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The Chilling of Security Collaboration

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Vanda Felbab-Brown

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

The U.S.-Mexican security relationship has undergone serious deterioration over the past several months, compounding a deeper unraveling of the security cooperation during the Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration. The deterioration of security collaboration has been so severe that the relationship finds itself in a deep freeze and in its worst condition since the early 1990s. Restoring collaboration will be difficult because the evisceration of the security collaboration goes beyond an immediate crisis; it has unfortunately been cemented under a new Mexican security and foreign agent law. It also reflects the profound rejection by the López Obrador administration of a significant role of law enforcement in addressing Mexico’s security problems and the administration’s indifference to fentanyl flows from Mexico to the United States. Moreover, the level of institutional distrust on both sides of the border has significantly increased again, returning to the low levels of two decades ago. Rebuilding the trust a second time around may be harder than in the 1990s.

What Can Be Done?

There is no easy climb of out of this security-collaboration deep freeze. The United States may have to rely mainly on law enforcement efforts at home, including reinforced efforts to counter the flow of weapons from the United States to Mexico, and third-party collaboration.

The United States should consider reducing Merida Initiative funding for Mexico, maintaining only programs which the Mexican government is not undermining. To the extent that U.S. efforts to strengthen and clean up Mexican rule-of-law institutions get traction and the Mexican government does not hamper them, the United States should prioritize their preservation. In future discussions of a revision of Merida, the United States should not accept only funding drug treatment programs in Mexico, as the Mexican government has proposed. When rigorously designed, such programs are very important. But they cannot be the entirety of anti-crime and rule-of-law efforts. Rather the United States should consider conditioning any expansion of U.S. funding for such programs on meaningful improvements in other aspects of the U.S.-Mexico security cooperation.

The United States needs to carefully monitor the damage the new foreign agent law has inflicted on U.S.-Mexican law enforcement operations and try to mitigate it. The law’s published operational guidelines show some responsiveness to U.S. concerns, but fail to fully redress the chilling effect of the law on sharing sensitive information.

Thus, the United States should insist that much of the collaboration takes places through joint specially vetted units, whether in financial intelligence efforts or interdiction. From now on, the United States should not tolerate Mexico’s demands that higher-level Mexican officials in the units be exempted from the vetting.

Until meaningful improvements, the United States should no longer extradite high-level Mexican suspects indicted and arrested by the United States for drug trafficking, money-laundering, and serious corruption. Any sharing of indictment portfolios with Mexican authorities needs to be carefully scrutinized for risks to sources, methods, and ongoing U.S. investigations, should Mexican authorities again leak them out, even if the purpose of such information-sharing were to create demonstrable evidence of the continual corruption and weakness of Mexican rule-of-law institutions.

The Biden administration should be wary of designing its efforts to address root causes of migration in Central America jointly with Mexico. The effectiveness of any development projects and institution-building there depends on addressing the egregious levels of criminal corruption, poor rule of law, and the pervasive impunity and abusiveness of government actors, issues the López Obrador administration has refused to focus on in its foreign policy.

Until U.S.-Mexico security collaboration improves, and lasting structures for cooperation are put in place, the United States should not allow the exports of Mexican cannabis to the United States when Mexico legalizes recreational cannabis production (likely in 2021). Otherwise, the United States cannot be assured about the extent of Mexican criminal groups’ infiltration into the to-be-legal cannabis industry.

The United States should also examine linking collaboration in other areas to security collaboration. Denying Mexico international legitimacy for countering violent crime and drug trafficking may be one domain to explore.

The United States can seek to work with Mexican authorities at the sub-federal state and municipal levels. However, such a reprioritization is hardly a silver bullet. The Mexican federal government can deny and prevent such access to the United States. Mexico’s new foreign-agent law hampers such collaboration. Moreover, even progress and successes in local areas will be undermined by ineffective or counterproductive security policies at Mexico’s federal level.

Finally, the United States should keep at the ready two powerful tools: designating Mexican drug trafficking groups as terrorist organizations and decertifying Mexico for failing to collaborate with U.S. counternarcotics efforts. Both are fraught, blunt, and outright problematic tools that are normally best avoided. But if the López Obrador administration exhibits little willingness to build meaningful security cooperation, then the United States may have no other option.

Even so, it may be only when the Mexican people start demanding accountability from the López Obrador administration (or a future Mexican government) for the devastating levels of violence in Mexico and persistent infiltration of organized crime into highest levels of Mexican institutions that the United States and Mexico can move toward rebuilding meaningful security collaboration serving the interests of the people of both countries.


Vanda Felbab-Brown is the Director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors and a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution



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