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Between 2000 and 2019, the United States spent nearly $144 million dollars on military trainings for the Mexican army, navy, federal police, and other security institutions. These trainings 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 trainings, 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.

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

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.

Data from Security Force Monitor, with processing and analysis by Michael Lettieri for the Mexico Violence Resource Project.

Key takeaways

The Post-2011 Expansion of Tactical Training: During the first years of the Mérida Initiative, from 2007 to 2011, the amount of professional and technical education dwarfed tactical and operational training, with $23.1 million dollars (approximately 83% of total spending) and 2,883 students. In that period, just over $2 million (7%) went to tactical or operational training for 1,044 students

After 2011, tactical and operational training expanded dramatically, becoming approximately 22% of total spending($22.7 million) and reaching 11,639 students. Professional and technical education reached fewer students (6,955) and represented a decreased percentage of spending ($69.6 million or 68%).

Between 2007 and 2012, the U.S. was providing tactical training to an average of 261 members of Mexican security forces per year. After 2012, that number reached 1,454.

SEMAR, particularly the Mexican Marines, were a primary beneficiary of this post-2011 increase in training, receiving nearly half of total spending ($46.3 out of $101.2 million) and representing nearly 60% of all students. A substantial number (7,836 out of 11,553) of those students received tactical and operational training. There were fewer SEDENA students (only 5,904) but the value of SEDENA training was only $12 million less than SEMAR. Interestingly, prior to the Mérida Initiative (between 2000 and 2007), nearly six times as many SEMAR students as SEDENA students received tactical or operational training (601 versus 106).

Neglected Human Rights Training: While the quantity of tactical and operational trainings increased dramatically after 2011, the number of human rights and operational law trainings did not. In fact, it decreased. Between 2008 and 2011, 24 students received human rights training, an average of 6 per year. Between 2012 and 2019, 43 students received this training, an average of 5.4 per year. Operational law trainings followed a similar pattern: 84 students between 2008 and 2011 (21 per year); 117 students between 2012 and 2019 (14.6 per year). More students (224) received operational law training before the Mérida Initiative than after.

This does not include human rights-related courses delivered outside of foreign military training programs (through USAID for example) but suggests that beginning in FY2012, the Department of Defense focused almost entirely on training tactics, not protection of rights. Between FY2012 and FY2019, these programs provided human rights training to only 43 students, only 21 of whom came from the Mexican military (the rest were private contractors or affiliated with other government agencies). Combined, spending on human rights training beginning in FY2012 was $212,000.

Reconsidering 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.

The Creation of the Guardia Nacional: 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 trainings 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.

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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