Changing the Merida Initiative Priorities

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I’ve finally seen a full breakdown and explanation of the numbers behind the first year of the Merida Initiative, the Bush Administration’s proposal to cooperate with and aid Mexico in the fight against drugs and terrorism. It can be found here in the second Appendix. This ambitious plan aims to better arm Mexico’s front line civilian and military agencies, to create new roles and offices necessary to better monitor and fight crime, to transform the workings of police and judicial institutions, and to increase the role of civil society organizations in these processes.

Looking at the actual budget breakdown, the focus on long-term institutional changes and professionalization of law enforcement and judicial agencies – which are essential for the sustainability of any success in the war against drugs – is not particularly impressive. Direct training for police and judicial officials comprises only $35mn of the $500 mn. Adding in office equipment, computer systems, forensic labs, and support for civil society that is directly tied toward increasing transparency and accountability increases the amount for institutional improvements to nearly $100 mn. Yet this is still just 20% of the money designated for FY2008.

Instead, the Merida expenditure is front-loaded toward the gear. These include over $100 mn for 8 transport helicopters, $100 mn for 2 surveillance planes, and $140 mn for other equipment including satellite communication systems, ion scanners, x-ray technologies, and extensive database development.

The main reason given for this breakdown is that the Mexican military and civilian agencies need more sophisticated machinery right now to combat the drug trade. While this may be true, there are significant drawbacks to this approach. First, institutional changes and professionalization take a long time to take root and achieve real results ‑ so the sooner these changes begin the better for Mexico and the United States.

Second, policies to reduce corruption and strengthen the rule of law provide less quantifiable benefits. They are much more likely to get cut from future budgets, particularly if the Merida Initiative is not deemed an rapid success (which, without improvements in the performance of the police and judiciary, is likely).

Finally, given the real deficiencies in law enforcement and judicial institutions in Mexico, does the United States really want to equip them with sophisticated technologies before beginning expansive efforts at professionalization? Until these institutions are more transparent and accountable, improving surveillance and other capacities may be counterproductive.

These issues need to be debated when Congress takes up the Merida Initiative, most likely in February. While this agreement is an important step for U.S. security and for bilateral relations, its success will depend in large part on its structure. In order to make the most of this opportunity to work closely with Mexico and to improve the safety of citizens on both sides of the border, greater support for real changes to Mexico’s institutions – from the start – is vital.