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  September 4th, 2017 | Written by

Don’t Trade Away Progress With Mexico

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  • The Trump administration’s 2018 budget request cuts Merida Initiative funding by almost 40 percent.
  • Gone are the days when US and Mexican presidents were “amigos” talking about “shared prosperity.”
  • US assistance is helping to address fundamental flaws in Mexico’s institutions.

Despite a potential clash between Mexico and the United States on a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and tougher immigration enforcement, US and Mexican officials continue to cooperate well on a wide range of issues. At the working level, substantial efforts are underway to secure the United States’ southern border, provide training and certification for law enforcement first responders, and share intelligence to interdict drug traffickers and eradicate poppy fields. The Trump administration, however, proposes cutting funding for these programs. Congress should make sure these initiatives continue to receive support, and are shielded from the policy fallout from trade or other issues.

From one angle, the state of the US-Mexico relationship is in big trouble. There is no shortage of depressing data points over the last year: Candidate Trump’s demeaning characterization of Mexican immigrants; President Trump’s promises to build a wall with Mexican money; his vow to dismantle (then fundamentally reshape) NAFTA; President Peña Nieto’s canceled trip to Washington; and finally, the embarrassing leaked phone call between the two leaders. Gone are the days when the nations’ presidents were “amigos” talking about “shared prosperity” and a “renewed partnership.”

But there is another, better view from the working level. As part of the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative launched by Presidents Bush and Calderon in 2008, officials in both countries are quietly working together to strengthen Mexico’s security in the short term, and lay the groundwork for permanent improvements in Mexico’s institutions. If these programs are ultimately successful, it will be a big step forward in addressing Mexico’s most corrosive political and societal problem: corruption. The Trump administration and Congress should fully fund these efforts and consider expanding them in partnership with Mexican nongovernmental organizations and the private sector—and soon. By next year, a new Mexican government may be less friendly and less open to American help.

Mexico has taken seriously the need to work with the United States to police its own borders. To stem the tide of illegal migrants, drug traffickers, and potential terrorists on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, the United States is funding the installation of a $75 million biometrics identification system. It is also spending $78 million on a secure telecommunications system that will link together Mexico’s various border agencies to speed up the identification of potential terrorists or smugglers. Meanwhile, with US equipment and intelligence, the Mexican navy is improving efforts to stop the maritime flow of cocaine from Colombia. With US-purchased helicopters, the Mexican armed forces and federal police are stepping up the eradication of the fields of poppy used in heroin production.

Perhaps more importantly, US assistance is helping to address fundamental flaws in Mexico’s institutions. It has helped set up training and accreditation programs for front-line police investigators, forensic teams, and prison staff. Mexico is in dire need of trained investigators.

Statistics from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) show that only 10 percent of crimes are reported and less than 3 percent make it to a judge. The rest fail to advance because of lack of evidence, extremely poor investigative techniques, or corruption.

The chances of getting away with a crime are 97 percent, which explains the complete lack of public confidence in the police and justice system. A deep sense has taken hold in Mexico that no one is held accountable for anything.

Several nongovernmental groups are working to turn this around. Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI) works with news organizations to investigate possible cases of corruption, files charges if applicable, and widely publicizes the findings. Their efforts have been enormously successful, leading to the arrests of three state governors and the attorney general of Mexico. On August 14, an MCCI investigation turned up over $10 million of payments from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to Emilio Lozoya, the former director of PEMEX, the state-owned oil giant, and President Peña Nieto’s director of international affairs during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Another organization, Mexicans United Against Crime (MUCD), runs citizens watch booths at the offices of the Mexico City district attorney and other government buildings. Volunteers explain basic rights to ordinary people and, if necessary, walk them through the process of filing a complaint. MUCD also is in the public schools, training thousands of teachers and millions of students about the culture of law. US funds are helping MUCD and other organizations spread their messages early and often.

Much more remains to be done. Reform of the justice sector, part of the package of constitutional reforms passed in 2014, has stalled. Mexican police, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges need advice and training to handle the switch from a closed-door system of written accusations decided by a judge, to a system of oral trials in open courts with juries. The United States, working within the existing framework of the Merida Initiative, has an enormous stake in making sure that Mexico gets this right. An efficient, just court system that punishes the guilty and protects the innocent will go a long way to restoring the rule of law in Mexico.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s 2018 budget request cuts Merida Initiative funding by almost 40 percent. This is self-defeating and short-sighted from any vantage point. Regardless of how other issues in the bilateral relationship develop, Congress should not only restore Merida Initiative funding to previous levels, but should consider increasing it, especially for solutions that go to the heart of Mexico’s dilemma.

Richard Miles is director of the US-Mexico Futures Initiative and deputy director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.