By Carolyn Gallaher, School of International Service, American University, Washington DC
In 2008, the U.S. and Mexican governments established the Mérida Initiative, a bilateral security agreement in which the two countries agreed to ‘share responsibility’ for dismantling organized crime groups based in Mexico and operating in the U.S. In October of this year, the U.S. State Department quietly decided to withhold some of its scheduled aid because of concerns over Mexico’s human rights record.
How did this agreement come to pass, and once it was established, why did it take so long for the U.S. government to respond to evidence that Mexican security forces were violating human rights?
On the first matter, in a paper recently published in The Geographical Journal, I argue that the notion of ‘shared responsibility’ underpinning the Mérida agreement helped thaw the long-frosty relationship between the two countries.
For its part, Mexico has been wary of U.S. motives since the U.S./Mexican War. Mexico lost nearly a third of its territory in the war, so ‘yanqui imperialism’ continues to be seen as a real threat. The U.S.’s fears are more recent, but no less trenchant. On the matter of drugs, for example, the U.S. believes Mexican law enforcement is not a reliable partner because of its history of corruption.
The increase in drug-related violence in the early 2000s only complicated the relationship, and in fact prompted a new debate—were Mexico’s drug cartels terrorists, and if so, was Mexico in danger of failing?
The notion of ‘shared responsibility’ helped pave the way for cooperation on security issues, generally, and drug trafficking more specifically, by doing three things. First, it clarified the formal position of both governments that Mexico’s drug cartels are criminals—specifically, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs)—instead of terrorists. By casting the problem as transnational, the United State also agreed to accept some responsibility for it. Finally, the agreement reaffirmed Mexican sovereignty by putting Mexico in charge of what Mérida money could be used for.
Second, although the Mérida Agreement can be characterized as a ‘paradigm shift’ inasmuch as the two countries now cooperate extensively on security issues—something that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago—it has simultaneously reinforced a militarized status quo in Mexico.
By defining ‘shared responsibility’ as an obligation between states, rather than between states and citizens, Mexican militarization can proceed apace, despite the litany of abuses ascribed to it in places such as Juarez, and Tlatlaya, among others) .
These abuses came to a symbolic head in October 2014 when 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in Iguala, a small town in Guerrero state, were forcibly abducted and disappeared at the hands of Mexican security forces.
When President Obama was asked about the students at a press conference during Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s state visit in early January 2015, he reaffirmed the notion of shared responsibility as between states, noting that the U.S.’s “commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence.” It would take another ten months for the U.S. government to reconsider that responsibility. The amount of aid withheld—a few million out of a $4.2 billion bucket—also gives reason for pause going forward. The amount is probably not sufficient to stop state abuses.
About the author: Carloyn Gallaher is Associate Professor at the School of International Service, at the American University, Washington DC. She undertakes research in two distinct areas, organised violence by non-state actors, and urban politics.
Gallaher, C. (2015), Mexico, the failed state debate, and the Mérida fix. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12166
Human Rights Watch 2015 Mexico: Damning Report on Disappearances: Experts dispute official account of 2014 atrocity
Meyer M, Bewer S and Cepeda C 2010 Abused and Afraid in Ciudad Juarez: An analysis of human rights violations by the military in Mexico
Partlow J 2015 U.S blocks some anti-drug funds for Mexico over human rights concerns. The Washington Post
WOLA 2015 In Mexico’s Tlatlaya massacre, soldiers were ordered to ‘take them out’ Press Release.