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Moving On from Military Cooperation

Adam Isacson and Stephanie Brewer


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


A week into his tenure, on January 29, Joe Biden’s new secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, placed a call to Mexico’s defense (SEDENA) and navy (SEMAR) secretaries. The Pentagon reported that all “agreed to work together in areas of mutual defense and security interest, while respecting each other’s sovereignty and foreign policy interests.”


If this sounds cordial but a bit chilly, that’s nothing new for the U.S.-Mexico security relationship. As the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee observed in 2012, “Law enforcement cooperation between Mexico and the United States in the 20th century was hobbled by mutual suspicion.”

For a while this century, it seemed like this suspicion was receding. The United States provided Mexico’s military, police, and migration forces with about $2.5 billion in equipment, training, intelligence, and services since 2008. Especially during the government of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), U.S. agencies gave Mexican counterparts helicopters, planes, and lethal training, set up intelligence “fusion centers,” and shared drone imagery as they advised and accompanied Mexican forces’ takedowns of “high-value” organized crime targets. The Obama administration helped police and the National Migration Institute (INM) interdict more migrants. Northern Command sought ways to partner with Mexican counterparts, finding much receptivity with SEMAR and some with SEDENA.


It didn’t work. The “pillars” of the Mérida Initiative—disrupting organized crime, strengthening rule of law, modernizing the border, and strengthening communities—remain brittle. Mexico’s violent crime measures are near record highs, drug seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border are up, migrant smuggling networks are thriving, and organized crime, though reconfigured, still exerts great power.


Today, distrust has come roaring back. A series of episodes, from the Allende massacre to the release of Rafael Caro Quintero to the arrests of Genaro García Luna and Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, has hampered cooperation and called renewed attention to high-ranking Mexican officials’ alleged collusion with organized crime. Security forces’ repeated human rights violations, with almost no accountability, have at least somewhat cooled U.S. ardor for deep engagement. Mexico continues to chafe under the ease with which criminals acquire weapons in the United States. And a newly passed law limits the role that the DEA and other agencies can play on Mexican soil.


Today, WOLA estimates that U.S. assistance to Mexico’s security forces totals a bit more than $100 million, of an overall annual package of perhaps $210 million. Of that, two aid accounts matter most.

  • The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, which can pay for military and police aid as well as judicial or other civilian aid, is channeling $100 million in appropriations into Mexico aid in 2021. About one-third to one-half of that is likely to assist Mexican police forces and the INM, with a small amount probably benefiting military units. (Mexico’s new National Guard has not been getting U.S. aid, though conversations are ongoing.)

  • The other main account is the Defense Department’s authority to train and equip foreign security forces, known as “Section 333.” This very untransparent funding source provided $55.3 million in aid to Mexican military and police units in 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service. This is the main channel for assisting SEMAR and SEDENA.


$100 million is a much smaller package than Colombia’s military and police will get in 2021 (about $250 million) and a fraction of what Mexico’s forces got in 2010, at the outset of the Mérida Initiative (about $500 million). And it’s not clear even how much of 2021’s $100 million might get delivered, considering all of the bumps in the relationship between the Biden and López Obrador administrations.


Nonetheless, despite all the distrust, there will always be a bilateral security relationship between countries that share a 1,970-mile land border that’s the world’s most frequently crossed. Mexico is the United States’ number-two trading partner. Most undocumented migrants, and most of the illicit drugs on which more than 70,000 Americans per year overdose, pass through Mexico’s territory. The two countries are going to work together no matter what.


The question is whether they’ve been working together on the right things. A lesson of the Mérida Initiative years is that all four pillars are best fortified by civilian-to-civilian, not military-to-military, cooperation. Combating organized crime works best when police and justice systems can cooperate in a low-corruption, low-impunity environment, with deep civil society input. Migration can be managed administratively, especially processing and adjudicating asylum claims with due process. Bolstering the rule of law and strengthening community resilience are eminently civilian goals.


In an absence of defense threats, and with most urgent challenges requiring a civilian response, there’s really not much left for the U.S.-Mexico military relationship to take on. It’s important that the two countries’ officers maintain networks of relationships and be comfortable working together, in case of future contingencies and in order to build confidence and avoid misunderstandings. That chilly, distrustful relationship can thaw without becoming more lethal.


But U.S. defense planners, from Secretary Austin on down, must at all costs avoid engaging in a way that increases or assists the rapid growth in the Mexican armed forces’ internal roles. U.S. authorities must rigorously apply the Leahy Law and other protections designed to prevent assistance from benefiting security-force units that grossly violate rights with impunity. Overall U.S.-Mexico cooperation should seek to build and consolidate civilian institutions and procedures to strengthen the rule of law and reduce impunity. And to a far greater extent than they do now, direct U.S.-Mexico security force interactions must focus on themes like respect for human rights, professionalization, the proper roles of a military in democracy, and accountability.

Adam Isacson is the Director for Defense Oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Stephanie Brewer is WOLA’s Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights.

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