The United States has a long history of policy efforts to fight drug trafficking and cartel violence in Mexico, most recently through the Merida Initiative in 2008. However, increasing drug-related violence in Mexico over the last decade suggests that existing foreign policies require reconsideration and increased attention under the new administration. By redirecting emphasis to promoting fair bilateral trade and institutional change instead of simply funding Mexican militarization, U.S. foreign policy can combat the underlying economic and social conditions of the narcotics crisis, attacking the problem at the root. Continuing to aid Mexico rather than estrange it will yield positive economic benefits for both nations, strengthen the United States’ geopolitical power, and reinforce the United States’ role as a global humanitarian leader.
American counternarcotic operations stretching back to Operation Intercept in 1969 have traditionally emphasized military action as a response to Mexican drug violence. However, due to inherent corruption within Mexican enforcement agencies and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, the drug industry actually grew in spite of crackdowns on drug trade and kingpin arrests. The Merida Initiative, like its predecessors, focused the bulk of its aid on arming and training Mexican security forces without first resolving the fundamental issues that fuel the growth of the illegal drug business. Continuing to pursue such a strategy of fighting drug trafficking at the surface level without addressing its root causes is an illogical approach that has been proven by time and experience to yield few lasting results.
The traditional approach to counternarcotic policy has resulted in the costly, suboptimal allocation of financial aid and resources. In the years from 2007 to 2010, nearly 72% of U.S. assistance under the Merida Initiative went towards funding military and security expenses, particularly training and equipment for enforcement agencies (Carpenter). In contrast, only $15 million of the approximate $1.6 billion funding provided went towards initiatives supporting “anticorruption, transparency, and human rights” (Carpenter, 142). Instead of funneling resources into wasteful and ultimately unproductive firepower endeavors, U.S. policymakers can instead promote social and economic initiatives that address persistent problems like government corruption and poverty, factors that continually drive poor citizens into the narcotics business and reinforce their influence.
Though the current administration is considering the revocation and repurposing of Merida funds for border wall construction, continuing to provide Mexico with aid in fighting drug trafficking is actually in the United States’ economic and security interests (Gardiner and Semple). Mexico has consistently ranked among the top three trade partners of the United States and vice versa, including a trade increase of 506% between the years 1993 and 2012 with the signing of NAFTA (Figueroa Ortiz). Ceasing Merida aid would severely disrupt Mexico’s economy and destabilize current American corporate sector interests in the nation. Preserving a cooperative relationship and a favorable, stable economic atmosphere in Mexico ultimately benefits both parties by fostering increased investment and productivity.
Encouraging more equitable bilateral trade between Mexico and the United States can also help resolve the issue of poor labor conditions and unemployment in the nation that drives thousands of poor citizens into the drug industry, staunching the steady flow of cheap, desperate labor into cartels. By encouraging job creation and bolstering the profitability of the legal Mexican economy, policymakers can cut off one of the biggest factors of human capital growth to drug trafficking. If drug cartels lose a constant source of labor to replenish losses, ongoing military efforts to weaken their power can experience a more sustainable impact. Notably, enforcing trade agreements with Mexico in the past has had some negative repercussions. The enactment of NAFTA, despite its positive influence on overall U.S.-Mexico trade, unfortunately also increased the size of the drug industry because cheaper imports of subsidized U.S. corn resulted in the loss of 2.3 million jobs in the Mexican agricultural sector (Corchado).
If bilateral economic policies are enacted fairly, however, boosting trade with Mexico can help alleviate the chronic poverty that many Mexican citizens experience, improving their overall quality of life and positioning the United States as a leader in global humanitarian efforts. As close geographic neighbors and allies, the United States has a vested interest in improving conditions in Mexico to mitigate border crime and strengthen its partnership by fostering greater trust in U.S. policies. Furthermore, the United States has a responsibility to aid Mexico’s social condition due to its role in the proliferation of the drug trade. The growth of cartel power is closely tied to, if not dependent upon, American consumer demand for illegal narcotics and the accessibility of American arms traffickers and money launderers (Reich and Aspinwall).
Continuing Merida Initiative aid to Mexico also ensures that the United States can maintain its geopolitical power and hegemony in the region. A historical key tenet of U.S. military strategy in Latin America revolves around keeping the region as a “U.S. ‘backyard’ free of European, and later Chinese, influences” (Mercille, 1640). Because the United States partially relies on Mexico for priority access to “raw materials essential to U.S. security” such as oil, preserving a close cooperative relationship with the nation will keep rival foreign interests from intervening and assuming claim over these resources (Mercille). Keeping foreign powers out of the region also poses security benefits by distancing competitive superpowers from U.S. borders and strengthening the geographic alliance of North America.
Finally, preserving U.S.-Mexico relations and continuing U.S. policies against narcotics trafficking is in fact aligned with the current administration’s domestic policy goals of constraining immigration. Clinton administration drug policy advisor General Barry McCaffrey noted that increases in narco-terrorism cause ‘a surge of millions of refugees crossing the US border to escape the domestic misery of violence,’ a trend that coinciding historical spikes in border crossing and cartel violence seem to support (Mercille). Foreign and domestic policy goals should reinforce rather than contradict. Continued funding for the Merida Initiative, especially with focus on institutional change, has the potential to create a much greater impact on reducing illegal drug trafficking and meeting domestic goals than constructing a costly wall.
The United States has political, economic, and security interests in protecting its relationship with Mexico and improving the Latin American country’s socioeconomic situation. Alliance, not alienation, is critical for U.S.-Mexico foreign policy. Thank you for your consideration on this issue.