U.S. must step up on Mexico drug wars

August 25th, 2010

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This piece was originally published in Politico.

News reports out of Mexico grow grimmer each month.

Four decapitated bodies were found on Aug. 22, hanging from a bridge in Cuernavaca as a warning from one drug gang to another — adding to the grisly toll of more than 28,000 killed by drug-trafficking violence in Mexico since 2006.

Last month, a car bomb exploded in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — just across the border from El Paso, Texas —killing three people. One was a doctor, who had rushed to the scene to treat a wounded police officer. But the La Linea street gang, working for the Juarez cartel, had allegedly dressed a wounded man as a police officer to lure federal police and first responders. When the police arrived, someone activated a car bomb by mobile phone.

This was the drug cartels’ first known car bombing, potentially marking a new and dangerous chapter in Mexico’s drug wars. Yet, these already are highly sophisticated, transnational criminal organizations that fund, train and equip thousands of “troops” to control the production, transportation and distribution of drugs throughout Mexico and the United States.

These criminal networks also export drugs and violence across Mexico’s southern border into Central America. “In remote, lawless regions of Guatemala,” a recent article in The Washington Post said, “the Mexican organized crime syndicate known as the Zetas is setting up training camps and recruiting elite ex-soldiers to serve as assassins, arming them with weapons diverted from the country’s military arsenals.” The description sounds like it could be about Yemen, Somalia or Afghanistan — not a country in Central America.

To help Mexico combat its dangerous gangs, President George W. Bush and Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon agreed, in 2007, to a three-year, $1.6-billion security cooperation program known as the Mérida Initiative. It was Washington’s biggest security agreement with Mexico, and created a framework through which both the U.S. and Mexican governments could show their commitment — through dollars and actions — to defeat the cartel threat.

Now, however, nearing the end of this commitment, it seems the U.S. security cooperation lacks the seriousness this challenge demands. Only nine percent of all funds appropriated under the Mérida Initiative had actually been spent as of March, according to the Government Accountability Office. Furthermore, the GAO noted that the State Department, responsible for coordinating the Mérida strategy, lacks “certain key elements that would facilitate accountability and management.” In plain English, that means we — and Congress — have no way of knowing exactly what is working and what isn’t.

With this embarrassing GAO report, intensified partisan shouting from some border-state politicians and little appetite for spending in Washington, it might seem like a poor time to advocate funding another long-term security agreement with Mexico. But that’s exactly what is required.

Though the Obama administration has outlined a more than $300 million extension of some Mérida Initiative activities for 2011, much of its plan remains vague. The administration wants to continue some counternarcotics work and add some new components, including high-tech border security technology and pilot programs to combat some of the social causes of violence in Mexico’s deadliest cities.

While this is a good bridge — and the start of a post-Mérida strategy — both countries are running out of time to get this right. In 2012, Mexico will elect a new president, and the biggest U.S. ally in the war against the cartels — Calderon — will be gone.

There will also be an election on this side of the border. Proposing more money for Mexican foreign aid in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign is not likely to be a popular position for either party. That’s why 2011 is a critical time to set up a new, five-year U.S.-Mexico security framework.

Just as the Mérida initiative spanned the presidencies of Bush and Barack Obama, this new five-year commitment would outlast Calderon’s administration and bring us to the end of either a second Obama administration — or his successor’s first administration. It could clarify the direction of the U.S.-Mexico bilateral security relationship — ensuring that gains made during Mérida aren’t squandered.

But, this can’t be a “Mérida 2.0.” We must learn the lessons of Mérida — confronting both its successes and failures — and adjust accordingly.

There were positive outcomes. For one, we know that it is possible to make gains. Though relatively little money was spent, the GAO reported that the diplomatic and security cooperation aspects functioned well, with tangible increases in cooperation between U.S. law enforcement agencies and their Mexican counterparts. New programs to interrupt cross-border drug, cash and weapons smuggling are up and running, and violent crime has decreased in many U.S. border areas. These successes from Mérida should not be ignored.

But the hard lessons from Mérida must also be learned. Congress and the administration must now realize that congressional appropriations alone aren’t enough. With a security challenge of this size, appropriations must be matched with a coordinated strategy and clear metrics to judge performance.

Yes, Mérida had strategic goals, but, as the GAO report notes, the State Department never translated these into a strategy or measurable benchmarks for success.

Most important, and most obvious, is that oversight is critical. Congress should ask the GAO to produce annual, or even semi-annual, updates to ensure the appropriated money is being spent and having the desired effect. Frequent updates could allow Congress to adjust strategies annually — through appropriations and legislation.

Effective security cooperation means responsibilities for both sides. The Mexican government has the bulk of the work when it comes to fighting the drug runners threatening their country. They look to be taking this seriously.

U.S. policymakers need to match that seriousness: both by following through on past commitments and by laying the groundwork for a successful bilateral relationship with Mexico in the future.

Kyle Spector is a policy adviser on national security for Third Way.