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Obama, Peña Nieto must save a vital part of effort to fight drug trafficking

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In March 2007, President Calderón and President George W. Bush agreed to significantly increase cooperation in fighting drug trafficking. Under the resulting Mérida Initiative, the US pledged $1.4 billion in assistance over four years, a fraction of what Mexico spends on the effort. Initial funds were earmarked for hardware; later allotments were to help Mexico transform its judicial sector to be more transparent and accountable.  Equally important, Mérida sparked the creation of multiple binational working groups.

Fast forward to 2012. Despite the importance of organized crime as an issue in the Mexican presidential race, Peña Nieto’s administration has focused almost exclusively on the economy since the election. Its first major security announcement came a few days ago. Instead of Mexican agencies working directly with their counterparts in US agencies, all communication, intelligence sharing, and joint maneuvers will run through one ministry – Interior. 

As a public relations strategy in Mexico, it makes sense to lower the volume on the cartels and drug violence. Mexicans are worn out after six years of constant media coverage of gruesome violence and Mr. Calderón’s war on those perpetrating it.

However, violence continues, and broad bilateral cooperation can help to stop it. Indeed, during our research we have met US state prosecutors who exchanged information with their Mexican counterparts that led to arrests and prosecutions in both countries. We also heard positive assessments about coordination on cargo inspection. Officers in both countries have also used the US e-trace system, which tracks weapons found at crime scenes. 

Despite such progress, our discussions with senior Mexican officials suggest the future of bilateral cooperation is in doubt. Many newly appointed senior officials were shocked at the full extent of cooperation with the US during Calderón’s administration. Several officials used words like “penetration” and “infiltration” to describe US involvement – words that suggest suspicion about US motives. 

They also argued that such close cooperation was problematic because Calderón’s goals for the Mérida security agreement with the US were unclear. We hope Peña Nieto will clarify these goals, or discuss new ones in his meeting with Mr. Obama. 

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