Cooperation effort reaches beyond border

By Lee Hamilton
Dec 4 2007

 The United States' and Mexico's shared 1,400–mile border blurs the distinctions between domestic and international issues. For each country to make progress on immigration, crime or the drug trade, the other's help is necessary.

The Mérida Initiative, which President Bush announced in October, is a constructive step toward the type of coordination necessary to deal with these challenges, especially the increasingly bloody cartel wars in Mexico.

The initiative calls for $1.4 billion in U.S. aid to Mexico and Central American countries over the next three years to combat the cartels and drug–related crime. The aid will include technology transfers, training and military equipment. Importantly, there will be no U.S. military presence in Mexico, an issue of great sensitivity to many Mexicans.

A yearly average of 290 metric tons of cocaine has passed through Mexico on its way to the United States since 2000, with law enforcement officials seizing only 12 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office. In 2006, 90 percent of all cocaine en route from South America to the U.S. made a stopover in Mexico.

Mexican President Felipé Calderón has been governing with a sure touch and a clear sense of priorities despite the challenges posed by a razor–thin electoral victory in 2006 and a divided Congress. He has unrelentingly pressured the drug cartels, employing 40,000 army troops. Mexican spending on counter–narcotics efforts has increased by $2.5 billion annually — 24 percent higher than the previous administration's 2006 levels. He has also cracked down on methamphetamine production.

Extraditions to the United States have increased, with 68 this year as of mid–October, including those of several high–level drug traffickers. But Mexico has paid a high cost; more than 4,000 Mexicans have died in the past 18 month's drug–related warfare, including policeman, soldiers and civilians.

But the Mérida Initiative is bigger than one man (or two). Rather than an investment in an individual, it should be seen as an investment in the Mexican state and its institutions. Some details remain unclear, but roughly 60 percent of aid will go toward civilian institution–building, including the establishment of witness protection programs, software to manage and track investigations, and offices of citizen complaints and professional responsibility.

Surveillance technology, helicopters and training will equip Mexico for what will likely be a protracted and multifaceted effort. Without a genuine and sustained commitment by both governments to strengthening institutional and security cooperation, any gains will be temporary.

The United States also bears responsibility for the cartels' power and growth, and the Mérida Initiative recognizes this. First and foremost, it is U.S. demand for cocaine and other drugs that fuels narco–trafficking.

Aside from combating Americans' consumption habits, we can strike back against the cartels with financial warfare to curb money–laundering operations within the United States.

Also, Mexican officials estimate that 100 percent of drug–related killings are committed with weapons purchased in the U.S. and illegally brought into Mexico. AK–47s and AR–15 assault rifles have grown increasingly popular. They can be purchased at American gun shows without a background check — at a fraction of their street price in Mexico. Mexico's criminals are often better armed than the police they battle, a situation mandatory background checks could help prevent.

One of the criticisms has been the secrecy with which the governments negotiated the initiative. The Mexican and U.S. legislatures were kept in the dark until recently. An active and supportive role for the Congresses in both capitals is a necessary ingredient for success.

Border security and, more controversially, immigration demand efforts on both sides of the border. A long list of other common challenges awaits both countries, but after too long a hiatus, this is an opportunity to get U.S.–Mexican relations back on track.

 (Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)