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The original (2021) summary of this data can be found here in PDF form. Changes to this (2022) writeup include analysis based on fiscal rather than calendar years, as well as updates that reflect new patterns in the data.

Analysis by Michael Lettieri

Between 2000 and 2020, the United States spent over $148 million dollars on military training for the Mexican army, navy, federal police, and other security institutions. These courses ranged from technical—particularly aircraft operation and maintenance—to tactical, including combat operations. While the Mexican Navy (SEMAR) was a primary beneficiary as it became the preferred U.S. partner for sensitive law enforcement operations after 2011, support for the Army and Air Force (SEDENA) was also substantial, even as both institutions were implicated in human rights abuses.

Using information from the annual State Department report to Congress, gathered by Security Force Monitor, the Mexico Violence Resource Project has assembled a database of more than 6000 training courses, organized by type and recipient. While this data is not exhaustive, as certain categories of security training are not registered in these reports, it provides the clearest possible picture of these interactions. The interactive dashboard presented here makes it possible to better understand how Mexico’s security institutions have benefitted from training, and the impacts of US security assistance.

Executive Summary of 2020 Update:

  • Since FY2017 tactical training of Mexican forces has declined and human rights training has increased, likely owing to both a natural wind-down of the Mérida Initiative and political pressure in the United States. FY2020 saw substantial resources dedicated to human rights training.

  • The impact of the pandemic appears to have contributed to already diminishing tactical trainings. Half as many students (60) received tactical or operations training in FY2020 as did in FY2019; this represented the lowest number since 2006. Overall, the nature and cost of training in FY2020 most resembles FY2003.

  • There was an increased emphasis on cybersecurity and electronic warfare during FY2020, with more students receiving training in these topics than in any previous year. Given the Mexican government’s troubled spyware history, this is a concerning trend.

Note: Data visualizations are optimized for desktop viewing and may have limited functionality on mobile devices.

The dashboard view below is a “tree ring” presentation, with more recent training appearing on the outer edge of the chart, and older training closer to the center. The size of individual bubbles corresponds to the number of students in a given course. A linear chronological scatterplot and a fiscal year spending breakdown are available via the tabs at the top of the interface.

For more information on classifications, please see the methodology appendix at the bottom of the page.

Visualization and analysis by Michael Lettieri for the Mexico Violence Resource Project; Data from Security Force Monitor.

Analysis (Updated for FY2020)

Tactical Training: During the first years of the Mérida Initiative, from FY2007 to FY2010, the amount of professional and technical education dwarfed tactical and operational training, representing 89.4% of spending for 2,543 students. In that period only 10% of spending went to tactical or operational training, reaching 529 students.

From FY2011 to FY2017, tactical and operational training expanded dramatically, becoming approximately 21% of total spending ($20.3 million) and reaching 12,054 students. Professional and technical education reached fewer students (8,060) and represented a decreased percentage (78%) of spending.

Prior to 2011, the U.S. was providing tactical training to an average of 91 members of Mexican security forces per year. After 2011, that number reached 1,240.

From FY2018 to FY2020, tactical training remained a high (20.4%) percentage of spending, though a significantly smaller percentage of total students (17.5%).

SEMAR, particularly the Mexican Marines, were a primary beneficiary of this post-FY2010 increase in training, receiving nearly half of total spending ($47.7 out of $117.3 million) and representing nearly 60% of all students. A substantial number (8,351 out of 13,086) of those students received tactical and operational training. There were fewer SEDENA students (only 6,694) but the value of SEDENA training was only $17.8 million less than SEMAR.

The Mérida Initiative: While tactical and operational training was somewhat limited during the first years of the Mérida Initiative, from FY2008 to FY2010 there were significant transfers of arms and equipment to Mexico, with congress appropriating $420.7 million for Foreign Military Financing, according to CRS. The initiative was reformulated in 2011 to include a broader approach to security, with Mérida 2.0 placing emphasis on “institutionalizing the rule of law while protecting human rights” and “building strong and resilient communities.” While this significantly increased support for programs through private contractors and USAID, the data demonstrates that those new priorities were not reflected in spending on military training, which continued to support the growing power of SEDENA and SEMAR.

While overall Mérida Initiative spending after 2012 focused on the rule of law, Department of Defense training was moving in a different direction, reinforcing the role of the military as Mexico’s domestic security force.

Military Policing: Among the most insidious shifts involved in the militarization of law enforcement in Mexico has been the growth of the Policía Militar within SEDENA and its eventual transmutation into the Guardia Nacional. The data shows that this process received support from U.S. training. Since the launch of the Mérida Initiative, 236 members of SEMAR and 324 members of SEDENA received training that could be classified as “Law Enforcement” oriented. This included training for members of SEDENA in crime scene processing, digital forensics, trial advocacy, interview and interrogation, and apprehension and arrest.

Of the $10.8 million dollars spent on training 740 students from the Federal Police, only 18 students received training that could be classified as law enforcement-related (at a cost of $70,000). From FY2012 to FY2019, 426 students from SEDENA and SEMAR received such training, however.

Human Rights Training: While the quantity of tactical and operational training increased from FY2011 to FY2017, the number of human rights and operational law training did not. From FY2007 to FY2010, 21 students received human rights training and 84 students received operational law training, an average of 26 per year. From FY2011 to FY2017, only 23 students received human rights training, and 90 received operational law training, an average of 19 per year. Those numbers are a generous interpretation as well: just over half of all human rights and operational law training during that period occurred over two separate four day courses in March (20-24) and June (4-8) 2012, when a combined 60 students from SEDENA received “Ethics and Values” training from a Mobile Training Team at a cost of $50,000.

These trends shifted dramatically after FY2017, however. Spending on human rights training in FY2018 alone nearly equaled the previous 6 fiscal years: $27,401 compared to $33,420. In FY2019 and FY2020, spending on human rights training was 10 times that of FY2011-FY2017: $308,943. The number of students receiving human rights training in that two-year period (58) was identical to the total of students receiving human rights training from FY2003 to FY2018.

Cybersecurity, Electronic Warfare, and Ethical Hacking: There have been numerous instances of Mexican government misuse of spyware, with journalists and activists reporting frequent hacking attempts. Both federal and state governments have acquired hacking software, with very little transparency provided about the use or purpose of these tools. The first major US training in electronic warfare occurred in FY2014, when 30 students from SEDENA participated in a 14-day-long course. From FY2016 to FY2019 most training of this type emphasized cybersecurity and cyber policy rather than active hacking, however. In FY2020, there was a shift toward courses such as “Mobile Device Security and Ethical Hacking” and “Network Penetration Testing and Advanced Use of Metasploit,” as well as the ambiguously titled “Basic/Advanced Cyber Training.” This development is one that should be monitored closely, given the Mexican government’s frequent abuse of digital tools.

Methodology Appendix

The data provided in the annual Foreign Military Training reports is notoriously opaque. While specific recipient units were noted in early editions, this level of detail disappears after 2005. Course titles lean heavily on unclear acronyms, and other important details are often commingled. Even the names of places and institutions are recorded with a lack of precision. About the only definitive data is the number of individuals trained, and the cost of training them. In order to make any useful observations, it was therefore necessary to make educated guesses about the nature of trainings using open source information. The coding of courses is therefore imprecise and subjective but is our best effort at providing functional categories based on the available information.

  • “Maintenance” represents maintenance and repair training.

  • “Medical/Rescue” includes both first aid and hospital-based medical trainings, as well as search and rescue trainings.

  • “Operations” represents training that seems to cover general planning and strategy, without a significant tactical component.

  • “Special Operations” and “Joint Operations” represent trainings that were specifically described with these terms such in the data.

  • “Professional Education” represents a range of training, from more operational skills (such as intelligence gathering) to leadership training at military academies. It generally represents training that seems to have occurred in a classroom setting.

  • “Tactical” represents training that seems to cover combat or kinetic skills.

  • “Technical Education” represents training that seems to cover non-kinetic skills, including navigation or aircraft operation.

When possible, the course topic provides more detail about the inferred subject matter or theme of the course. Additional clues about the nature of training can be found through the Delivery Site/Unit field.

As a general note, while the Foreign Military Training reports provide a systematic means of analyzing these security interactions, they are not a comprehensive catalog of all trainings and assistance. Further analysis of the nature of US cooperation with Mexican security forces is hindered by a pervasive lack of transparency.

The data underlying this analysis are provided by Security Force Monitor, a project of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School. The joint Department of State and Department of Defense report, "Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest" has been released annually since 2000 (reports since 2017 are here, the rest are archived). This statutorily-mandated report shows how the US has spent much of its training and assistance budget, and with what aims. Generally, the US Department of State will release these reports into the public domain as PDFs. Security Force Monitor turns these reports into machine readable data that are easier to analyze, and republishes it for free online for anyone to use. All the code, tools and methods used to make this data are also freely available.

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