Updated July 20, 2020
Mexico: Evolution of the Mérida Initiative, 2007-2020
Congress remains concerned about the effects of organized-
“kingpin” strategy also fueled violence, as fractured drug
crime-related violence in Mexico on U.S. security interests
trafficking organizations fought to regroup and reorganize.
and U.S. citizens’ safety in Mexico. Homicides in Mexico
have reached record levels in each of the last three years as
The Four-Pillar Strategy:
criminal groups have fought for control of smuggling routes
into the United States. President Andrés Manuel López
In 2011, the U.S. and Mexican governments broadened the
Obrador is under pressure to improve his security policy.
scope of bilateral efforts under four pillars that prioritized
The November 2019 killing of an extended family of dual
citizens near the Arizona border in Mexico has led some
1. Combating transnational criminal
Members of Congress to call for increased oversight of
through intelligence sharing and
bilateral efforts. This product provides a succinct overview
law enforcement operations;
of the roughly $3.1 billion appropriated for the Mérida
2. Institutionalizing the rule of law while
Initiative, López Obrador’s security strategy, and how to
protecting human rights
through justice sector
assess bilateral security efforts.
reform, forensic equipment and training, and
Origins of the Mérida Initiative
federal- and state-level police and corrections
Prior to FY2008, Mexico did not receive large amounts of
U.S. security assistance, partially due to Mexican sensitivity
3. Creating a 21st-century U.S.-Mexican border
about U.S. involvement in the country’s internal affairs. In
while improving immigration enforcement in
March 2007, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón asked
Mexico and security along Mexico’s southern
for expanded U.S. cooperation to fight criminal
organizations and their cross-border trafficking operations.
4. Building strong and resilient communities
In response, the Mérida Initiative, a package of U.S.
piloting approaches to address root causes of
antidrug and rule of law assistance to Mexico (and Central
violence and supporting efforts to reduce drug
America), began in October 2007.
demand and build a “culture of lawfulness”
through education programs.
As part of the Mérida Initiative’s emphasis on shared
Some analysts praised the wide-ranging cooperation
, the Mexican government pledged to tackle
between the governments. Others criticized the increasing
corruption. The U.S. government pledged to address drug
number of priorities they adopted. Experts warned it would
demand and the illicit trafficking of firearms and bulk
be difficult for Mexico to implement an accusatorial justice
currency to Mexico. Both governments have struggled to
system requiring better evidence collection by police and
fulfill those commitments. The December 2019 U.S. arrest
public trials with oral arguments in only eight years.
of Calderón’s former public security minister for allegedly
Mexico’s Congress established the eight-year transition to a
taking millions in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel
new justice system in 2008 constitutional reforms .
demonstrated Mexico’s endemic corruption. High levels of
U.S. opioid-related deaths and rising methamphetamine
U.S. technology and training under pillar one supported
demand illustrate challenges in addressing U.S. drug
Mexican intelligence-gathering and information-sharing
efforts, including biometrics and telecommunications.
Initial Funding for the Mérida Initiative:
Under pillar two, U.S. agencies provided more than $400
million in training, courtroom infrastructure, and technical
assistance to support Mexico’s transition to an accusatorial
During the first three years of the Mérida Initiative,
justice system at the federal and state levels. Pillar three
Congress appropriated some $1.5 billion, including $420.7
expanded beyond efforts to modernize the U.S.-Mexican
million in foreign military financing (FMF), which enabled
border to include more than $100 million in training and
the purchase of equipment, including aircraft and
equipment for securing Mexico’s southern border. Under
helicopters, to support Mexico’s federal security forces
pillar four, the U.S. Agency for International Development
(military and police). Congress withheld 15% of certain
(USAID) implemented $25 million in human rights
U.S. aid for the Mexican military and police until the State
programs and $90 million in crime prevention projects.
Department submitted an annual report stating that Mexico
FMF has not been part of the Mérida Initiative since
was taking steps to meet human rights requirements. U.S.
FY2011, but the State Department and the U.S. Department
assistance focused on (1) counternarcotics, border security,
of Defense coordinate their assistance. Although all U.S.
and counterterrorism; (2) public security; and (3) institution
security assistance to Mexico is subject to human rights
building. U.S. assistance and intelligence supported
vetting requirements (known as Leahy Laws), additional
Mexico’s strategy of arresting (and extraditing) kingpins
human-rights-related aid restrictions only apply to FMF.
from each of the major drug trafficking organizations. This
Mexico: Evolution of the Mérida Initiative, 2007-2020
Trump Administration Priorities
United States that includes the Mérida Initiative as one
President Trump’s executive orders on combatting
aspect of bilateral efforts. The HLSWG includes eight
transnational criminal organizations (E.O. 13773) and
working groups. Mexico has prioritized combating arms
enhancing border security (E.O. 13767) refocused the
trafficking, but other groups focus on drug policy, criminal
Mérida Initiative. Current priorities include combating drug
justice reform, border security, and money laundering,
production, improving border interdiction and port security,
among other issues. These groups, as well as requests from
and combating money laundering. In 2019, President
the Mexican government to assist in priority programs, such
Trump praised Mexico’s stepped up efforts against illegal
as identifying some 80,000 disappeared persons reported as
migration but criticized Mexico’s antidrug performance in
of July 2020, could inform future projects.
his FY2021 “drug majors” determination.
Assessing the Mérida Initiative
López Obrador Administration
Many analysts have observed the need for more reporting
Inaugurated in December 2018, President López Obrador
on Mérida Initiative outcomes to help Congress oversee the
enjoys high approval ratings even though Mexico
funds it has appropriated. The State Department has pointed
experienced record homicides and zero growth in 2019.
to some indicators of success. Those include (1) the
Mexico’s security strategy, released in February 2019,
intelligence-sharing and police cooperation that has helped
includes a focus on addressing the socioeconomic drivers of
capture and extradite high-profile criminals; (2) the creation
violent crime. Thus far, López Obrador has implemented
of national training standards for police, prosecutors, and
broad social programs rather than the type of targeted crime
judges; and (3) assistance that has helped Mexico receive
prevention efforts that USAID has endorsed.
international accreditation of its prisons, labs, and police
President López Obrador has rejected calls for a “war” on
training institutes. Since FY2008, Mérida equipment and
transnational criminal organizations, which he asserts
canines have led to the seizure of more than 300,000
would increase civilian casualties. Nevertheless, López
kilograms of U.S.-bound drugs.
Obrador backed constitutional reforms to allow military
Despite those results, escalating violence in Mexico and
involvement in public security for five more years. Those
drug overdose deaths in the United States has led many to
reforms contradict a 2018 Mexico Supreme Court ruling
question the overall efficacy of the Mérida Initiative. For
that prolonged military involvement in public security
years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has
violated the Mexican Constitution. Initially, López Obrador
urged U.S. agencies working in Mexico to adopt outcome
resisted the so-called kingpin strategy employed by his two
rather than just output measures. A May 2020 GAO report
predecessors, although high-level arrests and extraditions
asserted that USAID always followed “key monitoring
have increased in 2020.
practices and tracked performance data” for its programs
Instead of bolstering the federal police, which had received
but that the State Department did not.
significant U.S. equipment and training, President López
Obrador secured congressional approval of a new National
Guard (composed of mostly military and former federal
With the bipartisan support of Congress, the Mérida
police). He deployed the National Guard to secure oil
Initiative has comprised the majority of U.S. foreign aid to
pipelines, reassert territorial control in high-crime areas,
Mexico since FY2008. Congress provided $149 million in
and secure Mexico’s borders. A concern for U.S.
FY2019 for the Mérida Initiative in P.L. 116-6 ($71 million
policymakers is that the National Guard lacks investigatory
above the budget request). For FY2020, Congress provided
authority, which means any evidence the National Guard
$150 million for accounts that fund the Mérida Initiative in
gathers would be inadmissible in court. There are also
P.L. 116-94 ($73 million above the request).
concerns that its forces may violate human rights.
The FY2021 budget request for Mérida Initiative accounts
Civil society and the private sector are urging President
was $61.3 million. The House Appropriations Committee’s
López Obrador to fulfill his pledges to combat corruption
version of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations
and impunity. Mexico’s congress approved the creation of
an independent prosecutor general’s office, but the
bill, H.R. 7608, would provide $140 million in accounts
that have funded the Mérida Initiative. H.Rept. 116-444
individual selected for that post is the President’s close ally.
would require the State Department to submit a multiyear
The prosecutor general’s office remains underfunded and
strategy for the Mérida Initiative within 180 days of the
has proposed reforms that would reverse many key
bill’s enactment. The report is to include a joint USAID-
elements of the new justice system. While federal
State monitoring and evaluation plan and outline any U.S.
prosecutors have pursued corruption cases against the
assistance planned for Mexico’s National Guard.
former head of Petróleos Mexicanos
from Spain) and the former social development minister,
See CRS In Focus IF10215, Mexico’s Immigration Control
they have thus far ignored allegations involving López
, and CRS In Focus IF10400, Trends in Mexican
Obrador’s allies. The government has not yet specified how
Opioid Trafficking and Implications for U.S.-Mexico
it will move forward to implement the national anti-
corruption system established through constitutional
reforms in 2017, which the Mérida Initiative has supported.
Clare Ribando Seelke
, Specialist in Latin American
In August 2019, the López Obrador Administration created
a High-Level Security Working Group (HLSWG) with the
Mexico: Evolution of the Mérida Initiative, 2007-2020
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