In Mexico It's Institutions, Stupid

Mexican flag in map
Mexican flag in map

Given all the electoral noise surrounding "big beautiful walls" and calls for mass deportations of the alleged rapists and other criminals streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border, it is very easy to lose track of one simple and powerful fact: no relationship affects the United States more than our relationship with Mexico.

Mexico and the United States share enormous economic and energy ties, and cooperate on everything from environmental to health issues, tourism to educational exchanges. More than $530 billion in trade moves across the United States' southern border every year, making Mexico one of the United States' top three trading partners. Mexico also remains a critical ally in protecting the United States from transnational threats. To think that America can ensure its security by simply building a wall is naive at best, and dangerous at worst. Instead, it requires a steadfast long-term partnership that centers on strengthening democratic institutions.

In the United States, Republicans and Democrats have long recognized that partnering with and supporting Mexico is the most strategic approach to achieving U.S. national interests. In 2007 Presidents Bush and Calderón signed the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion dollar three-year program that initially focused mostly on combatting drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico and Central America. The Obama administration inherited these programs, but moved them away from the rhetoric and policies of an unsuccessful "war on drugs" to one advancing citizen security through stronger institutions and a healthy and active civil society.

The Obama administration and the State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton understood Mexico's role as key partner in protecting U.S. national security. They understood that Mexico faces tremendous challenges, and that by helping Mexico improve the strength of its institutions, threats to U.S. security can be mitigated prior to reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

On Clinton's first official visit to Mexico in March 2009, she recognized the United States' shared responsibility for the cartel-fueled violence wracking Mexico that has claimed more than 100,000 lives over the last decade. In her 2010 visit, Clinton shifted U.S.-bilateral relations away from the drug war and towards community building. Expanding on Secretary Clinton's efforts, the United States and Mexico revamped the Merida Initiative along four distinct pillars: 1. Disrupt organized crime, 2. Institutionalize rule of law and improve human rights, 3. Create a twenty-first century border, and 4. Build resilient communities. The initiative has a strong emphasis on institutionalizing rule of law and improving human rights through police, justice, and prison reform.

Since 2008, the U.S. Congress has appropriated more than $2.5 billion towards the Merida Initiative. Of that, $1.5 billion has been spent on training and equipping Mexican security forces, bolstering democratic institutions and implementing anti-corruption initiatives, developing resilient societies through community-based socioeconomic programs, and improving cooperation along the U.S.-Mexico border. For example, the U.S.-Mexico partnership is embracing community policing strategies and investing in at-risk youth in border communities like Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana by stimulating education and employment opportunities. Still, Merida is designed to support a strategic U.S.-Mexico partnership so it's important to note that Mexico has invested more than 50 times than the United States in improving its own security; Mexican investment reached nearly $80 billion by 2015.

The evolution of the Merida Initiative is a positive step towards helping Mexico center efforts on institutions and civil society. However, there is still a long way to go. Human rights violations and widespread corruption continue to undermine progress. Critics of U.S.-Mexico bilateral security cooperation blame the U.S. government for incentivizing human rights violations and corruption through the Merida Initiative, and they argue for the withdrawal of all forms of U.S. foreign assistance. However, the best way to engage Mexico on human rights and corruption is not by ignoring Mexico altogether, but rather by leveraging foreign assistance in order to pressure Mexico into adhering to the human rights and anti-corruption provisions laid out in existing bilateral agreements. For example, in recent years the U.S. has withheld $5.5 million in foreign assistance from Mexico as a result of human rights violations. Going forward, the U.S. legislature put forth a new bill that would withhold foreign military financing from Mexican security forces for not adhering to human rights and the U.S. Agency for International Development is committing nearly $25 million to support Mexican efforts to develop and implement a national human rights strategy. Providing assistance--like Merida--will aid Mexico in developing the institutions that it needs to succeed and prosper.

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