WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
19 Mar 2008 | News

The Merida Initiative and Citizen Security in Mexico and Central America

In this memo, WOLA provides an analysis of the Merida Initiative, a proposed $1.4 billion assistance package for Mexico and Central America, slated for a vote in the U.S. Congress later this year.


WOLA does not expect the Merida Initiative, by itself, to achieve any reduction in drug flows into the United States. The Initiative should be judged by whether it helps to strengthen civilian security institutions in Mexico and Central America.


It is not clear whether there are well-defined objectives and indicators of success for the aid package. Congress should not fund the second, $550 million phase of the plan until it sets clear measures of success for the first phase.  This is true for both Mexico and Central America.


  • The Merida Initiative, though worthy in principle, does not offer sufficient support for long-term police and justice reform in Mexico and lacks built-in accountability measures; continued support for Mexico's armed forces' involvement in counter-narcotics tasks will not contribute to strengthening civilian public security institutions or guaranteeing respect for human rights.
  • The plan offers no progress at all on the crucial tasks of cutting drug demand in the United States and for addressing arms trafficking from the U.S. into Mexico


Mexico faces a serious and growing problem with violent crime, much of it an outgrowth of the illegal drug trade. Yet drug trafficking, and the violence and corruption associated with it, are not only Mexico's problem. Demand in the United States drives the narcotics trade and the easy availability of guns in the United States has helped turbo-charge drug violence in Mexico, where officials calculate that 90 percent of confiscated firearms originate north of the border.  Bearing in mind these realities, the United States should accept and embrace its shared responsibility in helping its neighbor Mexico overcome drug-related violence. 

In October 2007, the Bush Administration unveiled an aid package known as the Merida Initiative aimed at helping Mexico address its security crisis with $500 million in equipment, training and other forms of assistance. The administration sent the package to Congress in the form of a supplementary budget item. In February 2008, the Administration requested a further $450 million for Mexico in counter-narcotics assistance under the Merida Initiative for fiscal year 2009 before the first year of the package had been voted on.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) promotes human rights, democracy and social justice in Latin America, and has researched security issues in Latin America from a human rights perspective for more than thirty years.  WOLA supports in principle the idea of a major U.S. initiative to respond to the problems of citizen insecurity in Mexico. There are aspects of the Merida Initiative that could help Mexico face the challenge of living next-door to the world's biggest drug consumer. 

At the same time, we have serious concerns about key aspects of the proposal and what appears to be the thinking behind it. Judging by the Administration's funding request, the Merida Initiative sees drug trafficking almost exclusively as an operational law-enforcement issue, equipping police and military units to fight traffickers, measuring success in terms of how many drugs are impeded from entering the United States and how many traffickers are arrested, and containing little support for long-term institutional police and justice reform in Mexico.. It offers no progress at all on the crucial task of cutting drug demand in the United States. Funding for this aspect ought to be included in the supplemental budget request, which can include both domestic and foreign operations appropriations.  Nor does the plan offer major efforts to curb the flow of contraband firearms from the United States into Mexico.

Perhaps most gravely, the Merida Initiative contains few built-in accountability or oversight mechanisms.  There are few mechanisms to monitor the human rights impact of the military and police equipment and training it provides, a particular concern because Mexican security units involved in the battle against drug traffickers have been accused of serious human rights abuses.  Likewise, there are no indicators proposed to measure the long-term effectiveness of the equipment and training provided to Mexican security institutions, and no means suggested to ensure that Mexico is using the equipment exclusively for the purposes established in the aid package. It is not clear that well-defined objectives and indicators of success have been established for this three-year aid package.  We believe that such indicators ought to measure progress in specific aspects of police reform; the package does not even propose measures of success in its own terms, such as arrests, interdiction, or reduction in the supply of drugs. 

Five months after the package was announced, key aspects have still not been made public. Given the United States' experience with waste and graft in the Iraq war, and Mexico's own history of corruption, the lack of transparency for such huge amounts of assistance should alone give pause to members of Congress.

Public discussion in the United States about the potential impact of the Merida Initiative has focused on helping Mexico respond to the firepower that drug traffickers wield and on reducing the quantity of illegal drugs flowing into the United States from Mexico.   But experience shows that continuing demand for drugs in the United States means that when one set of identifiable drug routes are shut down, another set emerges. Thus, we do not expect the plan to achieve a measurable reduction in the flow of narcotics into the United States, and we do not think it should be judged on that basis.

WOLA feels that the Initiative's success should be judged by whether it helps to address the structural weaknesses in the civilian security system that have allowed violence in Mexico to get so out of hand and which have served to justify  the increased involvement of the Mexican military in combating drug trafficking and organized crime. Mexico needs long-term solutions to its problems with the drug trade, rather than simply short-term tactical victories, and long-term solutions to Mexico's security problems depend on strengthening and holding accountable civilian institutions – the police, prosecutors, and the judicial system.  These are difficult challenges that require commitment over time, a clear plan, and political will at the highest levels of the state to see the process through.   On the policing side, they require a focus not just on the creation of specialized units to address criminal investigation and drug-related crime,  but on broad institutional reform and strengthening, so that specialized units function as part of a well-managed, honest, and efficient police force. There is a critical need for better internal and external controls on Mexican police forces that would make it easier to root out corrupt officers and sanction human rights abuses.

Although better police forces and prosecutors and judicial reform should be part of a comprehensive anti-crime strategy, they are not the only elements. To
be successful, a strategy has to have a meaningful prevention side, including primary prevention programs that address domestic violence and increase school attendance rates; secondary prevention and intervention programs, including after-school programs and programs for at-risk and criminally involved youth; and alternative livelihoods programs, including job creation programs and rural development programs.  

The U.S. role ought to be to support and complement a clear Mexican plan for strengthening civilian security institutions.  While proposals to reform public security institutions in Mexico have been announced by the Calderón administration, they are moving forward at a very slow pace.  It is not clear how the specific support, equipment, and training offered by the United States in the Merida Initiative will complement and support the Mexican government's own public security strategy. We have serious questions about the effectiveness of any program to support Mexico that does not clearly detail how it fits into the overall security strategy of the Mexican government.

Other U.S. assistance programs to Mexico ought to be examined to ensure that they complement the Merida Initiative.  Development assistance programs funded through the regular foreign aid appropriations process ought to complement the Merida Initiative by supporting violence prevention programs, rural development and job creation programs.  

There is much we do not know about the Merida Initiative. But its Mexico component appears to fall well short of the standards we have articulated here.  There is little reason to believe that the plan, as written now, will address the need for institutional police reform. Nor is it clear that Mexico has its own plan for a comprehensive reform of its security institutions which U.S. assistance will complement and support. It also remains to be seen whether the Mexican government has the will or capacity to adapt its civilian security structures – police, prosecutors, the judicial system – to the scale of the problem.

Given these concerns about the Merida Initiative – the emphasis on equipment, the absence of transparency, the confusion about the plan's goals and how to reach them, the uncertainty over whether Mexico's government has the will to implement structural reforms – Congress should tell the Administration to revise the $500 million supplemental budget item request for Mexico, in order to address these problem before it approves the package.   Congress should postpone consideration of the additional $450 million package that has been proposed for FY09, considering it next year after there is information about the effectiveness of the original supplemental package.



  • Violence in Central America takes a vast array of forms, not just gangs, and the Merida Initiative does not adequately reflect this.
  • The Central American component of the Merida Initiative places insufficient attention on and provides inadequate funding for the prevention of youth violence
  • The plan offers scant support for comprehensive, structural reforms of Central American police forces, overemphasizing specialized units without a comprehensive analysis of the needs of the police.


Central America faces problems of crime and violence that superficially resemble those in Mexico yet differ in critical ways. Violent crime in Central America ranges from domestic violence to street crime to youth gangs, and organized crime and drug trafficking.  Youth gangs are the most visible face of crime in much of Central America, and they tend to be more developed and more violent than in Mexico. Yet recent research on gangs shows that, contrary to media reports, gangs are not the only, nor even the most important, source of violence in Central America.  For that reason, a comprehensive program to deal with citizen security in Central America should address gangs but also look to the wider range of violence and criminality afflicting Central America.   Contraband smuggling and other forms of organized crime, as well as drug trafficking, are major problems that cannot be ignored.   Drug trafficking problems may become more severe if the Mexican government reduces drug trafficking operations in Mexico as traffickers may shift more of their operations to Central America.

The Bush Administration asked for $50 million in its emergency supplemental funding for the Central America component of the Merida Initiative in its October 2007 request. In February 2008, it asked for an additional $100 million in the Foreign Operations Appropriation bill for fiscal year 2009.  Before Congress approves this funding, we believe lawmakers should look closely at whether the initiative adequately addresses the range of threats to citizen security in Central America or whether it focuses on gang violence to the exclusion of other distinct forms of criminal activity.  Congress should also examine the balance between prevention and policing in Central American governments' anti-gang programs and in U.S. funding.  On the policing side, it should also examine whether Central American governments have the political will and long-term commitment to carry out a comprehensive police reform plan. 

To be successful, programs to combat youth violence and gangs should be comprehensive – that is, deal with all aspects of the problem, not just enforcement – and focus on prevention, intervention, smart policing, and rehabilitation.  A program that focuses only on policing, even on smart and effective policing, will be incomplete and ineffective.  There is some evidence that SICA, the Central American Secretariat for Regional Integration, has taken some steps to outline a more comprehensive plan.  U.S. support for Central American anti-gang programs through the Merida Initiative should support comprehensive programs with an appropriate balance between prevention and policing. 

The experience of police departments in numerous cities in the United States and elsewhere in dealing with gangs has led to a strong body of best-practices policies that could form the core of effective anti-gang efforts in Central America. There are clearly measures that can and should be taken to strengthen the ability of police to respond to youth violence in targeted and effective ways.  Some of the proposals in the Merida Initiative for Central America offer training, technical assistance, and equipment that could be helpful to Central American police forces in responding effectively to gang violence.

But experience suggests that specialized units, whether criminal investigation units, anti-drug units, or anti-gang units, are easily undermined or corrupted unless they are developed in the context of a broader process of institutional police reform. The Merida Initiative needs to take this fact into account.  Notably, the Central America portion of the Merida Initiative offers no support for inspector generals, internal affairs units, citizen complaint centers, or other internal and external control structures.

Broad institutional police and justice sector reform requires time and political commitment on the part of the governments of Central America.  Governments ought to have a clear analysis of what is needed in institutional reform and a comprehensive plan about how to move forward.  The United States ought to support and complement that plan, rather than supporting piecemeal reforms that may not be sustainable. A Central American regional plan that will deserve U.S. support in the context of the Merida Initiative should deal with crime and violence, including youth viole
nce, through a focus on prevention and support for plans for institutional police, prosecutorial and judicial reform. 

The Central America component of the Merida Initiative appears to meet some of these standards, though not all.  SICA has begun to develop a comprehensive plan with a focus on prevention. The U.S. contribution appears to respond to SICA's requests, although there is still insufficient emphasis on prevention, with only 10% of the U.S. aid program going to support prevention related efforts.  Commendably, the package also includes efforts to address the problem of weapons smuggling. 

Some specific aspects of the police assistance will undoubtedly be helpful, but the police programs get a disproportionate share of the resources and do not appear to support or complement a clear plan for institutional police reform.   In fact, more than 20% of the assistance for Central America is targeted for still unspecified equipment, communications support and training for Central American police forces; no specific proposal has yet been developed.  Despite several recent studies suggesting that Central American police have little or no ability to protect crime scenes or handle evidence, there are no evidence training programs offered (in contrast to the Mexico program).   There is no support provided for developing witness protection programs, despite a clear need for these programs.  And there is no support for the development of financial crimes or money laundering investigative capacity, despite the importance of this to transnational and organized crime investigation.

WOLA believes that the Congress ought to carefully review and modify the Central America portion of the Merida Initiative before approving it.  To be effective in curbing violence, the plan ought to encourage a broader focus on crime and threats to citizen security, not limiting U.S. support to gangs alone.  Within the gangs program, the U.S. ought to increase the funding for prevention programs and conduct a careful assessment of the comprehensive needs for police training and institutional strengthening before committing to specific training and equipment programs.

For additional information including the budget and item breakdown, please see: