Mexico-US: Time to reset relations


Pendants depicting Jesús Malverde, worshipped as a saint by Mexican drug cartels, October 2018 PHOTO/Rashide Frias · AFP · Getty

Mexico signed an agreement with the United States in 2008 to tackle the cartels and the havoc they wreak. It failed, but opened the door to covert US interference on a grand scale. It’s time to scrap it.

In December 2020 Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (‘Amlo’) congratulated Joe Biden on his election victory, but his message departed from the usual diplomatic niceties. He said he was sure that with Biden as president it would be possible to continue to apply ‘basic principles of foreign policy established in our constitution; especially that of non-intervention and self-determination of the peoples.’ The US State Department, convinced that the security and prosperity of the US are ‘intimately connected with conditions in Mexico’, has long made keeping an eye on its southern neighbour a top priority (1), with scant regard for its sovereignty.

A recent scandal caused particular outrage. The trial of cartel boss Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, which ended in 2019, revealed that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) — which is supposed to combat firearms trafficking — had misguidedly supplied the Sinaloa drugs cartel with assault rifles (2). Through its Project Gunrunner and Operation Fast and Furious, the ATF enabled smugglers with cartel links to buy guns in the US and take them across the border, intending to track them. Between 2006 and 2011, 2,500 weapons, including semi-automatic and anti-tank rifles, fell into the hands of the cartels, with US agents’ tacit consent. The alarm was raised only when Kalashnikovs acquired under these secret programmes were used to kill US Border Patrol agents.

None of this would have been possible without the Mexican leadership’s approval. In 2002, when President George W Bush established the US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) tasked with the command and control of America’s homeland defence efforts, his Mexican counterpart Vicente Fox applauded the creation of a North American security perimeter. In 2005, 11 years after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) further integrated the two countries’ security policies. In 2007 then-president Felipe Calderón called on the US to do more in the war against drug trafficking; the resulting security cooperation agreement, the Mérida Initiative (2008), became the cornerstone of US-Mexican collaboration.

On paper this programme, funded by the US State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID), was intended to ‘provide tangible support to Mexico’s security and judicial institutions’ and the rule of law; to ‘counter drug-fuelled violence’; and to ‘modernise border security’. It also aimed to ‘galvanise US efforts to stop the flow of weapons, money and the demand for drugs’ (3). More concretely, the initiative took the form of $500m in appropriated funds for the Mexican security forces to buy US equipment (armoured vehicles, maritime patrol aircraft, combat helicopters) and a $3bn fund to augment the US presence in Mexico.

Welcome mat for US security

Calderón had effectively flung open the door to the US intelligence services. His government authorised the Mexico Technical Surveillance System, a programme which allowed the US to ‘intercept, analyse and use intercepted information from all types of communications systems operating in Mexico’. In November 2010, investigative journalists revealed that nine US intelligence agencies had offices in a skyscraper near the US embassy (4), including the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA, military intelligence), the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO, satellite intelligence) and the National Security Agency (NSA, collection and monitoring of foreign and domestic intelligence data).

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