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Enduring problems showcase the need to update US-Mexico security cooperation

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Mexico and the United States have an outdated framework for public security cooperation, with immense costs on both sides of the border. 

For more than a decade, cross-border criminal activity has contributed to tens of thousands of homicides in Mexico and tens of thousands of U.S. drug overdose deaths each year, with all the social and economic burdens that accompany those deaths.

There is an urgent need for the U.S. and Mexican governments to forge an updated, comprehensive strategy to disrupt and diminish transnational organized crime; build capacity of law enforcement and justice institutions; agree on focused crime prevention programs that produce better results for both countries; and establish effective, durable mechanisms to guide this strategy. They also need to actively explore innovative ways to attack the enduring problems that are overwhelming capacity in both countries.

Twelve former U.S. and Mexican ambassadors have reached broad agreement on this approach in a new report, “A Vision for a Stronger U.S.-Mexico Partnership,” sponsored by the U.S.-Mexico Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.  

The report reflects the ambassadors’ recommendations for stronger U.S.-Mexico partnership across economic, security, border and migration issues. Of these, I have no doubt that failing to act on public security will be enormously costly.  

The ambassadors agreed that public security and rule of law demand action from both countries.  Neither country can solve the problems alone, and they share responsibility for forging solutions.  

U.S. demand for illicit drugs pays tens of billions of dollars in profits to traffickers each year, which provides Mexican criminal organizations with plenty of money to buy arms and to feed corruption in Mexico. Mexico is the base for import, production and transportation of illicit drugs headed northward. This trade generates powerful criminal organizations undermining law and order in Mexico, with particularly violent results. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration characterizes these Mexican groups as the greatest criminal drug threat to the United States.

The same groups are lethal in Mexico — 2019 set a deadly record of 34,500 homicides there.  Total homicides for the first half of 2020 were higher than the first six months of 2019, followed by a violent July.  Mexico’s criminal groups have carried out a series of defiant actions, including the attempted assassination of Mexico City’s police chief, perpetuating an image of impunity.

U.S. authorities are intercepting significant amounts of drugs at the border and nationwide. U.S. drug-related deaths are the highest in the world, with massive increases caused by synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. In 2018, opioid overdoses were responsible for 46,800 deaths: 31,300 from synthetic opioids. Mexico is a primary source of shipments of fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamines into the U.S. 

Deeper U.S.-Mexico security cooperation began in 2008 with the Merida Initiative. Merida has been an umbrella for closer cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and justice agencies, recognizing that cross-border criminal problems require a joint response.  

The program has pluses and minuses, but it opened the door to strategic cooperation, built trust among justice and law enforcement agencies, and brought professional training and better practices to Mexico. Those efforts have stalled, and results have fallen short for a number of reasons.  

Soon after President Lopez Obrador (AMLO) took office in December 2018, experts urged a comprehensive review of security cooperation, but the Mexican government hesitated, in part because AMLO had promised to implement a different model for public security.

U.S.-Mexico cooperation continued, but improved only following the late 2019 killings of American women and children and ensuing threats from President Trump. New cooperation focuses on high-value targets, including top traffickers and financiers, and drug more seizures.  These are good steps, but overall cooperation is still piecemeal and inadequate to deal with the longer-term challenges.

In their report, the ambassadors urge a modernized framework for security cooperation and a comprehensive strategy that includes mapping the supply chains, distribution networks and business and finance structures of the crime groups, and conducting a joint threat assessment. 

At the core of the work, there must be trust-building between law enforcement and justice authorities, as well as improving the efficacy of the institutions and the mechanisms charged with ensuring good coordination between the countries and agencies on both sides of the border. This entails boldly taking on the impunity and corruption that mar cooperation. This problem is highlighted by recent U.S. criminal charges against former top Mexican officials for taking drug cartel payoffs.

A new strategy needs a specific focus on tackling the challenges from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. It must include reinforced efforts against other drug threats, such as heroin and meth, as well as serious, targeted work against gun smuggling from the U.S., laundering of illicit proceeds, and corruption. 

The two governments should achieve consensus on an updated set of technical assistance programs that will bolster Mexico’s ability to arrest and convict criminals, and support its judicial and related reforms to strengthen Mexico’s institutions. A new strategy also must better integrate work with sub-federal law enforcement entities.  

The ambassadors’ report argues that the two governments need innovative, effective approaches to upholding rule of law. This includes oversight mechanisms that accurately track and evaluate progress and that adapt to lessons learned. A new strategy should consider new law enforcement approaches, as well as programs that can diminish drug demand and support for gangs and cartels.

Success will require strong political support, long-term vision and robust cooperation mechanisms. This approach can give a fresh start to tackling the deadly effects of transnational crime across Mexico and the United States. Leaders should put a comprehensive and dynamic strategy in place now.

Earl Anthony Wayne was U.S. ambassador to Mexico, 2011-2015, and is board co-chair of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. He is a diplomat in residence at American University’s School of International Service. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Donald Trump Fentanyl Illegal drug trade Mexican Drug War Transnational organized crime US-Mexico relations
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