Is the Merida Initiative Working?

800px-BlackhawkAs Mexico continues to experience a security breakdown related to drug cartel activity and violence, spectacularly exemplified by the second escape of ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, the spotlight has once again fallen on the role of the U.S. in its neighbor’s drug war. Underpinned by the $2.5 billion Mérida Initiative, successive U.S. administrations have supported the Mexican state’s security forces, and the aggressive approach toward the cartels that control the lucrative drug traffic through Mexico into the U.S. market.

The Mérida Initiative is currently officially described as an, “unprecedented partnership between the United States and Mexico to fight organized crime and associated violence, while furthering respect for human rights and the rule of law.”

However, with high-profile failures in the news, and security for Mexican citizens unraveling in large parts of the country, a campaign to reexamine or even halt U.S. aid has strengthened. Organizations in Mexico and the United States have expressed grave concerns about the human rights consequences of the aid and deep fears about the role of corruption within the Mexican state. The plight of the missing students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero (still shrouded in mystery, state failure and complicity), alongside the extrajudicial executions by the Army in Tlatlaya, and a number of other high-profile cases reveal a climate of increased human rights abuses, impunity, and continued state involvement in heinous crimes, has re-energized campaigners against the Mérida Initiative.

Now is a good time to examine a key question: Is Mérida working? In light of the reality on the ground for many in Mexico (upwards of 130,000 have been killed in the country since December 2006, the year former President Felipé Calderón launched his drug war) the answer may seem obvious, and the question at best redundant, at worst perverse.

A growing number of grassroots organizations, NGOs and academics have concluded, convincingly, that the U.S. is effectively a benefactor to a failed militarized drug war paradigm, and is therefore complicit in the human rights abuses and narco-corruption of the Mexican state. It is not controversial to note that the Mérida Initiative is fundamentally not working to protect citizen security – either in Mexico, or in terms of reducing drug use in the United States.

We also must consider the Mérida Initiative’s wider context, and consider it from a different lens. The first question is why does the U.S. government continue to pursue this policy if it has so palpably failed?

The answer is that from the perspective of U.S. state officials, Mérida is in fact working very well in a number of specific areas as part of a wider overall policy push to create a regional security framework for North America. These aims receive less publicity than the official counternarcotics rationale, but go a long way towards helping us explain why the U.S. continues to support Mexico with security aid. This also means that efforts to reverse or re-appraise the policy will need to be stronger and smarter.

NAFTA-land Security

The first thing to make clear is that the Mérida Initiative is not simply a counternarcotics effort, but instead a component of a much more expansive regional strategy, designed and promoted by the U.S. government in the aftermath of 9/11 and its fallout, to create what could be termed ‘NAFTA-land Security’ – essentially a Homeland Security vision for the NAFTA space. The terrorist attacks had a profound effect on North America and its political economy, as border security crackdowns designed to protect the U.S. homeland unilaterally ended up hurting the integrated North American marketplace.

As Laura Carlsen noted when the Initiative was announced, it plugs back into the regional security logics of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), which in the words of former Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs sought to, “armor NAFTA” from internal and external threats, including but going beyond international terrorism to include drug traffickers, domestic terrorism and political violence, and also social movements agitating for political economic change. Carlsen argued both Mérida and the SPP were designed to be much more about protecting investors and investment from a variety of perceived threats. Mérida would make the SPP’s aims a reality through heavily militarized approaches facilitated by U.S. aid.


NAFTA-land Security’ is essentially a Homeland Security vision for the entire NAFTA space, including Mexico.


In subsequent years the expansiveness of the U.S.’ regional security goals has emerged, even in official documents and statements. ‘NAFTA-land Security’ is being built on two complementary goals – better protect the U.S. homeland through “layered defense” by ensuring Mexico works toward (and is able to work toward) “continental” (i.e. North American) security, and protecting the NAFTA space and its political economy itself – ‘armoring NAFTA’ – from threats from within and from without. These run the gamut from terrorism to pandemics, drug trafficking to disaster response.

These goals have led to and enveloped a specific and longer-term concern for the continued political-economic stability of Mexico, including not least protecting it from the destabilizing effects of continued drug-related violence. These effects include, crucially, dangers and dampeners for investors and investment within the North American, NAFTA-driven economy, which has become increasingly important to the U.S. through the interlinked massive expansion of trilateral trade, higher levels of direct investment, and the increase in cross-border production. Cartels have therefore come to directly challenge U.S. strategic interests in Mexico and the NAFTA space.

The Security and Prosperity Partnership

Diplomatic cables reveal that as soon as February 2003 the U.S. government was in discussions with Canadian interlocutors regarding the possibility of a new, ‘North American Security and Prosperity’ plan, which would see Canada address the United States’ post-9/11 focus on Homeland Security through internal defense programs, cooperation in the global war on terror and “moving to a new phase of cooperation with the United States on continental security”. The obvious strength of this directive was, according to the U.S. Ambassador to Canada Paul Celluci, the, “inclusion of a major security/defense component” that recognized the importance of this element to U.S. planners in the new security environment.

These discussions formed the backdrop for the SPP. Mexico was included in talks along these lines by March, 2003. Even as the talks were ongoing (and even after the SPP was officially announced in March, 2005) the U.S. and Canada were deliberating methods for and the likelihood of involving Mexico in continental defense.

The SPP itself was a wide-ranging and ambitious agreement between the NAFTA countries to both push forward economic integration in a ‘NAFTA-plus’ agenda, and work together on issues of mutual security. These included specifics: traveler security; cargo security; border facilitation; aviation security; maritime security; law enforcement; intelligence cooperation; bio-protection; protection, preparedness, and response; and science and technology.

The broad aims in the security sphere were again outlined by Thomas Shannon. The SPP saw the U.S., Canada and Mexico, “begin to create a vision for North America and an understanding of what North America is as an entity” and, “how governments could be working better together” to cooperate, “and address the kinds of problems we saw in the immediate aftermath of September 11.” The aim was to bring together the NAFTA countries, “integrating them economically but then providing a security overlay”. This, essentially, is the ‘Homeland Security for NAFTA’ element of NAFTA-land Security.

The U.S. also sought to bring Mexico into the defense of both North America and the U.S. itself. Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in April, 2006 that Mexico was, “the essential partner in U.S. homeland defense” and that Rumsfeld’s visit offered the opportunity to, “realign our own posture vis-a-vis [sic] Mexico to give it the stature it merits in our own security strategies, but also to build Mexico’s acceptance of its strategic role in North America.”

The Merida Initiative

Where Mérida fits into the story here is in its role in providing the concrete policy foundations for the SPP’s goals. Even though the SPP is now effectively defunct (though never formally ended), Mérida in many ways took up the baton for its NAFTA-land Security agenda.

We can see this both in the fact that Mérida coalesced with the SPP in its formation, and when we consider the much broader “across the board” detail of the Mérida Initiative, whose full name is the “Regional Initiative on Counterterrorism, Counternarcotics and Border Security”, going far beyond ‘counternarcotics’. Garza informed Bush prior to his March, 2007 meeting with then President Calderón of Mexico that the former should, “reaffirm our security-related priorities and our continued commitment to the SPP framework”. It was at this meeting that the Initiative was agreed upon.

Prior to this meeting Garza had reported that one of the key challenges for the United States with regard to Calderón’s incoming government, “will be to get the new administration focused on a number of areas for improvement [of security abilities], including training efforts to increase Mexican capabilities”. He also stated that that the U.S. wanted Mexico to, “take the gloves off in battling the cartels”, and that the, “goal should be a law enforcement relationship that is worthy of the North American partnership.” I add emphases here to highlight that the U.S. was clearly just as interested as Mexico in promoting a new security relationship and to reinforce the coalescing logics of the SPP and the Mérida Initiative.

Thus Mérida provided the vehicle for hugely expanded training efforts and a new law enforcement relationship in the US-Mexico relationship as part of a redefined partnership. Mérida provided hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment, including nine Blackhawk helicopters, to law enforcement institutions and armed forces in Mexico, and thousands of police and military personnel have been trained under its rubric.

Meanwhile multipurpose Mérida money and equipment has and continues to directly support a number of security priorities outlined in SPP negotiations. Budgetary justifications touted Merida equipment being of potential use in counter-drug, ‘counterterrorism’ and ‘border security’ operations and missions, and congressional testimony reinforced the multi-purpose applicability of Mérida funds beyond counternarcotics. Military officials saw connections between security of oil pipelines from domestic terrorists, and Mexico’s drug war. Mérida money has:

In sum, the various strands of the policy essentially treat the borders of NAFTA as a new and distinct security perimeter. However Mérida, both directly and as part of the wider NAFTA-land Security drive, has opened up Mexico’s security forces to U.S. interaction and influence in other areas.

Role of the Pentagon

Reflecting the high-level importance of the NAFTA-land Security agenda, and its consistency across the U.S. state apparatus, the Department of Defense (DoD) has both taken a role in implementing the policy, and has benefitted from the atmosphere of bilateral U.S.-Mexican security cooperation inculcated by the Mérida Initiative. Its goals are in line with the expansive aims of NAFTA-land Security– better protect the U.S. and the NAFTA zone from internal and external threats by incorporating Mexico into a continental security framework, and as part of that, tackle Mexico’s security crisis and the cartels, or as it terms them ‘Transnational Criminal Organizations’ (TCOs).

U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) – the Combatant Command set up after 9/11 and tasked with securing the Homeland and its surroundings – has responsibility within the DoD for the U.S.-Mexican military relationship. NORTHCOM literature clearly shows how the Command’s aims are in lock-step with NAFTA-land Security.

One document discusses mutual areas of security, again going beyond drug trafficking to include “interdiction of maritime transnational threats, protection of cruise ships and ports used by foreign visitors, as well as the protection of critical infrastructure”. NORTHCOM over the past years has developed a “long-range security cooperation vision” that, “focuses on establishing a continental defense architecture where the U.S. works with its neighbors in deterring, preventing, and if necessary, defeating mutual threats”.

Mexico is seen as NORTHCOM’s ‘Top Theater Security Cooperation Priority’. Through ‘Theater Security Cooperation’, it seeks to promote, “a strengthened homeland defense through a mutually beneficial North American and Caribbean partnership that fosters effective continental defense to counter terrorism, WMD, illicit trafficking of funds, drugs and persons, other transnational threats, and their consequences.”

This regional scope pre-dated Mérida, but the aid package is key to its development. In 2004, NORTHCOM commander General Eberhart discussed how his Command was, “leveraging existing relationships” with Mexico to pursue, “efforts to expand assistance to Mexico using counterterrorism and counterdrug funding”. In 2006 Garza lamented that progress on improving both the interaction between militaries and the capabilities of the Mexican forces, “have reached the point where the scant resources we allocate to assistance have become the major limiting factor”.

Obviously the Mérida Initiative would go a long way to plugging the resource gap in this regard, again underlining the more expansive goals behind the aid package. Military officials also praised the Bush plan for allowing them the space to improve their relationship with their Mexican counterparts in pursuit of NORTHCOM’s ‘Theater Security Cooperation’ aims. Underpinning NAFTA-land Security is the wider desire to improve Mexico’s security ‘capacity’.

According to NORTHCOM’s director for strategy, plans and policy Army Major General Francis G. Mahon, “The bottom line – for the Merida Initiative and for all other theater security cooperation – is about building partnership capacity”. The Mérida Initiative has done this directly through not only the billions in foreign aid channeled through it, but also by creating the framework for Mexico’s security build-up and massive US arms sales to the Mexican government. It has also given the U.S. regional strategy momentum.

Again quoting Mahon at NORTHCOM, “The Merida Initiative opened the door to increased engagement” between the two militaries. The drug-related security crisis and the U.S. effort to tackle it has even been described as the, “greatest enabler for security cooperation with Mexico”. It, “provides USNORTHCOM with a unique opportunity to significantly increase military-to-military cooperation, which focuses mainly on building the counterterrorism and counterdrug capabilities of the Mexico Armed Forces”.


That U.S. geopolitical goals in creating a NAFTA-land security zone have overridden public safety in Mexico is the unforgivable tragedy of the Merida Initiative.


DoD administered aid to Mexico has increased in tandem with Mérida. This is most startlingly visible in the amount of military training courses have been provided to Mexico in the Mérida era. Between 2007 and 2014 over 10,000 military personnel were trained by the U.S. In many ways this DoD training provides the glue that binds NAFTA-land Security together. It provides the expertise within the military to use and maintain Mérida equipment, train personnel in particular desired missions (not least border security at Mexico’s southern frontier), and commit Mexico to the NAFTA-land Security agenda.

The Pentagon, through NORTHCOM, is also cutting a distinct path in Mexico, especially with regard to its approach to the drug-related security crisis. Some of the training is heavily militarized to the point where we may suspect the U.S. is helping Mexico to fight a genuine war or counterinsurgency campaign. Courses in PSYOPS, urban warfare, ‘Counter Narco-Terrorism’, Special Ops Countering Terrorism, combat leadership and much more have been provided. A NORTHCOM spokesman stated this training was, “in the spirit of the Merida Initiative objectives and fully supports the U.S. whole-of-government effort to work closely with Mexico”. Much of it is provided under Section 1004 Counterdrug Assistance, a DoD administered aid fund that is strictly for counternarcotics, but has little oversight.

It is very difficult to know where Merida money is actually spent and even more difficult to account for what the Defense Department is doing with taxpayer dollars. However, even from the tidbits of information we have, concerns arise. The DoD has openly stated it, “provides Mexican military leaders with the tools they need to succeed in Mexico’s national campaign to counter TCOs by covering many of the lessons learned from U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.” NORTHCOM has recently joined the burgeoning reach of U.S. special operations forces under Special Operations Command, standing up its own regional Special Ops Command – SOCNORTH. How applicable lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan are to Mexico is an open but disturbing question. Given Mexico’s military desertion rates and the paramilitarization of its cartels the risk of this training falling into the ‘wrong hands’ seems high.

So How is Mérida Working?

On issues of security, Mexico has often presented a challenge to the U.S. government. U.S. foreign policy has historically included direct support for ‘friendly regimes’ and political economies favorable to its interests, especially in Latin America (and often with tragic results for human rights and development). Mexico had to a large degree bucked this trend, traditionally keeping the U.S. at arms length on issues of security. What the NAFTA-land Security drive has both been strengthened by, and itself strengthened, is the unprecedented opening up of Mexico’s security forces to U.S. influence.

The U.S. is effectively succeeding at pulling Mexico into the North American security framework, and Mérida is an integral part of this achievement.

It is in this sense that Mérida can be said to be working from the point of view of the U.S. government, and especially the Pentagon. Mexico has not been so openly conducive to U.S. influence and collaboration on security issues since World War II. The military-to-military relationship is genuinely at its highest level since this period too, especially between the U.S. and the Mexican Navy. The levels of U.S. involvement in counternarcotics, revealed only as they were somewhat (but not significantly) rolled back under Peña Nieto, were even more close than the public image presented by the two countries. The U.S. is effectively succeeding at pulling Mexico into the North American security framework, and Mérida is an integral part of this achievement.

This is not to say U.S. officials and members of Congress don’t care about the continued high level of crime and murder in Mexico (concentrated in certain geographic areas). They are also likely (privately) concerned that the Mexican state’s institutions commit grievous human rights abuses and are complicit in the drug trade and associated violence and corruption that goes with it.

However, this is an issue of prioritization and the overriding interests of the U.S. state. What matters most is the continued opening up of Mexico’s security forces to U.S. influence, Mexico buying into the NAFTA-land Security project, and the security of the NAFTA market and investment space. That means that citizen security, human rights, and broad based development get left behind in the strategic calculations.


That U.S. geopolitical goals in creating a NAFTA-land security zone have overridden public safety in Mexico is the unforgivable tragedy of the Merida Initiative. Mérida is simply not living up to its stated goals to improve the security situation on the ground for most ordinary Mexican citizens. Meanwhile the risk that aid is being provided to elements in Mexico’s security service that commit human rights abuses, or work directly in the drug trade, or both, remains ever-present.

So what does this mean for those in the U.S. seeking to help make positive changes in Mexico?


With Mexico buying into the NAFTA-land Security strategy, citizen security, human rights, and broad-based development get left behind in strategic calculations.


Firstly, it may mean accepting that pressure to change policy may take a long time to have any effect. Decrying human rights abuses and corruption being fed by U.S. money is important, but may end up going past those who focus on the overall strategy of NAFTA-land Security.

This doesn’t mean it should stop, because focusing minds on citizen security and human rights remains crucial. However, given how little we actually know about much of the aid and policy within NAFTA-land Security, another starting point may be applying pressure for much more public information, details and Congressional oversight of aid and, just as importantly, its effects.

Not all projects funded within the Mérida Initiative are necessarily negative. However, the public and policy experts have a right to information that allows us to evaluate the Mérida Initiative and its impacts in a detailed manner. The problem is there is both little transparency and little progress on the ground, and evidence indicates that Mérida is in fact having huge negative effects. We need to demand to know more about the U.S.’ role in Mexico in preparation to then demand changes.

Paul Ashby recently completed his doctoral thesis on the Mérida Initiative and NAFTA-land Security at the University of Kent, UK. He currently resides in El Paso, TX and lectures in Security Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. He continues to work on issues related to US aid to Mexico and North American regional security. Follow him on Twitter @pash84





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