US announces broader approach in fight against drug trafficking

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — The big question for both the United States and Mexico is whether or not to continue with a heavily militarized approach in the fight against drug traffickers. With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement Tuesday, the Obama administration seems to be voting no.

Following her meeting with Mexican officials, Clinton announced a shift in U.S. funding, revealing that more than $300 million in American aid to Mexico will go toward non-military assistance.

While the Merida Initiative requires the United States to provide Mexico with more than $1.3 billion to help fight the country’s powerful drug cartels, Clinton’s announcement marks a first in terms of non-military assistance.

"This new agenda expands our focus beyond disrupting drug trafficking organizations — which will remain a core element of our cooperation — and encompasses challenges such as strengthening institutions, creating a 21st century border, and building strong, resilient communities," Clinton told reporters during a press conference in Mexico City.

“The Merida Initiative was originally envisioned as a three-year effort,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Luoma-Overstreet before the event. “Both governments recognize that there is more to be done. Part of the purpose of this meeting is looking where we can go beyond, what the next steps are on this, whether you want to call that a continuation of the Merida Initiative or, as some people have said, Merida 2.0.”

The meeting comes little more than a week after the killings of three people tied to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, across the frontier from El Paso, Texas. Despite nearly 19,000 deaths since President Felipe Calderon began his offensive against the cartels in early 2007, the consulate killings have given new impetus to rethinking the arrangement.

The importance of the meeting was underscored by its long list of high-level attendees. Clinton was joined by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael G. Mullen, along with top immigration and drug enforcement directors.

“To have them all in one place is pretty unprecedented in how the U.S. manages its foreign affairs and it’s definitely unprecedented in Mexican history,” said John Ackerman, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Despite Clinton’s focus on new, non-military aid, the presence of defense officials like Gates and Mullen suggests U.S. is ramping up — not scaling down — its military involvement, Ackerman said.

“This is a military meeting, which is worrisome in so far as it makes one think that perhaps what we’re going to get is more of the same” militarized approach, he said.


“This is Calderon inviting the U.S. military heads of state down to make a show or public display of force, hoping to somehow scare the narcos and show them that he’s really tough about this stuff. And the Obama administration is playing into that Calderon approach,” Ackerman said. “Perhaps now the U.S. military is going to offer strategic anti-insurgency support, so search and kill missions as have been happening in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Several opposing political parties have recently called for a deadline for troop withdrawal from Juarez, with human rights groups accusing the military of making the situation worse.

Clinton’s comments seemed to confirm a suspected tactical shift in the U.S. approach to supporting the Calderon administration. In the past week, some U.S. officials had suggested the secretary of state would push for a more comprehensive, less militarized approach to the conflict.

Shortly after the consulate killings, Secretary Napolitano said the presence of the Mexican army “hasn’t helped anything.” And last Friday, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela said that in addition to disrupting drug cartels and reinforcing the border, the U.S. would help strengthen Mexican institutions and encourage the development of civil society groups along the border.

“Everything that we’re doing together is really about empowering local communities on both sides of the border in both of our countries,” Valenzuela said during a press conference announcing Tuesday’s meeting. His statements echoed recent comments by the director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Mexico, who two weeks ago visited Juárez to meet with civic groups and announced plans to fund community programs in poor neighborhoods.

Up until now, the vast majority of Merida funding has gone toward high-tech military equipment. Of the roughly $77 million delivered by the end of 2009, most went toward 30 scanners to search for contraband at border crossings and five Bell helicopters for the Mexican Army, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in December. Another $135 million worth of equipment will be delivered by June, including the long-delayed shipment of three Black Hawk helicopters.

Both Mexican and American officials have been under pressure to find a new approach to containing violence along the border. Calderon, in particular, has come under fire for his militarized approach in cities like Juarez, where nearly 10,000 soldiers currently patrol the streets. Critics argue he has not given enough support to civil society groups in the city, where at least 2,600 people died of drug-related violence in 2009.

Calderon has only just recently given the U.S. the green light for social development efforts in Juarez and Tijuana, said John Bailey, an expert on U.S.-Mexico relations at Georgetown University.

But Obama is also yet to deliver on some of the promises he made when visiting Mexico City last year, he said.

“What is really important is the Americans claimed they were going to take co-responsibility for these issues of trafficking, and they have not really lived up to their end of the bargain, which is reducing consumption and dealing with the southward flow of weapons and bulk cash,” Bailey said.

By announcing an amplification of American involvement in the conflict, Clinton made clear that despite the consulate killings and a rise in drug violence in Mexico, the U.S. is not ready to withdraw their support from Calderon. President Obama spoke to the Mexican president on Monday, reiterating his commitment to the campaign against drug trafficking. Calderon is scheduled to visit the White House on May 19.

Ultimately, however, security experts agree that American aid — military or not — can only go so far. Disrupting drug trafficking and preventing violence along the border both hinge on rooting out corruption among local police forces and governments: a painful process that Bailey says Calderon has yet to undertake.

“Try pulling out your teeth one at a time without anesthesia and you will have an idea of the pain that would be,” he said.