As U.S.-Mexico Security Ties Deepen, Potential for Backlash Emerges

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With the U.S. set to deepen its role in Mexico’s “drug war” and the 2012 elections fast approaching, the Merida Initiative will likely become a political football. Just three years after it began, the future of the security plan could be uncertain.

According to the New York Times, the U.S. government is sending intelligence operatives and retired military personnel to Mexico to assist in counternarcotics operations in the country for the first time. The team will consist of around two dozen Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, C.I.A. officials and former military analysts from the Pentagon’s Northern Command, who will reportedly pair up with Mexican military officials at a joint intelligence fusion center at an undisclosed location. The Times also reports that the U.S. is in the process of negotiating with the Mexican government to allow private security contractors to serve as advisors to a police task force.

The moves are the latest developments in the Merida Initiative (also known as Plan Merida), a $1.4 billion dollar security assistance effort meant to aid Mexico in its fight against drug trafficking organizations. A central component of the plan is to increase intelligence exchanges between Mexico and the U.S., a process which Arturo Sarukhán, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, refers to as a “sea of change.” These intelligence sharing initiatives have been touted as a major game changer in Mexico’s security crackdown, and have been cited in recent operations such as the July 29 arrest of Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, alias “El Diego,” a suspected leader of the Juarez Cartel’s enforcement wing.

But while authorities claim that the Merida Initiative is producing crucial results on the ground, the effort does not appear to be matching up to its full potential. In May, the Houston Chronicle reported that the U.S. had only delivered 59 percent of the promised funding, despite promises from Washington to cut down on the bureaucratic procedures holding it up. And although the Obama administration has promised to deliver $500 million in aid by the end of the year, the Mexican government has complained that the timetable of aid delivery has continually fallen short of such promises, and says that the country is lacking “critically important” equipment. Even if the approval of Merida funds goes completely according to schedule, U.S. officials say only 75 percent of it will be completed by mid-2012.

WIth the aid package only partially in place, the Merida Initiative could be an easier target for its critics, especially as the country heads in to an election year. The plan is already under attack by some sectors of Mexican society who claim that it represents an affront to Mexico’s sovereignty. Mexico has long had a number of laws in place which prohibit foreign militaries from operating on Mexican soil, and these laws have required some difficult maneuvering by President Felipe Calderon. Perhaps the best illustrations of this tension have occurred this year, with the blowback from the failed Operation Fast and Furious and reports that the U.S. had been flying unmanned drones over Mexican territory raised the ire of some Mexican legislators.

As the Brookings Institute’s Vanda Felbab-Brown told the Times, the Merida Initiative is bound to be a major issue in the leadup to the July 2012 elections. Felbab-Brown said she expects to see “a lot of questioning of Merida, and some people asking about the way the money is spent, or demanding that the government send it back to the gringos.”

On top of this, organized opposition to President Felipe Calderon’s military-heavy security policy is on the rise. Mexico’s peace movement — a diverse array of civil society organizations led by poet Javier Sicilia — has repeatedly railed against the prevailing security strategy, and has found widespread support throughout the country in recent months. If the movement continues to pick up steam, it could serve as an ideal wedge point for candidates in the elections seeking to channel populist resentment of Calderon’s security policies. In June, Sicilia specifically targeted the Merida Initiative, claiming that the aid made the U.S. complicit in “crimes against humanity” and calling on U.S. activist groups to join in pressuring for an end to it.

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