By MGA student and Drug Policy guest contributor Sidney Phillips
On Oct. 8, 2021, top U.S. and Mexican officials agreed on a new security program, called the U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities. In a press conference after the high-level meeting, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard announced the end of the Mérida Initiative — a $3 billion anti-drug partnership in which the U.S. helped finance Mexico’s drug wars since 2008. With “public health” among its core tenets, the new agreement shifts from previous tough-on-crime strategies and nudges the U.S. and Mexico toward improved security relations. Unless the United States and Mexico pursue domestic structural reforms, however, both nations risk backsliding to the failures of the drug wars.
The Mérida Initiative
Prior to the new security framework, the Mérida Initiative directed U.S.-Mexico security policy for over a decade. The initiative militarized anti-drug enforcement, focusing on direct combat against drug cartels. The United States helped modernize Mexico’s armed forces while Mexico embraced the so-called “kingpin” strategy, which targeted cartel leaders like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Oseguera “El Mencho” Cervantes.
The “kingpin strategy” proved counterproductive. Power vacuums, left by captured kingpins, splintered and multiplied Mexico’s criminal groups. Since 2008, 150,000 deaths have been attributed to the drug wars, and cartels have gained control of an estimated 35 to 40 percent of Mexico’s territory, according to former U.S. ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau. The approach has not stymied the flow of drugs into the U.S., which faces an overdose epidemic fueled by synthetic opioid trafficking.
A Major Break from the Past
On paper, the new framework seems to remedy the missteps of the Mérida Initiative, with a more holistic approach to bilateral security. A U.S.-Mexico joint statement outlines the framework’s three main goals: (1) protect people; (2) prevent transborder crime; and (3) pursue criminal networks. The statement affirms that protecting people includes “investing in public health as related to the impacts of drug use, supporting safe communities, and reducing homicides and high-impact crimes.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Mexico’s Foreign Minister Ebrard acknowledged in comments that the framework will focus on cooperation and reciprocity, rather than the punitive methods of the previous U.S.-Mexico security agreements.
A major break from the past, the Bicentennial Framework’s less hardline approach seems to echo the domestic drug policy priorities of the Biden and López Obrador administrations.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, referred to as AMLO, has voiced his opposition to his predecessor’s tough-on-crime tactics. His famous “hugs not bullets” campaign strategy emphasizes social welfare to curb organized crime. During his first year in office, AMLO released the National Peace and Security Plan 2018-2024, a comprehensive plan to provide youth employment programs and offer subsidies for rural farmers, as well as legalize marijuana and reform sentences for criminal convictions.
As the U.S. faces a mounting overdose epidemic, Biden’s drug policy priorities center around “evidence-based public health,” as well as “ensuring racial equity in drug policy and promoting harm-reduction efforts.” The CDC reported that U.S. overdose deaths reached a record high of 93,331 in 2020, with 60 percent of deaths linked to synthetic opioids. In March 2021, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan — a $4 billion measure aimed at expanding drug treatment and prevention in the American health care system.
Biden and AMLO Backtrack on Reform
Despite some advancements, both Biden and AMLO have seemed to backtrack on their pledges for meaningful drug policy reform, facing criticism from criminal justice activists and human rights groups.
President Biden has done little to fulfill his campaign promise to federally decriminalize cannabis, and some of his recent policies seem to counter his reformist rhetoric. In September 2021, the Biden administration issued a proposal to permanently classify all fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs, which could stiffen prison sentences for certain synthetic opioids. A coalition of 100 civil rights and criminal justice groups rejected the policy in an October letter to Congress. The letter warns that the policy could deepen racial disparities, citing that in 2019, 68% of those sentenced for fentanyl analogs were people of color and law enforcement continues to target consumers rather than the “kingpins, importers, or manufacturers.”
Biden’s choice for his appointee to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Dr. Rahul Gupta, also raises concerns about the administration’s commitment to harm reduction. In his prior role as Director of West Virginia’s Bureau of Public Health, Gupta supported the shutdown of his state’s largest syringe service program in Charleston, home to what a CDC official called the “most concerning” HIV outbreak in the nation.
Across the border, President AMLO’s “hugs not bullets” strategy promised to fund social programs in place of militarized policing. However, since his 2018 election, ALMO has vastly expanded the military’s role in policing and public life. He placed the military in control of seaports, customs inspections and even construction projects, including a now-cancelled airport in Mexico City. In 2018, AMLO also created a National Guard tasked with combatting organized crime. The 100,000-strong civilian police force replaces the disbanded Federal Police, and is comprised of former military and Federal Police personnel. Human rights organizations, like Amnesty International, have denounced the new security force over several alleged human rights violations, including the torture and abuse of Central American migrants when the group served as de facto border patrol in 2020.
The Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities, expected to be finalized in January 2022, demonstrates a clear shift in U.S.-Mexico drug policy priorities. However, significant change is not guaranteed as the Biden and ALMO administrations seem to renege on their commitments to reform. While the rhetoric has changed, U.S.-Mexico security cooperation is still tethered to the legacy of the Mérida era. On both sides of the border, criminal justice policies continue to penalize those with substance use disorders and fail to offer reparative justice for groups most affected by the drug wars. Future U.S.-Mexico security cooperation risks repeating past mistakes unless both countries also address their troubled domestic policies toward drugs and those who use them.