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From issue: Human Rights (Summer 2009)

AQ Feature

Security. U.S.-Mexico Cooperation: A New Opportunity? (Full Text)

The new U.S. administration probably did not expect to focus as much attention on Mexico early in the term, but it is hard to remember a period of such intense activity between the two countries. President Barack Obama has already met with President Felipe Calderón twice. Three U.S. cabinet secretaries, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have traveled to Mexico City, and there have been at least seven congressional trips and a dozen congressional hearings focused on the United States’ southern neighbor.

The flurry of high-level diplomacy should surprise no one. Rising violence in Mexico, fueled in part by the Mexican crackdown on drug-trafficking cartels, is a dire security threat to both countries. The resulting press coverage reshuffled priorities in both countries.

On drug violence, the two governments have agreed to cooperate on tracking narcotics traffickers whose operations span both sides of the border and to work together on prosecutions. The U.S. has offered to strengthen its existing justice assistance programs, including helping to modernize courts and police forces in Mexico. Perhaps most significantly, it has agreed to crack down on the flow of drug money, as well as the arms smuggling trade, which some Mexicans argue has been, along with the unchecked U.S. demand for narcotics, a prime contributor to Mexico’s drug violence and corruption.

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Even early missteps on both sides represented an acknowledgment that something has changed. Clumsy citations by U.S. officials of a Pentagon study suggesting that Mexico could be at risk of becoming a “failed state” touched nerves in Mexico City and led to serveral overheated comments by Mexican officials. Clinton’s subsequent appeal for “co-responsibility” in dealing with organized crime managed to soothe tempers. And Obama won applause when he made clear in Mexico City that the U.S. had to share the blame for Mexico’s crisis.

The notion of shared responsibility is not new. To some extent every U.S. president has made this point, and it served as the basis for former President George W. Bush’s announcement in 2007 of the Mérida Initiative, a three-year $1.4-billion package of U.S. assistance to Mexico (and Central America) for combating drug trafficking and related crimes.

But the shared acknowledgment of the gravity of the crisis has opened the door for new cooperation. The U.S. has committed explicitly to reducing the domestic demand for narcotics and to disrupting the southbound flows of weapons and narcotics money—estimated at $18 billion to $38 billion annually by the U.S. Justice Department. The Calderón administration’s commitment to revamp the country’s judicial system and law enforcement institutions comes backed by legislation approved last year.

These commitments have translated into concrete actions. The U.S. Congress approved $420 million in additional funds for the Mérida Initiative in an emergency spending bill approved in June. Another emergency spending bill, approved in February, authorized $10 million to hire additional Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) inspectors under the agency’s Project Gunrunner, which tries to identify gun dealers who are intentionally selling arms to Mexican drug traffickers. Next year’s budget, if approved, would allow the ATF to share data on illegal gun purchases with local and state authorities. Banned under current law, this is a major impediment for federal and state government collaboration.

Renewed efforts are also underway to make the border less porous, though in a far more selective and targeted way than previously. In April, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano named Alan Bersin as the border czar, with wide-ranging powers to get U.S. agencies to work together on stemming the southbound flows of narcotics money and assault weapons. She also sent 360 additional customs inspectors to the border region and has set up a mobile checkpoint to search southbound traffic for guns and cash. Mexico will add about 1,500 officers, and authorities are now weighing southbound traffic at the largest crossing point at Nuevo Laredo. Overweight vehicles face further inspection—an initiative that will soon be expanded.

A new command center in Mexico City is intended to promote information sharing among the two countries’ law enforcement and intelligence agencies, with both now working under the same roof. It will not necessarily resolve old turf battles or distrust, but it may build relationships among agents.

Mexico also has launched new efforts to go after public officials suspected of assisting the cartels. In May, the federal government arrested 10 mayors and more than a dozen state officials from all three major political parties in the states of Michoacán and Morelos. Further operations are likely to follow.

These are positive steps, but not all signs are encouraging. Although Obama’s new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, testified in mid-May that “treatment needs to be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy to stop drug use,” the administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2010 actually cuts prevention and treatment funding by 0.8 percent while increasing interdiction and law enforcement funding by 2.7 percent. These numbers may change as Congress reviews the budget, but it is hardly an auspicious start for attacking drug trafficking at its root.

Similarly, while stepped-up border enforcement is needed, it should not be the primary solution for dealing with weapons and narcotics money. Most drug money now flows south as bulk cash, and it is best stopped inland—long before it reaches the border and is divided into smaller, hard-to-find shipments. The same is true for assault weapons, which need to be tracked at the point of sale. Border enforcement in both cases is only a start.

In Mexico, the drive to prosecute corrupt public officials is welcome, but the government has been less vocal about efforts to strengthen the courts and the police. Similarly, despite the evidence of greater professionalization in the federal police force, there has been little attention to state and local police.

The improved atmosphere demonstrates the new spirit of bilateral cooperation. But a long-term strategy will require a more concerted focus on demand reduction in the United States and institution building in Mexico, to order to address the root causes of drug trafficking.

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