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U.S. and Mexico to take a more 'holistic' approach to public safety

High-ranking U.S. and Mexican officials met for the first time in years this month to discuss a fresh, “holistic” approach to dealing with the public security issues that affect both countries. 

Announced in a joint statement issued by the White House and the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the proposed “United States-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities” aims to tackle problems both old and new. 

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said in his remarks on the High-Level Security Dialogue (HLSD) he conducted with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other high-ranking U.S. officials that the two countries are officially “leaving the Mérida Initiative behind” and looking forward to new solutions.

Signed in 2008, the Mérida Initiative aimed to combat drug trafficking and violence in Mexico under a philosophy of “shared responsibility” for the problems. But while the Mérida Initiative made great strides in collaboration between the two countries — especially with respect to information sharing — the fact remains that the problems of drug addiction in the United States and drug violence in Mexico have only grown worse since its inception.

The Congressional Research Service notes the initiative’s “kingpin strategy” of taking out cartel leaders only served to fracture criminal organizations, resulting in the Hydra effect of lower-level drug capos vying for the power vacuums at the top. 

The Bicentennial Framework’s holistic approach pledges to tackle the roots of these systemic problems and how they have evolved in recent years, such as the emergence of the deadly drug fentanyl, which is produced from chemicals that have legitimate industrial uses. Thus the framework’s focus includes tightening controls of these “precursor chemicals."

Mexico has already collaborated with U.S. authorities to disrupt criminal organizations’ supply chains at the source. The federal Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF) froze the accounts of nearly 50 chemical distributors in early October, revealing months of work on investigating the sourcing of precursor chemicals. The company at the center of attention in the operation, Grupo Pochteca, began as a paper and cardboard producer in the late 1980s, but has since diversified to produce and market the raw materials to make everything from industrial lubricants to foodstuffs to personal hygiene products. 

The holistic approach also aims to study and deal with the root causes of crime and drug addiction both in the United States and Mexico, the latter now struggling with its own addiction crisis, particularly with methamphetamine. Both countries pledge to “address addictions based on science and with a public health focus … [and] to create better education, social programs, and alternatives for young people.”

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Both also expressed the intention to pursue a memorandum of understanding that will aim to prevent drug consumption and provide evidence-based treatment, among other preemptive measures. Ebrard said that the nuts and bolts of the deal should be worked out by the end of January.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne said that the framework is a momentous step in the right direction, but the architects of the deal will face several significant challenges in the negotiations over the next few months. Among them, restoring confidence between law enforcement and customs officials on both sides of the border.

"The key is to turn the framework into a practical reality," said Wayne, who now serves as a public policy fellow for the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. "But until you significantly reduce the size of the market for these drugs — both supply and demand — we're still going to have the same problems."

But while the language of the dialogue definitely sounds updated to allay the fears of those calling for alternatives to the disastrous kingpin strategy of the Mérida Initiative, much of the diction, philosophy, and tactics from the previous security deal appear to carry over into the Bicentennial Framework. 

The freezing of the assets of companies under the U.S.-Mexico magnifying glass reveals the governments’ commitment to a holistic approach, but the framework still includes actions like “targeting the actors and enablers of violence” and enhancing law enforcement capabilities.

Despite accusations that López Obrador — who campaigned against the Mérida Initiative — hasn’t had a firm grip on dealing with issues like violence and the production of synthetic drugs like fentanyl, a source in the U.S. government close to the matter assured Courthouse News that the Mexican president has been much more hands-on than his public “hugs not bullets” stance implies. 

And Mexico has only grown more dangerous during the current administration. According to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), as many as 25,000 people have been disappeared — believed to be missing because of a crime — since López Obrador took office in 2018. The number of disappeared or missing persons on Mexico’s National Search Registry is now over 93,000. 

Furthermore, López Obrador's creation of the National Guard — which has come to perform duties it was never meant to take on, like border security and migration enforcement — has cast doubt on the president’s commitment to finding alternatives to military-style intervention. 

The issues of border security and human trafficking and smuggling are also within the purview of the Bicentennial Framework, but as The New York Times noted, the topic of migration was not on the docket. Officials said that this is because migration is such a broad and ever-present issue that it would have hindered the HLSD. But that doesn’t mean it’s not being addressed. 

“Both countries are immensely focused on migration, but the recent [high-level economic and security dialogues] are evidence that we are also both deeply committed on the full range of bilateral issues far beyond migration,” the U.S. government official told Courthouse News. “We look forward to increasing regional cooperation going forward.”

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Members of both governments, as well as private citizens working in matters of public security, hail the recent high-level dialogue as a significant step forward in a security collaboration gone stale. The question now is how much of the failed stratagems of the Mérida Initiative will carry over into the new Bicentennial Framework, and whether or not the new “holistic” approach will be effective enough to make significant change on the ground for those most affected by drug abuse and violence.

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Patrick Semansky/AP/pool photo

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, right, speaks during a working breakfast with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the National Palace in Mexico City, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

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