Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Merida Initiative—Not Plan Mexico

By Nicole M. Ferrand.*
December 6, 2007
According to The Government Accountability Office over 90% of cocaine coming into the United States now transits through Mexico. This has given rise to a huge amount of gang and criminal activity inside Mexico and along our southern border. In an effort to combat this problem, President Bush recently announced that he has requested $1.4 billion in funding over the next three years for a new security cooperation initiative with Mexico and Central America called “The Merida Initiative”.[1]

During the Merida Summit held in March 2007, Presidents Felipe Calderon and George W. Bush stated the following: “we share a deep concern over the threat to our societies by drug trafficking and other criminal organizations operating on both sides of our common border. The growing operational and financial capabilities of criminal groups that traffic in drugs, arms, and persons, as well as other transnational criminal activity, pose a clear and present threat to the lives and well-being of U.S. and Mexican citizens. The United States and Mexico will make it a priority to break the power and impunity of drug and criminal organizations that threaten the health and public safety of their citizens and the stability and security of the region… Our shared goal is to maximize the effectiveness of our efforts to fight criminal organizations so as to disrupt drug-trafficking (including precursor chemicals); weapons trafficking, illicit financial activities and currency smuggling, and human trafficking. This comprehensive two-year plan represents a new and intensified level of joint cooperation that marks a new stage in the bilateral cooperation that characterizes the strong relationship between our two countries.”[2]

Officials in both countries say the proposed aid package, attached to a supplementary funding bill, is a response to the upsurge in violence unleashed by feuding drug gangs in Mexico. There were 2,100 drug-related murders in 2006, a number already surpassed this year. Many have taken place in cities just south of the border. Those killed include gangsters, police and soldiers, innocent bystanders and journalists.[3]

The Merida Initiative will build on specific activities that aim to 1) bolster Mexican domestic enforcement efforts; 2) bolster U.S. domestic enforcement efforts; and 3) expand bilateral and regional cooperation that addresses transnational crime. Mexico will strengthen its operational capabilities to more effectively fight drug-traffickers and organized crime and the U.S. will intensify its efforts to address all aspects of drug trafficking and continue to combat trafficking of weapons and bulk currency to Mexico.[4]
This partnership would support coordinated strategies to:

• Produce a safer and more secure hemisphere where criminal organizations no longer threaten governments and regional security; and

• Prevent the entry and spread of illicit drugs and transnational threats throughout the region and to the United States.

To achieve these goals, President Bush has requested $550 million as part of a multi-year program to provide:

• Non-intrusive inspection equipment, ion scanners, canine units for Mexican customs, for the new federal police and for the military to interdict trafficked drugs, arms, cash and persons.

• Technologies to improve and secure communications systems to support collecting information as well as ensuring that vital information is accessible for criminal law enforcement.

• Technical advice and training to strengthen the institutions of justice – vetting for the new police force, case management software to track investigations through the system to trial, new offices of citizen complaints and professional responsibility, and establishing witness protection programs.

• Helicopters and surveillance aircraft to support interdiction activities and rapid operational response of law enforcement agencies in Mexico.

• Funding for security cooperation with Central America that responds directly to Central American leaders’ concerns over gangs, drugs, and arms.
• Equipment and assets to support counterpart security agencies inspecting and interdicting drugs, trafficked goods, people and other contraband as well as equipment, training and community action programs in Central American countries to implement anti-gang measures and expand the reach of these measures in the region.[5] Within three years, the package to this initiative could amount to US$1.4bn. In Mexico, the program will consist of police training. [6] It is important to point out that Mexico so far has contributed $3 billion.

Combating the drug trade and the power of the cartels is a centerpiece of the Calderón administration’s policies. Shortly after he took office in December 2006, Mr. Calderón sent up to 30,000 federal troops to several Mexican states plagued by narcotics trafficking and related violence. An estimated 4,000 Mexicans have died in the last two years as rival drug gangs have fought turf battles. The government has also extradited several drug kingpins to the US. Drug lords, for their part, have responded to the crackdown with a violent backlash against government troops, such that the war on drugs has yet to result in any decline in violence

This aid package from the US introduces a new level of security cooperation between the two countries, which in the past has often been hindered by Mexico’s strong concerns about national sovereignty. Also, the White House’s willingness to provide such a substantial amount of funding indicates that it has faith in the Calderón administration and its counter-narcotics program. The Merida Initiative should help to strengthen Mr. Calderón’s image as well as maintaining his high popularity rating. It stood at around 65% in August, according to a survey by the newspaper, Reforma.[8]

Recently, on November 5th, 2007, Mexican drug lord, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, was sentenced to life in prison for running the notoriously violent cartel that bears his family’s name. Arellano Felix, 37, was captured after a manhunt by U.S. authorities in an August 2006 raid on a sport fishing yacht off the Baja California coast. Arellano Felix, the youngest of the cartel's seven brothers, pleaded guilty, this past September, to running a criminal enterprise and conspiring to launder money.[9]

Those crimes carry a mandatory life sentence. Arellano Felix, who has been in custody without bond at a downtown San Diego federal detention facility, is not currently eligible for any kind of parole. The Arellano Felix cartel emerged as a drug trafficking powerhouse in the 1980s in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego. The cartel was once led by seven brothers and four sisters, but Francisco Javier's brother Ramon was killed in a shootout with police in 2002. His elder brother Benjamin was jailed in Mexico the same year; federal prosecutors in San Diego are seeking his extradition to face charges in the United States.[10]

Prosecutor Laura Duffy said she does not know when Benjamin Arellano Felix will be extradited, but said she hoped it would be soon. Arellano Felix was captured during a U.S. Coast Guard-led raid off La Paz, Mexico, and towed back to San Diego aboard his 43-foot yacht, the Dock Holiday. The arrest at sea came after an intense manhunt, during which the State Department had offered a $5 million reward for the drug lord's capture.[11]

Also aboard the boat was Arellano Felix’s right-hand man, Manuel Arturo Villarreal Heredia, who pleaded guilty to racketeering and conspiracy to invest illicit drug profits. He faces up to 30 years in prison when he is sentenced in January. Since their capture, Arellano Felix’s older brother Francisco Rafael and two senior cartel capos have been extradited to the United States and sentenced on drug charges in San Diego. Arellano Felix admitted in court that he helped run the cartel as it brought into the United States hundreds of tons of cocaine and hundreds of tons of marijuana and laundered hundreds of millions of dollars. According to his plea agreement, Arellano Felix and his partners murdered informants and potential witnesses and paid millions of dollars in bribes to law enforcement and military personnel.[12]

Why people call it “Plan Mexico”?
Some critics of the program insist on calling the Merida Initiative “Plan Mexico” in allusion to Plan Colombia insisting that these two are the same. They want people to outright reject the Merida Initiative or oppose it. They insist that the name was changed on purpose from “Plan Mexico” to Merida Initiative to avoid any comparison. But in reality, there was no name change; it was never called Plan Mexico. This was an initiative born out of conversations that Presidents Bush and Calderon had in Merida, Mexico, which led to the name, the Merida Initiative with the understanding that it is a broader security cooperation package involving the United States, Mexico and Central America.[13]

Opponents use the term “Plan Mexico” so that people will immediately associate it with “Plan Colombia” pointing out that the latter has failed after seven years to curtail drug production or shipments to the US market and that the same will be the result of this program.

To the contrary, Plan Colombia has been a successful policy that has combined an effective balance of coherent macroeconomic policies, active and well-designed social programs, and, very importantly, advances made to improve security and the rule of law. In the area of security, Plan Colombia has strengthened the country’s democratic institutions and has resulted in the following conditions:

• Reduction of kidnapping cases from 1,709 in 2002 to 289 in 2006
• Decrease in homicides from 28,837 in 2002 to 17,277 in 2006, a reduction of 40.1%
• A positive impact on the war against the world drug problem. Eradication, both manual and aerial, of coca crops has increased from 61,589 in 2000 to more than 200,000 hectares in 2006. As a result coca hectares have been reduced from 163,289 in 2000 to 78,000 in 2006• Development programs have been created to provide alternative income for coca farmers. These include 784,035 families currently participating in the program Familias en Accion. As for the economy, during 2006 Colombia grew at a rate of 6.95%, the highest since 1978. The most recent figures for the first quarter of 2007 show a growth rate of 8.1%.[14]

The international press tends to refer to Plan Colombia as only a military operation, but this is inaccurate because the program is a social and political strategy to bring government presence to the country’s frontier territories and reunite them with the rest of the country. In other words, it seeks to strengthen public institutions and the rule of law in an area overwhelmed by lawlessness.[15]

Plan Colombia also seeks to fight against the drug trade, because a significant portion of the multi-billion dollar profits from drug-trafficking are funding the activities of guerrillas and paramilitaries, while thousands of innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire. A final peace agreement, probably the most important of the four main objectives of Plan Colombia, will remain illusive as long as the terrorist groups maintain an unlimited source of funding from drug trafficking.

There is a two-track approach to counter-narcotics in Plan Colombia. For the first time in Colombian history, a voluntary eradication program is being offered to all farmers who grow coca on small individual plots. If they agree to eradicate their coca crop, the government will provide them with cash recompensation and the tools they need to move into legitimate farming – such as seed, equipment and technical support.[16]
At the same time the Colombian National Police are spraying large industrial coca plantations. In reality, the so-called “military” part of Plan Colombia, is really no more than an escort service for the Colombian National Police’s activities of spraying industrial coca plantations and destroying cocaine laboratories. The only reason why this is needed is because both guerrillas and paramilitaries will fire from the ground at the spraying aircraft and fire at the Police when they enter these areas in order to destroy a drug laboratory. Counter-guerrilla or counter-paramilitary operations are forbidden.[17]
Secondly, the “Merida Initiative” is very different from Plan Colombia:

1. Mexico is free from Colombia’s large guerrilla and paramilitary forces and American aid will be relatively small. Mexico plans to spend $7 billion on law enforcement over the next three years. American officials stress that the package is testament to the growing confidence and cooperation between law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border.[18]

2. The Merida Initiative will include the transfer of equipment and technical resources, consistent with all appropriate standards in both countries of transparency and accountability of use. The strategies also include training programs and two-way exchanges of experts, but do not contemplate the deployment of U.S. military personnel in Mexico.[19]

3. Less of the military and police aid is lethal; it is almost entirely made up of transport helicopters, surveillance planes, scanning and communications equipment.[20]

4. Plan Colombia puts emphasis on fighting drugs by fumigating areas where coca leaves are grown. Mexico is not a large producer of drug crops (there is a small amount of opium poppy, and some marijuana, a crop that is already abundantly grown within the US). The focus instead is on obstructing the distribution of drugs within the Mexican territory and smuggling them to the US. It also involves going after the organized-crime figures that profit from it.
5.Mexico does have two small insurgencies, the Zapatistas (who at this point are more of a non-violent political movement) and the ERP, who seem to specialize in pipeline bombings. But the U.S.-donated equipment will not be used on counter-insurgent missions.

The bottom line On the positive side, The Merida Initiative is based on a mutual understanding between the U.S. and Mexico that the two country’s need to work together to combat the drug trafficking, gang activity and lawlessness within Mexico and along our southern border.[21] On the Mexican side critics say that until the low pay, poor organization and systematic corruption of the Mexican police forces are cleaned up, it is unlikely that this initiative will make much of a dent. They also say that one of the most useful things the U.S. could do would be to curb the flow of guns to Mexican gangs and traffickers. With a high demand for illegal drugs on the U.S. side of the border and billions of dollars reaped in Mexico as a result of it, the Merida Initiative, tough not perfect, is an attempt to reduce drug related activities in the region and bolster the security inside Mexico and the United States.

*Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of "The Americas Report" of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington DC. (www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org). She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

[1] The Merida Initiative: United States, Mexico, Central America Security Cooperation. October 22, 2007. US Department of State.
[2]THE MERIDA INITIATIVE: A New Paradigm for Security Cooperation.
[3] Just don't call it Plan Mexico. October 25, 2007. The Economist.
[4] US Department of State – Ibid.
[5] US Department of State – Ibid.
[6] Beefing up the anti-drug war. October 25, 2007. The Economist.
[7] Beefing up the anti-drug war. October 25, 2007. The Economist.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Mexican Drug Lord Gets Life in Prison. November 5, 2007. CBS News.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] The Mexico/Central America Security Cooperation Package. October 22, 2007. U.S. Department of State.
[14] Plan Colombia: A SUCCESS STORY. Sept. 19, 2007. EMBASSY of COLOMBIA. Washington DC.
[15] Plan Colombia: The Roadmap for Peace. Embassy of Colombia, Washington DC.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] The Merida Initiative – Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] The Merida Initiative – Ibid.
[21] Ibid - The Economist.


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