By Jonathan Coleman, Staff Writer

The U.S.-Mexico relationship is the most comprehensive bilateral partnership in U.S. foreign affairs. Mexico recently surpassed China to become the number one U.S. trading partner and there is cross-border cooperation on everything from economic reform and energy production to migration and the environment. Yet despite robust collaboration, the relationship stands at a crossroads. A deteriorating domestic security situation in Mexico, combined with antipathy from the Trump Administration, presents serious challenges to the vitality of bilateral affairs. Security cooperation is the most important factor because it lays the groundwork for smooth cooperation across the rest of the agenda. Based upon the concept of shared responsibility, the United States and Mexico should consider the following policy proposals to revamp security cooperation and maintain prosperous relations. 

  1. Commit to a revitalized Mérida Initiative, utilizing U.S. resources and technical assistance to enhance Mexican rule of law;
  2. Prioritize drug demand reduction and address the flow of firearms and bulk cash from the U.S. into Mexico, and;
  3. Bolster economic ties and remove financial uncertainty by passing the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) as soon as possible

Security Cooperation is the Key to Bilateral Affairs

Security issues have the potential to cripple the U.S.-Mexico relationship in a way that no other singular issue can. Security concerns derailed relations in the mid-1980’s after the kidnap and murder of DEA Agent Enrique Camarena and again in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Today, the relationship again is under stress as the Trump Administration accuses Mexico of being an exporter of drugs and crime. This depiction highlights the extent to which security concerns drive U.S. government policy and provide cover to undertake more hostile approaches toward Mexico on the issues of trade and migration. 

In the same way that previous Mexican and U.S. administrations assuaged security fears to enhance the bilateral partnership on other topics of importance, so too must current officials revitalize security cooperation as a means to protect broader interests. 

Mérida Initiative: Recalibration

Since 2008, the Mérida Initiative has formed the basis of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation. Mérida was founded upon four pillars: disrupting transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), building and sustaining the rule of law, enhancing border security, and building resilient communities. Both sides realized that regional cooperation provided a mechanism to enhance their abilities to interdict transnational criminal networks and pursue the root causes of public insecurity. Through Mérida, both countries became better positioned to combat powerful criminal syndicates and uphold the rule of law. Because of this collaboration, the shared border is more secure, information sharing is more fluid, and Mexico has now more professionally trained officials and modern equipment to confront shared security concerns. That being said, the time has come to take stock of shortcomings in the initiative and update it to address new realities.

The failure to address criminal impunity and the financial incentives of crime have led to increased violence and public insecurity. Instead of a militarized approach focusing on killing and capturing cartel kingpins, law enforcement strategy should center on asset forfeiture and judicial reform. While the kingpin strategy has been successful in neutralizing notorious criminal leaders, subsequent power vacuums and internal power struggles have caused more harm than good. The U.S. should utilize its competitive advantage in financial targeting technology to seize TCO wealth whenever possible and train Mexican officials to do the same. In addition, the U.S. should expand efforts to train Mexican law enforcement, trial attorneys, and judges to promote criminal justice integrity and combat rampant corruption. 

While the kingpin strategy has been successful in neutralizing notorious criminal leaders, subsequent power vacuums and internal power struggles have caused more harm than good.

Guns, Cash, and Drug Demand

In stark terms, violence in Mexico is fueled by U.S. drug demand, financed by U.S. dollars, and waged with U.S. weaponry. Both sides must work to enhance border security measures and close weapons purchase loopholes in U.S. border states to stem this dangerous flow of illicit contraband into Mexico. By U.S. Department of Justice estimates, as many as 90% of firearms confiscated in Mexico originate from the U.S. 

Likewise, both countries should invest in drug demand reduction programs to weaken the market for illegal narcotics. Organized crime is a market-based phenomenon, founded on the profit motive and law of supply and demand. TCOs engage in a wide array of criminal ventures, yet narcotics trafficking generates the largest amount of revenue by far. Until both governments address the demand side of the equation, illicit markets and TCOs will continue to thrive.

Free Trade Strengthens Security

Economic security is national security. Both American and Mexican politicians should work to ratify and implement the USMCA as soon as possible. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1994, made North America the largest free trade zone in the world. As many as 5 million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico alone, and the U.S. consumer market drives the Mexican economy by serving as the destination for 80% of Mexican exports. As the global economy stumbles toward recession, the USMCA has the potential to reinforce North American economic activity and keep the U.S., Mexico, and Canada on stable ground.

The USMCA brings hope of gainful employment and economic opportunity, which could dissuade impoverished peoples from pursuing illicit activity. Aspects of criminal motivation theory tells us that poor economic conditions breed crime. Mexico is a wealthy country, yet it suffers from severe socio-economic divisions illustrating long-standing structural faults. Even though Mexico has the 15th largest economy in the world, over 41% of Mexicans live in poverty. Rampant income inequality, combined with corrupt governance, has created a seemingly permanent Mexican underclass. This group is ripe for TCO recruitment and exploitation. Implementation of the USMCA has the potential to modernize commercial ties between the two economies and address systemic factors that drive insecurity.

Conclusion

The U.S.-Mexico relationship should be one of regional collaboration and partnership, not unilateralism and isolation. With the Mérida Initiative, the U.S. and Mexico already have a strong framework from which to strengthen ties. Through continued rule of law, capacity building, and denying the financial incentives of crime, authorities will be better equipped to negate the malicious influence of organized crime. By addressing drug demand and weapons/cash smuggling, authorities can disrupt the operational drivers of insecurity. Lastly, through passage and implementation of the USMCA, both countries can bolster commercial links and provide economic opportunities to their people. Organized crime undermines the legitimate economy, subverts the rule of law, and poses a threat to public safety grave enough to thwart cooperation across the entire agenda. The U.S. and Mexico must therefore revitalize security cooperation so that it may lay the groundwork for peaceful and prosperous relations far into the future.

Jonathan Coleman is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in transnational security and countering organized crimes. He holds a B.A. in History from the University of California at Santa Barbara. His professional experience includes five years as a law enforcement officer.