Early every morning since he took office, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador holds court in front of dozens of reporters, foreign correspondents and the occasional YouTube personality for a daily news conference. Questions often veer into sycophancy. The 65-year-old López Obrador,who is also known by his initials AMLO, seemed genuinely flattered when a reporter inquired about his stamina: “You are like a Kenyan runner,” the woman asked. “How do you do it?”
López Obrador’s answers have also gained headlines for all the wrong reasons. Recently, a young YouTuber took to the microphone to ask the president whether he would consider including someone regarded as one of Mexico’s most virulent anti-Semites for a position in his cabinet. “He is a very good person,” Lopez Obrador responded. This puzzling show of support earned the president an unprecedented rebuke through an open letter signed by 142 public intellectuals, journalists and prestigious members of Mexican academia.
Still, the news conferences have also produced real news. A week ago, López Obrador dropped a bombshell: he wanted to “reorient” the Mérida Initiative, a bilateral agreement devised in the context of Mexico’s brutal drug war that has been the road map for security cooperation between the United States and the Mexican government since 2007. “It just hasn’t worked,” Lopez Obrador explained. “We do not want the so-called Mérida Initiative.”
His administration, he went on, was no longer interested in military support of any kind from the United States. What he would seek from the Trump administration was cooperation aimed at development — both in Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle.
López Obrador’s commitment to foster growth in southeastern Mexico and embark on something akin to a Marshall Plan for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is a noble endeavor. Development aid has proved to reduce poverty and discourage emigration in ravaged areas of Central America, such as Guatemala’s western highlands. But scrapping the Mérida Initiative might be a step too far.
Created in 2007 after then-President Felipe Calderón embarked on a costly and violent confrontation against the country’s powerful drug cartels and other criminal organizations, the Mérida Initiative has enhanced bilateral collaboration on both law enforcement and intelligence sharing, two areas jealously guarded by the Mexican government. With its $3 billion commitment, the Mérida Initiative has paled in comparison to the United States’ ambitious 15-year, $10 billion pledge known as “Plan Colombia,” but has nonetheless produced a number of landmark achievements that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.
In a recent piece for Mexico’s El Universal newspaper, security analyst Alejandro Hope argued that the Mérida Initiative has indeed had its share of troubles, including the absence of reliable metrics to gauge its success. Still, Hope writes, the program has also been “a way for the United States to accept its share of responsibility for the problem of organized crime in Mexico.”
According to Hope, the program’s funds, which in the beginning were indeed used for the acquisition of military equipment — which López Obrador criticizes — have recently been assigned to crucial issues such as crime deterrence or the consolidation of Mexico’s frail judicial system. “The program needs to be redesigned; its objectives, rethought,” says Hope. “But to discard 12 years of institutional lessons doesn’t seem to be the best way of dealing with our neighbor to the north.”
López Obrador’s controversial idea will likely face pushback in the United States, as well.
For Alan Bersin, who served during the Obama administration as the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and as assistant secretary of international affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, the Mérida Initiative has been a categorical success. “The principal objective of building trust and confidence between Mexican and U.S. law enforcement and military institutions and individuals was achieved beyond expectations on either side,” Bersin told me during a recent interview. “The cooperation that exists today was unthinkable a generation ago.”
Bersin agrees that a hypothetical Marshall Plan for Central America would be “of great value to the development of southern Mexico and the Northern Triangle Countries,” but it should be seen as complementary to the current agreement, not as its substitution.
“López Obrador is mixing apples and oranges when he talks of converting Mérida into a Marshall Plan,” Bersin told me. “Development takes years while incessant violence takes lives daily; security and development are not mutually exclusive variables. They can only succeed if they proceed in tandem.”
Bersin, who has worked on cross-border conflict for decades, seems adamant: “It is not the time to back away from rather than face up to the significant security challenges facing Mexico.”
He is right. Despite López Obrador’s best intentions, violence in Mexico has not abated. Quite the contrary: the country experienced its bloodiest months in the first quarter of 2019. The state of Veracruz and Mexico City have each recently witnessed shocking scenes of violence.
It remains to be seen whether López Obrador and his team, led by Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, manage to persuade the Trump administration to shift the Mérida Initiative’s focus away from enforcement and rule-of-law and toward development. Odds are not in the Mexican government’s favor. Given Mexico’s sad state of affairs, President Trump’s obsessive focus on border security, his recent threat to cut aid to Central America and the proximity of the 2020 election, talk of nation-building rather than punitive enforcement seems destined to fail.