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Centering Civil Society

Rebecca V. Bell-Martin

This essay is part of the Reimagining the Future of U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation Roundtable. Read the other essays here.

Violence and insecurity stemming from criminal activity in Mexico remains an urgent problem. However, the Biden administration should be cautious about returning to familiar U.S. – Mexico security cooperation arrangements of the pre-Trump era. Considering recent moves by Mexico to circumscribe U.S. – Mexico anti-drug cooperation, a return to “business-as-usual” may not even be possible. Instead, the administration should place greater emphasis on the underlying conditions of violence and insecurity. In particular, the administration should support greater cooperation between the Mexican state and Mexican civil society on security-related issues.

Historically, U.S. – Mexico security cooperation has focused on counternarcotic and counter-organized crime efforts to address the “supply” of drugs en route to the US. These interdiction-based strategies facilitated the militarization of Mexican domestic law enforcement efforts despite overwhelming evidence that such strategies do not work. In fact, evidence suggests that militarized interdiction strategies are ineffective at best and, at worst, exacerbate violence and increase human rights abuses.

Rather than view Mexico’s recent efforts to limit anti-drug cooperation as a roadblock, the Biden administration should consider this historic shift in the U.S. – Mexico relationship as an opportunity to recognize the ineffectiveness of past strategies and pivot toward a new approach. I join others who have long emphasized the importance of addressing the demand for drugs emanating from the U.S., along with the underlying institutional and socioeconomic conditions that facilitate drug trafficking and other criminal activities in Mexico, such as weak policing institutions, an unreliable judicial system, pervasive corruption, poverty, and inequality.

In light of potential limitations to conventional US cooperation, my research suggests we have overlooked a powerful tool to facilitate such a new approach: citizen civic engagement. By civic engagement, I mean citizen efforts to address issues of public concern, either through their own initiatives or engagement with the state. Contrary to the prevailing logic that suggests civic engagement and other forms of public life deteriorate amidst violence, my research suggests that drug-related violence may stimulate civic engagement among Mexican citizens. Indeed, many choose participation in community improvement projects, public security initiatives, and service organizations as a direct response to the violence around them. I spoke with someone who founded an anti-corruption NGO, another who initiated efforts to professionalize local security institutions, and another who reclaimed a soccer field usurped by los Zetas so that at-risk youth would have an alternative to joining gangs. These are just three examples of many I encountered while spending more than eight months with communities impacted by violence and conducting over 150 hours of interviews with Mexican citizens and public officials.

Interviewees frequently described the violence as a wake-up call that helped people appreciate the importance of engaging with their communities and government institutions to ensure security. As one woman explained, “Now I know the consequences of inaction – of not participating. I have lived them. And I do not want to live them again.”

An engaged citizenry can be a powerful partner in security efforts. More than the federal government, local civil society has crucial knowledge about how best to address insecurity and its underlying causes in their particular communities. We also know that state-led initiatives are more credible when they have the buy-in from local organizations and important members of the community. This may be particularly true in marginalized communities where distrust of the state is high. More generally, civil society plays an important role in holding political, judicial, and security institutions to account, thereby counteracting corruption and impunity. Of the very few criminal cases that progress through Mexico’s courts, for example, the dogged persistence of citizens is often behind their advances.

Instead of doubling down on ineffective security initiatives, the Biden administration should encourage and facilitate cooperation between the Mexican government and its own citizenry. While the US has supported similar efforts in the past, more security funding should be redirected from drug interdiction efforts toward reinforcing local initiatives citizens have already undertaken to address violence and its underlying causes. Doing so would have the additional effect of fortifying Mexico’s growing civil society (a good in itself). This is particularly encouraging for the U.S. because preserving shared values that are threatened by violence, like democracy, is integral to protecting US strategic interests. This may imply a reduced role for U.S. security agencies, but recent events suggest the current Mexican administration might welcome this change.

Addressing issues like corruption, weak institutions, and poverty are frequently part of U.S. aid to Mexico but have never been the primary basis for security cooperation between our countries. Now is an opportune time to consider investing and re-investing in these areas not alongside security efforts, but as part and parcel of them, while supporting Mexican government efforts to partner with its own civil society along the way.


Rebecca V. Bell-Martin, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the School of Government of the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey.


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