MEXICO CITY —
Top Biden administration and Mexican government officials are expected this week to discuss overhauling a security arrangement that Mexican officials say has exacerbated violence tied to the narcotics trade. The discussions will take place in Mexico City on Friday during high-ranking meetings that include Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, as well as Atty. According to sources familiar with the matter, Gen. Merrick Garland is involved in these discussions.
“In security matters, there must be a new chapter,” Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican Foreign Minister, told reporters Tuesday.
The leftist government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been especially contemptuous of an agreement reached in 2008 between the Obama administration and the right-wing government of former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, a bitter rival of Lopez Obrador. The multimillion-dollar agreement became the foundation of a massive U.S.-Mexico joint effort in fighting drug trafficking, sharing military intelligence, revamping Mexico’s judiciary, and improving government accountability. The Merida Initiative is the name of the agreement that has been the basis of U.S. security policies in Mexico for over a decade.
The agreement involved heavy military action, hardware and the so-called “kingpin strategy” — to kill or capture leaders of drug cartels in the hope that their organizations would collapse. It didn’t work that way – the cartels had deep pockets, and new leaders were often more violent than their predecessors. Mexican authorities claim this.
Ebrard stated that it was time to “leave the Merida Initiative behind.” His premises were not compatible with what the Mexican government is trying to accomplish in public security.
The Biden administration is open to making adjustments.
“We feel it is time to take a fresh look at bilateral security cooperation,” Ned Price, spokesperson for the State Department, said Thursday. He said that the Merida plan had made progress in areas such as the rule of law and human rights, and should be preserved.
” We want to ensure that these gains are maintained, that cooperation is strengthened, and that an updated approach to dealing with the threats of today is in place,” Price stated. The emerging security strategy is not yet detailed and border authorities face a difficult task. Violence and murder rates in Mexico have increased dramatically in recent years due to human smuggling, drug trafficking and street crime.
People familiar with U.S.-Mexico discussions said a new deal would take more targeted aim at the most dangerous drug cartels and migrant smugglers. It will also examine the activities and finances of the cartels in the United States.
Mexico is asking the U.S. to extradite more suspects, the sources said, in hopes of more forcefully asserting its sovereignty. The majority of extraditions go from Mexico to the U.S. and not the other direction.
Mexican officials are also sure to press the U.S. to stanch the flow of firearms being smuggled into their country. About 70% of all weapons confiscated in Mexico can be traced to U.S. sources, Mexican officials have said. The U.S. hopes that Mexico will increase its resistance to smugglers in order to decrease the number of migrants arriving at their shared border. In recent months, the number of people trying to enter the U.S. has broken all records. The Trump and Biden administrations pressure Mexico to stop the flow of Central American migrants to the United States. Mexico’s track record in this area has been poor. In recent weeks, U.S. officials have scrambled to manage large numbers of Haitian migrants at Del Rio, Texas. The U.S. is also expected to ask Mexico for assistance in stopping illicit shipments of fentanyl to the U.S., a deadly and powerful synthetic opioid.
Outside experts have said the new framework is badly needed because U.S. and Mexican officials are deeply unsatisfied with how the Merida Initiative has been working.
” The U.S. side acknowledges that once-strong cooperation is in decline,” stated Andrew Selee (a Mexico expert and president of the Migration Policy Institute, Washington). “It needs new energy.”
Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and former top State Department official for Latin America, agrees Merida has become outdated but believes it had success until recent changes.
” This cooperation has eroded over the years and with it, the utility of Merida,” she stated during an online chat with Inter-American Dialogue.
Nevertheless, she said, the agreement created an unprecedented and valuable “culture of cooperation.”
“Mexico and the United States must redefine their security priorities for a new binational strategy — one that respects sovereignty and responds to the actual causes of insecurity,” she said.
The troubled security partnership hit a low point last year when the U.S. arrested former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos on drug trafficking charges as he traveled in California.
Mexican officials said they were not informed of the arrest and protested vehemently. Eventually, the U.S. relented and sent Cienfuegos to Mexico, releasing him without charges, and Mexico imposed new restrictions on the ability of foreign agents to operate in Mexico.
Blinken and his colleagues will have to tackle that lingering mistrust, said Andrew Rudman, head of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
“Confidence and trust have to be restored,” he said. “The most important thing is they’re talking, restoring a dialogue after so much damage.”
Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Sanchez from Mexico City.