The top brass of U.S. and Mexican security personnel met on March 24 in Mexico City to discuss the failed drug war, amid an onslaught of bad news.

Commandos gunned down 15 teenagers partying in a working class neighborhood on Feb. 2. Just 11 days before Sec. of State Hillary Clinton’s visit, three individuals related to the U.S. Consulate were gunned down by hitmen in the streets of Ciudad Juarez.

President Calderon has a political crisis of confidence on his hands. The mothers of the murdered teenagers interrupted his public apologies after he stated that their children were involved in illegal activities (insinuating they somehow deserved what they got), shouting angrily and protesting his security strategy in the beleaguered city.

Across the country, citizen groups are calling for an end to military involvement in the fight against drug cartels and an end to the drug war that has brought repression, militarization, violation of human rights by security forces, and a huge increase in bloodshed. A majority of Mexicans believe the drug war is failing, according to recent polls.

U.S. diplomatic reinforcements for the drug war arrived in Calderon’s hour of need. The high-level consultation meeting was beefed up to include Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates; Secretary of Homeland Security Janet A. Napolitano; Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair; Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael G. Mullen; Immigration and Customs Enforcement Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security John Morton; Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary G. Grindler; Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Director Adam Szubin; Office of National Drug Control Policy Acting Deputy Director of the Office of Supply Reduction Patrick Ward; and Drug Enforcement Administration Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart.

The Merida Initiative that provided Mexico with $1.3 billion dollars in aid, much of it military-to-military aid, ended with the 2010 appropriations passed by Congress. Even George W. Bush—one of the most pro-military presidents in U.S. history— designed the initiative as a three-year cycle and not an indefinite intervention.

Someone should have put the nails in the coffin of this ill-begotten Bush plan before congressional hawks and defense company lobbyists could resurrect it. President Obama should have remembered his own words at the April 2009 Summit of the Americas, when he underlined the importance “… in our interactions not just here in the hemisphere but around the world, that we recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power, and that we have to use our diplomatic and development aid in more intelligent ways so that people can see very practical, concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary persons as a consequence of U.S. foreign policy.” As the lives of Mexicans are placed at risk due to a drug war backed by the U.S. government that is anything but intelligent, he should have announced a new aid package to Mexico based on building strong communities and rule of law.

But, alas, the opposite happened. Even before the Merida Initiative ended, Sec. of State Clinton was eagerly announcing its indefinite extension, with no exit strategy or—one could plausibly argue in light of the results—any effective strategy at all.

Now the administration has gone back to Congress with a request for $310 million dollars to pour mostly into outsourced defense, private security, and IT contracts.

The “Merida 2” initiative discussed at the March meeting looks suspiciously like Bush’s Merida 1, repackaged.

Despite the demonstrated lack of progress in controlling cartels and preventing human rights abuses in the first three years, the military focus continues. Reduced military spending does not indicate a change in strategy. Although Sec. of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano voiced the obvious but taboo subject of the failure of the current strategy, saying that the military presence “hasn’t helped anything,” the drug war is still a war and the cartels are still winning.

The “Joint Statement of the Merida Initiative High-Level Consultative Group on Bilateral Cooperation Against Transnational Organized Crime” announced “four strategic areas” for the new Merida Initiative:

  • Disruption of the capacity of criminal organizations that act in both countries, through the systematic weakening of their operational, logistical, and financial structures and capabilities.
  • Mutual support for the continuous improvement of the framework for security and justice and the strengthening of public institutions of both countries that are responsible for combating organized crime, including the promotion of the full observance of human rights and active civil society participation.
  • Development of a secure and competitive border for the 21st century, based on a bilateral and comprehensive approach, that increasesour global competitiveness through efficient and secure flows of legitimate commerce and travel while ensuring citizen safety and disrupting the illicit trade of drugs, weapons, bulk cash, and other goods.
  • Building strong and resilient communities which includes supporting efforts to address the root causes of crime and violence, promote the culture of legality, reduce illicit drug use, promote a broader perception of the links between drug use and crime and violence, and stem the flow of potential recruits for the cartels by promoting constructive, legal alternatives for young people.



The areas could be a partial basis for a new approach. But that’s not likely. The areas are not backed up by changes in the focus of aid. The meeting was attended by high-level security and defense officials—USAID officials and drug czar Gil Kerlikowske were not present. There is no mention of serious, funded efforts to reduce corruption and trafficking in the United States. Most importantly, the issue of opening the debate on regulating marijuana out of the hands of organized crime was discarded even though statistics show this is the main income for thugs who purchase U.S. arms on the black market, shoot civilians in the streets of Juarez, and terrorize whole neighborhoods, and California is poised to vote on a referendum on the issue.

For those who believe that the new strategy will be a kinder and gentler approach, Napolitano dropped a political bombshell when she told NPR that the Mexican government has requested U.S. Army assistance in Mexico’s drug war. Here is the NPR exchange:

Interviewer: Are you saying that (Mexican President Felipe) Calderon has expressed an openness toward a uniformed, U.S. military presence within Mexico?

Napolitano: Yes. Let me be very, very clear (because) this is a very delicate subject. … Our military in certain limited ways has been working with the Mexican military in their efforts against the drug cartels. But, it is at the request of the Mexican government, in consultation with the Mexican government. And it is only one part of our overall efforts with Mexico, which are primarily civilian in nature.

As expected, voices in the Mexican press have reacted with alarm at the prospect of U.S. Army presence in Mexico. It is critical that citizen groups continue to work with our U.S. and Mexican partners to monitor the drug war and urge a more integral approach that demilitarizes Mexico and undercuts organized crime that feeds off illicit drug sales in the United States. In these efforts, we firmly believe that the U.S. government must provide non-defense aid to Mexico to offer alternatives to the successful recruiting of youth by cartels and create horizons of hope for crisis-stricken communities.

In security, the key to transnational cooperation lies not in foreign intervention but in a dedicated effort to fight the corruption within one’s own borders. Mechanisms to exchange information and carry out transnational operations to clean up financial institutions that launder money must be expanded. But the United States must stop acting like the drug war is a Mexican plague and turn its attention to the impunity that organized crime enjoys on its own turf and within its own institutions.

When you follow the money, that’s where the buck stops—and is neatly pocketed by some of the world’s most brutal and powerful criminals.

Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(a) is the director of the Americas Program ( for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.




For More Information

Murder Capital of the World

Border Militarization Continues in 2010

A Primer on Plan Mexico