Failed Nation-Building in Mexico
As the media and White House draw the national attention to Ukraine and other faraway regions, conservatives are right to insist that our lawless and vulnerable southern border be Washington’s first order of business. Until the Trump administration put a real spotlight on the border, security policies both in Washington and Mexico City had been aimed at the Mexican interior.
The “Merida Initiative,” launched in 2007-08, aimed to help Mexico rebuild weak institutions like its police and courts, and to assist Mexican security forces in fighting drug cartels. However, this long-running initiative failed to secure either country: Mexico continues to suffer from failing institutions and appalling levels of violence, while narcotics and illegal migrants stream into the United States through the unsecured border.
Last fall, Biden administration officials and their Mexican counterparts quietly ended the Merida Initiative, announcing instead a new “Bicentennial Framework” for security cooperation. The announcement was a diplomatic concession to Mexican President Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who had signaled since taking office in 2018 that robust cooperation against the cartels was over. Both sides are back at the drawing board with no new ideas.
Now is the time for American policymakers to once again learn a crucial foreign-policy lesson: ambitious multi-year institution-building plans, particularly in complicated countries like Mexico, and struggling with a formidable combat foe in the field do not provide a positive return on investment—either for the United States or the partner. We need to understand why Merida failed.
With Merida, there was too little skepticism about what country-wide government engagement could actually achieve. U.S. officials, armed with multi-year funding and a “can-do” attitude, tend not to forecast mission failure but a path to success—the same syndrome that kept us engaged for 20 years nation-building in Afghanistan. Merida once again teaches Washington the bitter lesson that rebuilding institutions is not a task for foreign nations. Successful reform, when it happens, is led and owned by national authorities.
President Trump’s instinct to focus on our southern frontier was more fruitful for the security of both countries than a dozen years of Merida cooperation. If the U.S. makes the border a national priority, the border will become a national priority for Mexico. Trump demonstrated that a White House committed to border issues could in fact push skeptical Mexican leaders to focus on a region they tend to ignore.
It was just a start, but Trump’s success in convincing even AMLO—despite the Mexican president’s deep suspicion of the U.S.—to accede to the Migration Protection Protocols (or “Remain in Mexico” policy) shows what can be done if Washington pursues attainable goals. Securing effective U.S.-Mexican cooperation in the lawless frontier region is difficult (and beyond the scope of this analysis), but such efforts should be the centerpiece of any future bilateral security strategy.
When launched, the Merida Initiative (sometimes called Plan Mexico) promised U.S. support for large-scale Mexican operations against the drug cartels (“transnational criminal organizations,” or TCOs). During the Obama administration, Washington provided the typical foreign-assistance mix of law-enforcement activities and development projects.
The Merida Initiative was possible because Mexican President Felipe Calderon sought unprecedented U.S. assistance and cooperation, opening a door U.S. diplomats and aid planners could not resist entering. Not only did Merida include law-enforcement assistance against powerful TCOs, but U.S. officials also took on intractable issues like human-rights violations and corruption, as the gringos attempted to help Mexico rebuild its entire criminal-justice system. On paper, Merida also addressed border security, but this “pillar” of the plan was largely ignored as the mammoth undertakings of breaking the drug cartels and rebuilding the criminal-justice system consumed valuable political will and operational trust on both sides.
Advocates argued that the Merida Initiative would provide results for Mexico similar to those of Plan Colombia (the success of which can also be debated). Yet Latin American nations are not interchangeable. The harsh truth is that U.S. efforts to rebuild key Mexican institutions, despite more than a dozen years of valiant efforts from hardworking officials, yielded results that looked less like the experience of Colombia in the 1990s than that of South Vietnam in the 1960s.
Although it was a noble aim to help Mexico tackle its corrupt institutions, to vet and train its police, and fight human-rights violations, Washington simply did not have the firepower to make the difference. Moreover, expending valuable political will on grappling with Mexican institutions distracted us from bringing more security to the southern border, which should have been Washington’s primary objective.
The United States spent around $3.3 billion on Merida over a dozen years, while the Mexicans dedicated $10-$15 billion annually to security activities under the plan. After all that engagement, however, Mexican TCOs are just as entrenched, if not more so, while Mexican law-enforcement authorities—particularly prosecutors, judges and the criminal courts—remain dysfunctional and mired in corruption. Mexico’s national homicide numbers continue to be alarmingly high—approaching 30,000 a year. Incredibly, over 200,000 Mexicans have been killed or disappeared since 2007. And today, under AMLO, no one talks about the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel as the carnage drags on and increasingly moves north toward the United States.
Early on, after launching their war on the drug cartels, Mexican officials themselves realized they had badly underestimated the challenges they faced. The United States assisted with professional training, high-tech weapons (like helicopter gunships) and intelligence. American advisors advocated “decapitating” TCO leadership (either by killing or arresting and extraditing them) as an effective strategy with whose success can be measured.
Yet though this “kingpin” strategy did eliminate many drug lords, it failed to cripple the criminal enterprises. TCOs splintered but proved adaptable and survivable in defiance of the experts, as new would-be “El Chapo” types could and did emerge, often after bloody turf wars. The lure of fast wealth from this criminal lifestyle drew in seemingly innumerable new recruits. When the Mexican military sometimes made successful strikes in TCO-dominated territory, local police and prosecutors could not follow up and hold these gains. Ruthless cartel tactics—“plata o plomo”—had broken local officials, who take bribes and look the other way to protect themselves and family members from certain murder.
Criminal-justice reform, perhaps our most ambitious Merida-related undertaking, was equally ineffective. In 2008, encouraged by the State Department, Mexico enacted a constitutional reform aimed at transforming the legal system from its inquisitorial approach modeled on Roman law to one based on Anglo-American adversarial procedures. U.S. and international experts fundamentally rewrote Mexican federal and state legal procedures, while fanning out across the country to retrain judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law-school professors. The reformed system was to be a close hybrid of its American cousin, but the rebuilding enterprise was every bit as daunting as it sounds.
The new system empowered prosecutors, assisted by police investigators, to present a criminal case at an oral trial using witnesses, cross-examination, and evidence. The plan built in several modern security features, including the videotaping of courtroom activities and the safeguarding of judicial records. All good in theory, but the central shortcoming of this vast institutional remake was its underappreciation of the vulnerability of human actors: namely, that if the practitioners (judges, attorneys, police, and legal staff) of any legal system can be intimidated or bought off, that system will be corrupted. However superior the Anglo-American adversarial system, if indeed it is, its superiority was not enough to overcome cartel intimidation and corrupt practices—the reality that pervades criminal justice most everywhere in Mexico.
Unlike in Afghanistan, the end of Merida featured no dramatic airport-evacuation scenes, but U.S. efforts in both countries are examples of Washington’s overextended security commitments, which have done little if anything to make Americans safer at home. Both are examples of America’s foreign-policy hubris, its unrealistic attempts to effect change beyond our capacity in difficult environments. Unlike Afghanistan, however, Mexico is our neighbor and directly linked to vital U.S. national interests. It is the conduit through which hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants enter our country, along with enough fentanyl to kill 100,000 Americans in overdoses annually.
We wish our friends in Mexico Godspeed in dealing with their serious national challenges, but Merida has illustrated convincingly that we have no magic bullets for them. The lesson from Trump’s efforts is that a border-security strategy with Mexico—not one that unrealistically seeks to remake Mexican national institutions—is the policy road we should have taken in 2007-08, and the one we should take today.
Phillip Linderman, a retired career diplomat, served as U.S. Consul General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, from 2015-18.