What is the Merida Initiative, the contested U.S.-Mexico security pact?

The United States and Mexico are negotiating a new bilateral security agreement that could replace the 2008 Merida Initiative, the criticized cooperation program whose effects have reverberated throughout the region.

What is the Merida Initiative, the contested U.S.-Mexico security pact?
Merida Initiative. Image: U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico

A new bilateral security agreement is being negotiated between the United States and Mexico that could replace the 2008 Merida Initiative, the criticized cooperation program whose effects have reverberated throughout the region. "The United States and Mexico recognize the need to tailor bilateral security cooperation to address the concerns and priorities of both governments," a senior U.S. administration official told CNN.

But what exactly is the Merida Initiative, and why are they looking to replace it with what Mexico calls the "U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities"? The US-Mexico cooperation pact - signed in 2007 and force since 2008 - was designed to combat drug trafficking and organized crime, and was funded with US$3.3 billion over 13 years, approved by the US Congress.

Agreed during the administrations of Presidents George Bush and Felipe Calderon, the Merida Initiative -- so named for the city where it was negotiated -- was supposed to last three years, but both countries agreed to extend it and it is still in effect today.

Negotiations began in March 2007, when Calderon requested more cooperation from the United States to combat criminal organizations and trafficking along the border, according to a document from the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS), which produces reports on the initiative. (CRS), which produces non-partisan reports for committees and members of the legislative body.

The agreement, according to the report, was based on the concept of "shared responsibility" in the fight against drug trafficking: Mexico pledged to deal with corruption, the United States did the same concerning its domestic demand for drugs and illicit arms trafficking to the south.

The three phases of the Merida Initiative

In its first phase, between 2008 and 2010, the Merida Initiative was funded to the tune of US$1.5 billion and focused on equipping Mexico's security forces, improving cooperation and intelligence sharing with the United States, and implementing a strategy to arrest and extradite the heads of criminal organizations. Between 2011 and 2017, during the presidencies of Barack Obama in the U.S. and Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico (from 2012), the pact was expanded to incorporate four pillars:

Combating transnational criminal organizations.
Institutionalize the rule of law and protection of human rights.
Create a "21st-century" border between the two countries.
Building strong and resilient communities.

During Donald Trump's administration in the US, the Merida Initiative received a shift in priorities and focused on border and port control and combating synthetic drug production, according to the report. But the covid-19 pandemic that began in 2020 hampered bilateral cooperation.

After the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, the focus shifted again, this time to immigration issues and the four pillars promoted during the Obama presidency. The Biden administration has also put the spotlight on allegations of human rights violations by security forces in Mexico, to also consider limits on funding for military involvement in public security, and to review Mexico's efforts to combat abuses such as torture and the forced disappearance of persons, according to CRS.

The President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, questioned the fact that the U.S. had an opinion on internal issues of that country. "To begin with, we do not comment on human rights violations in the United States, we are respectful, we cannot comment on what happens in other countries. So why does the U.S. government give its opinion on issues that only concern Mexicans," he said after the State Department published a report on the situation in Mexico in March?

Doubts about its effectiveness

Although the U.S. State Department has hailed the achievements, from its perspective, of the Merida Initiative in areas of transparency, mutual trust, and professionalization of Mexico's security forces, the pact has been widely criticized on both sides of the border. "The escalation of violence in Mexico and the increase in overdose deaths in the United States have led many to question the overall effectiveness of the Mérida Initiative," CRS notes in its report.

Mexico had a homicide rate of 29.07 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants as of 2018, according to World Bank data. In 2007, when the Merida Initiative was signed, it was 8.1. Mexico's National Public Security System meanwhile reported 51,434 deaths in 2020, against 34,989 in 2015. In December 2015, 52,623 overdose deaths were reported in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (CDC). By 2020, the figure had risen to 92,452.

Among the reasons for the rise in violence in Mexico, the CRS report indicates that the strategy focused on arresting and extraditing cartel leaders has also led to an increase in violence, as the disbanded criminal organizations fragmented and fought among themselves. Former President Calderon said in 2019 during a conference in Guadalajara that the increase in violence during his administration was because Mexico's economic stability led to a "new business model" for cartels interested in selling drugs in the country by taking advantage of increased purchasing power, EFE reported.

CRS and organizations such as Human Rights Watch have also highlighted alleged human rights violations committed by Mexico's security forces, such as torture and forced disappearances. "Calderón's gamble has been very costly in terms of human lives, human rights violations, and the excessive growth of violence linked to the illicit drug trade," says Fuensanta Medina Martínez in an article published by the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (Clacso).

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a research fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, recently noted that Mexico's government "is not wrong to seek adjustments to the security framework with the United States and to move away from the strategy of going after cartel leaders, nor is it wrong to formally define reducing homicides in Mexico as its priority." "However, the Lopez Obrador government is fundamentally mistaken if it renounces confronting Mexico's criminal groups," the think tank added.

"Preserve gains"

The United States now says it wants to preserve "significant gains" from the pact while modifications or a replacement are negotiated. The Merida Initiative, U.S. Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday, "has allowed Mexican law enforcement agencies international accreditation at the federal and state levels, resulting in greater transparency, professionalization of institutions and respect for human rights."

"And our security cooperation has strengthened as the threats of fentanyl and illicit finance evolve. So all of this will be on the table and more," he added. But officials in Mexico, especially in the Lopez Obrador administration, have criticized the Merida Initiative, arguing that the influx of such money has contributed to increased violence, arms trafficking, and drug consumption.

Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Tuesday that the Merida Initiative was "over" and called for "reciprocity" in arms trafficking control for a new phase. "There has to be a new stage, leaving behind the Merida Initiative is welfarist and is based on another security strategy different from the one that is being implemented today," he said.