What Does the Trump Administration Mean for the Mérida Agreement? (July 2017)

Carolyn Gallaher, American University

Historically, Mexico has not figured prominently in US presidential campaigns. The 2016 campaign was an exception. Republican nominee Donald Trump consistently used Mexico and its citizens as metaphors for what ails the US. During the first presidential debate, for example, he described the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere” (Gillespie 2016). Mexican citizens fared no better in Trump’s rhetoric. He accused Mexico of dumping its rapists in the US and promised to build a wall to keep them out (Gamboa 2016). Given Trump’s relentlessly negative portrayal of Mexico and its citizens, this paper asks what Trump’s win might portend for the bilateral Mérida Initiative. I argue that Trump will likely weaken what is positive about the agreement and exacerbate what is negative about it.

A Brief Review of Mérida

In 2007, US President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón met in the Yucatan city of Mérida to discuss the problem of narco-trafficking. Eight months later, the Mérida Initiative was officially born. In the joint press release announcing the agreement, the two countries described narco-trafficking, and the solutions to it as a shared responsibility and promised to improve cooperation between their respective law enforcement agencies. The US Congress also pledged up to $1.4 billion in appropriations to get the ball rolling (U.S. Department of State 2008). To assess what the new Trump administration might mean for Mérida going forward, I begin by brie y outlining the initiative’s strengths and weaknesses. I focus on one of the agreement’s central strengths and one of its foremost weakness.

A Needed Thaw

The US and Mexico have long had a testy relationship where narco-traf cking is concerned. The low point in the relationship came in 1985 when Enrique “Kiki” Ca- marena, a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent stationed in Guadalajara, was mur- dered. The DEA believed Mexican law enforcement purposely bungled the investigation because Camarena’s killers paid them off. By contrast, Mexican of cials were angry the DEA was operating in their country and believed Camarena was in over his head (Shan- non 1988). For the next thirty years, bilateral cooperation on narco-traf cking was limited and marked by mutual distrust.

In this context, the Mérida Initiative represented a major rupture. Mexican government officials had long demanded that the US acknowledge the role of demand in fostering narco-trafficking. As such, when the US announced the agreement by describing the fight against narco-trafficking as a “shared responsibility,” Mexicans felt vindicated. Mexican scholar Raùl Benítez Manuat (2009) described Mérida as a paradigm shift in the two countries’ relationship. For their part, US officials felt like they could finally engage in cooperation without Mexico labeling their efforts as breaches of sovereignty (Gallaher 2016).

Many observers credit the nal capture and arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the improved cooperation Mérida begat (LaFranchi 2017). In my interviews for a col- laborative research project funded by the National Institute of Justice (award number 2011-IJ-CX-0001) on US/Mexican law enforcement cooperation, I also found that better cooperation bled into casework not directly related to narco-traf cking, such as homicide and child kidnapping cases.


For nearly a decade, human rights groups have accused Mexican security forces of violating human rights in their war against narco-traffickers (Amnesty 2015). When the US works with, or funds, units engaging in these violations, it risks becoming complicit in their abuses. Critics of Mérida claim the US has been slow to respond to this moral hazard. Indeed, Mexico has used Mérida money to purchase military equipment, such as Black Hawk helicopters, and to train military and police units—some with known ties to narco-traffickers (Franzblau 2015). They also argue that the US has been reticent to subject Mexico to the Leahy Laws, which allow the US Departments of Defense and State to withhold foreign aid to countries not abiding by human rights standards (Seelke and Finklea 2017). The George W. Bush State Department, for example, never invoked Leahy Laws to withhold Mérida funds, and the Obama State Department only did so once, in 2014, when it diverted $5 million in Mérida money to Peru (Seelke and Finklea 2017).

The Trump effect on Mérida

The Trump administration is likely to weaken the positive elements of the initiative and augment its weaknesses. In terms of the bilateral thaw, for example, cooperation is likely to decline between the two countries. Mexicans find Trump’s rhetoric offensive and may revert to depicting cooperation with US law enforcement as a threat to Mexican sovereignty. Former Mexican President Vincent Fox encapsulated this view when he told a Washington Post reporter:

We don’t want the ugly American, which Trump represents; that imperial gringo that used to invade our country, that used to send the Marines, that used to put and take away presidents most everywhere in the world (cited in Partlow 2017).

Mexican reticence may also inhibit cooperation on cases where Mexico would other- wise want US help. US Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) notes that the bilateral effort to capture El Chapo “never would have been possible without a robust US-Mexico relation- ship” (LaFranchi 2017).

For those who opposed Calderón’s decision to wage war on the country’s cartels in 2006, myself included, it is tempting to see a silver lining in the souring relations between the two countries. Critics rightly note that Mexico’s kingpin strategy has spurred greater violence as second-tier lieutenants compete to replace their recently deposed bosses. With Trump in the White House, optimists may wonder if Mexico will finally abandon a strategy seen as too US in style.

Unfortunately, such optimism is probably unwarranted, even chimeric inasmuch as it rests on a simplistic understanding of US/Mexico relations as primarily imperialist in nature. None of this is to suggest that Mexico has not been a victim of US imperatives in the region. It clearly has, as the US’s heavy-handed response to the Latin American debt crisis demonstrated (Browning 2013). However, Mexico has significant agency within the bi-lateral relationship, particularly around narco-trafficking. Indeed, though we often talk about the War on Drugs war as a US war forced onto other countries, there are actually three wars going on along the US/Mexican border. The first is the US-sponsored War on Drugs, focused on interdiction. The second is the war inside Mexico between the government and cartels. President Calderón launched this domestic war in response to domestic events within weeks of taking office in 2006. Kenny and Serrano argue, for example, that Calderón’s war was “in some part, designed to force the governors of the north to abandon their ‘passivity’—to speak euphemistically—vis-à-vis organized crime” (2012:17). Finally, there is the joint US/Mexico war, conditioned through the Mérida Initiative. Mérida has undoubtedly knitted the US and Mexican Wars together, and in the process made

182 Journal of Latin American Geography

them more violent, but it did not create Mexico’s internal drug war—perhaps the bloodi- est of the three. Cartels represent a serious threat to the sovereignty of the Mexican state. Until Mexico can control the drug trade, expunge cartels from the political system, and tamp down cartel violence, it is not likely to stop its internal war.

The Trump administration is also not likely to reign in human rights abuses by Mexican forces fighting narco-traffickers. It is difficult, for example, to see Trump’s State Department invoking Leahy Laws to secure Mexican compliance with human rights standards given his past praise of authoritarian leaders who use their militaries to quash domestic dissent. An unsatisfactory status quo is the best possible outcome here.

Where things may actually deteriorate is in related funding streams. Foreign Military Financing (FMF), which provides grants and financing for foreign militaries to purchase military equipment, is a case in point. FMF was part of Mérida until 2012 when it was removed from the list of funding programs. Afterwards, the US Congress substantially reduced its appropriations to FMF (Seelke and Finklea 2017). Given Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, he could ask Congress to increase FMF appropriations for Mexico on the grounds that Mexico should take an even more aggressive approach to its cartels. Doing so, of course, would deepen US complicity in the Mexican military’s human rights abuses.

Donald Trump lacks a discernible ideology and thrives on being unpredictable. It is, therefore, difficult to predict his foreign policy trajectory. To the extent that we can predict Trump’s future behavior, it is because his leadership is laden with authoritarian impulses and self-aggrandizing behaviors. In this regard, Trump will not fix Mérida’s flaws and may well aggravate them.


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