long as there are such massive criminal operations working on both sides of the border,” he said.
“The best way to solve these, to deal with them, has to involve cooperation and collaboration, and setting priorities. The Merida Initiative can be part of that; it can help facilitate broader cooperation against crime and bringing criminals to justice. This is needed in both countries because in both countries, societies are suffering from crime, which is sadly connected on both sides of the border.”
For all these reasons, Wayne said that it would be a tragic loss for both governments if Mexico were to scrap the Merida Intitative.
“I think if people saw and understood the kind of very valuable technical training that the initiative offers – and realized that it is not politically biased one way or another – they would have a different perception of the Merida Initiative,” Wayne concluded.
“It works for human rights; it works for respecting civil liberties. It focuses on all sorts of things, depending on what the two governments decide. The Merida Initiative can do a lot of good things.”