WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
3 Dec 2021 | Commentary

The Bicentennial Framework: opportunities and challenges as U.S.-Mexico security cooperation begins a new chapter

On October 8, 2021, the governments of Mexico and the United States announced a new security cooperation plan: the Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities. The new agreement replaces the Merida Initiative, the bilateral security framework in place since 2008 that was pronounced “dead” by Mexican authorities last July. In the coming months, the two governments will design an implementation plan for the new framework, which is expected to shape security cooperation during the second half of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s six-year term and the remainder of U.S. president Joe Biden’s current term.

Following a series of tense episodes in U.S.-Mexico relations in recent years—from former president Donald Trump’s threats to impose tariffs if Mexican authorities did not block migration, to the U.S. arrest of former Mexican Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos in October 2020 and the reform of Mexico’s National Security Law two months later to limit foreign agents’ activities in Mexico—the mere occurrence of the U.S.-Mexico High-Level Security Dialogue, where authorities adopted the new security cooperation framework, was hailed as a key step towards mending a frayed relationship.

However, the Bicentennial Framework’s true significance will not be measured by its symbolic or diplomatic weight, but rather by its impact on public security and public health at a critical moment for both countries. Mexico is experiencing record levels of lethal violence, with over 36,000 homicides in each of the last three years, coupled with a crisis of over 95,000 disappeared and missing people, the majority of whom were last seen in the last seven years. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021; Mexico, too, faces problematic drug use and overdoses.

In this context, the U.S. government seeks to reopen and improve bilateral channels to address illegal drug trafficking and organized crime, facilitate extraditions, and allow U.S. agents to work in Mexico, among other topics. For its part, the Mexican government has stated that it seeks to leave behind the failed, warlike security approach associated with the launch of the Merida Initiative and to prioritize more effective anti-violence strategies. The new framework adopted at the High-Level Dialogue follows in the steps of the Merida Initiative’s own evolution and could open opportunities for greater transformation. However, this renewed bilateral vision contrasts with Mexico’s current security model, which continues to rely on militarization as the answer to insecurity. To reduce and prevent violence in Mexico, it is essential to prioritize the consolidation of capable and accountable civilian security and investigative institutions. At the same time, both governments must fully adopt a public health and harm reduction approach to the problematic use of drugs.


Background: the Merida Initiative 2008-2021

The Merida Initiative, a framework for security, rule of law, and drug control cooperation, was adopted in 2008 following a series of talks between then-presidents Felipe Calderón and George W. Bush. While it included technical assistance and other support for civilian police and justice institutions, the Merida Initiative initially embraced a war-on-crime approach, investing significant resources in equipping and supporting Mexico’s federal security forces, including the military. From fiscal years (FY) 2008 to 2010, the U.S. Congress appropriated more than USD$420 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) under the Merida Initiative. Merida funding provided over $590 million worth of aircraft to Mexico’s federal security forces during these three years.

Starting in FY2011, the Merida Initiative evolved to focus on four priority “pillars” of action, namely:

  1. Combating transnational criminal organizations through intelligence sharing and law enforcement operations;
  2. Institutionalizing the rule of law while protecting human rights through justice sector reform, forensic equipment and training, and police and corrections reform;
  3. Creating a 21st-century U.S.-Mexican border while improving immigration enforcement in Mexico; and
  4. Building strong and resilient communities by piloting approaches to address root causes of violence and reduce drug demand. 

Under the four pillars, Merida Initiative projects over the last decade have aimed to professionalize security and justice institutions, support Mexico’s transition to an adversarial criminal justice system, combat corruption, and promote human rights, among other objectives. Such projects are managed by the Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In total, Congress has appropriated more than $3 billion under the Merida Initiative.

As for military support, FMF funding for Mexico fell drastically beginning in FY2011, and after that year, the FMF account was no longer considered part of the Merida Initiative. In FY2021, Congress appropriated $6 million in FMF for Mexico, while for FY2022, the Biden administration requested no FMF for Mexico (the final FY2022 appropriations legislation remains pending at the time of writing). However, the U.S. Department of Defense provides assistance to Mexico outside the framework of the Merida Initiative. In FY2019 (the most recent data available), military cooperation with Mexico totaled some $55.3 million. Based on WOLA’s monitoring of information from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Department of Defense provided more than $630 million in assistance to Mexico from FY2008-FY2018.

In addition, U.S. military tactical and operational training of Mexican federal forces has increased in the last decade. Based on data systematized by Security Force Monitor through FY2019, the Mexico Violence Resource Project calculates that, “Between 2007 and 2012, the U.S. was providing tactical training to an average of 261 members of Mexican security forces per year. After 2012, that number reached 1,454 [per year].” Bilateral assistance during the years of the Merida Initiative has included law enforcement training for hundreds of members of Mexico’s armed forces.


From the Merida Initiative to the Bicentennial Framework: the road to the High-Level Security Dialogue

President López Obrador signaled early in his term that he sought to replace the Merida Initiative, stating in 2019:

We do not want cooperation for the use of force, we want cooperation for development, we do not want the so-called Merida Initiative.

Our proposal is a development plan for the Southeast [of Mexico] and for Central American countries. We want investment in productive activities and job creation; we do not want helicopter gunships, we do not want resources for other types of military support, what we want is production and work.

In addition to publicly rejecting the Merida Initiative as synonymous with Calderon’s militarized war on crime—a vision that reflects the initial focus of the Merida Initiative, but not its evolution—the Mexican government also sought to reassert its sovereignty in the security sphere in general, especially following the U.S. arrest of General Cienfuegos. Thus, a modified Merida Initiative would not have sufficed for Mexican authorities, who instead required a clear break from the past. In the words of Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard: “The Merida Initiative is dead.” The U.S. government did not dispute that position, so the two governments’ decision to hold the High-Level Dialogue signaled, in practice, their intention to emerge with a new framework—with a new name—to renew bilateral cooperation.

After visiting Mexico in June 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris previewed some of the new framework’s potential focus areas, stating, “The United States and Mexico are committed to working together to reduce homicides and drug-related deaths on both sides of the border and counter the illicit forces that drive them.” Ebrard stated in July 2021 that Mexico’s government sought to improve homicide investigations and curb gun trafficking from the United States. In August 2021, the Mexican government sharply called attention to the latter issue by suing a number of U.S. gun manufacturers, arguing that their acts and omissions fuel the purchase of weapons by criminal organizations in Mexico.

In the days leading up to the High-Level Security Dialogue, officials from both governments publicly identified other priority areas, reflecting lingering tensions. The head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Anne Milgram, stated that she had asked Mexico’s national prosecutor, Alejandro Gertz Manero, for more joint law enforcement efforts, access to information on illicit financing, and for Mexican authorities to “take seriously” U.S. extradition requests. CNN reported that the Mexican government had not granted visas to DEA agents during the first nine months of 2021. A Mexican foreign ministry source went so far as to state that with the Bicentennial Framework, “There will be no [human rights] verifications by Capitol Hill, we will not receive military equipment or direct support from the Pentagon, U.S. federal agencies’ license to spy and act freely inside Mexico is over…”

These last statements caused confusion, since a bilateral agreement between two executive branches cannot supersede existing U.S. legislation designed to prevent U.S. assistance from going to security forces that violate human rights (known as the Leahy Law). Likewise, any human rights conditions attached to future U.S. appropriations for Mexico would fall within Congress’s purview, as has been the case since the Merida Initiative began in 2008. Finally, there are no indications of plans to end U.S. military assistance to Mexico, though such assistance may well not be considered part of the Bicentennial Framework.


Protect, prevent and pursue: the objectives of the Bicentennial Framework

Amid the tensions outlined above, U.S. and Mexican authorities adopted the Bicentennial Framework at the High-Level Dialogue on October 8. The Joint Statement announcing the Framework clearly seeks to project a paradigm shift: it refers four times to the respect for sovereignty that will characterize bilateral cooperation and proposes “a modern approach of public health and development.” The two governments pledge to work together towards three main objectives:

  • Protect our people by investing in public health as related to the impacts of drug use, supporting safe communities, and reducing homicides and high-impact crimes.
  • Prevent transborder crime by securing modes of travel and commerce, reducing arms trafficking, targeting illicit supply chains, and reducing human trafficking and smuggling.
  • Pursue criminal networks by disrupting illicit financiers and strengthening security and justice sectors.

To achieve these objectives, according to the Joint Statement, authorities will implement strategies in the following areas (our summary):

  • Reduce “substance abuse disorder and associated harms.”
  • Address the transportation and regulation of precursor chemicals used to manufacture drugs such as fentanyl.
  • Create a Network for Homicide Prevention to exchange best practices and work with communities and at-risk youth, with the possibility of multidisciplinary Homicide Task Forces to support investigation and prosecution of high-impact crimes.
  • Combat arms trafficking from the United States to Mexico.
  • Expand binational cooperation against human smuggling and trafficking.
  • Address cybercrime and promote security in cyberspace.
  • Strengthen forensic cooperation to help solve and punish the thousands of disappearance cases in Mexico.

As with the three main objectives, the commitments listed in the Joint Statement include a mix of existing areas of cooperation and more focused or novel initiatives. To further the stated goals, the governments agree to undertake joint actions and to share information (especially on border issues) as well as to implement certain strategies within their own respective territories. To transform these commitments into more detailed and calendarized workplans, authorities from both countries aim to draft an implementation plan by the end of January 2022. For now, to complement the Joint Statement, both the U.S. and Mexican governments published fact sheets that elaborate on the planned areas of collaboration, cited throughout the following sections of this commentary.


Opportunities and obstacles: a preliminary look at cooperation on drugs, arms, and migration

The Bicentennial Framework’s planned drug enforcement actions focus largely on precursor chemicals for illegally produced synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, the substance behind a significant percentage of overdoses in the United States in recent years (a health crisis to which Mexico itself is by no means immune). Strategies in this area will include improving “container control and detection of chemical precursors” at ports of entry, as well as pursuing crimes “with a focus on drug laboratories and precursor chemicals.”

More broadly, planned strategies against transnational criminal organizations (“TCOs”) include reducing their “drug sales capacity,” pursuing their illegal activities in cyberspace, and dismantling their illicit supply chains and financial networks. The two governments agree to increase information-sharing to combat money laundering, seize assets of criminal actors involved in corruption, “indict, arrest, and extradite key financial facilitators,” and increase “bilateral cooperation to facilitate the extradition of TCO members” in general.

In this area, it will be important for authorities to avoid repeating the errors of the kingpin strategy, an approach that has caused the fragmentation of criminal groups, leading to increases in violence. Instead, the two governments should prioritize focus points such as combating corruption to effectively address the ecosystem that allows criminal networks to operate.

Crucially, the Bicentennial Framework also promises a public health approach to drug use, embodied in plans such as:

Prevent and reduce substance abuse, while limiting harms associated with addiction; improve access to substance abuse treatment and recovery support; share best practices and lessons learned to better understand substance abuse patterns; explore alternatives to incarceration for substance abuse cases.

In the Mexican government’s words, this approach reflects the “conclusion that current drug policy, based on prohibitionism and criminalization of users, has not been effective.” For its part, the U.S. government states that it prioritizes “an evidence-based public health and public safety approach to reducing drug demand, overdoses, and saving lives…”

In light of the failure of the prohibitionist and punitive drug-war model of the last five decades, both governments should take decisive actions to end the incarceration not only of people who use drugs, but also of other groups deprived of their liberty under counterproductive drug-war policies. Mexican authorities should effectively implement and complement the incipient initiatives to release people imprisoned for possession or other non-violent drug-related crimes, who are generally in a situation of poverty. Such incarceration has a disproportionately severe impact on women. In the United States, punitive drug policies have been characterized by racial injustice and discrimination in law enforcement, contributing to massive and unequal incarceration. Both countries and others in the region must reverse such patterns of criminalization.

Turning to the subject of firearms, the Bicentennial Framework envisions increased collaboration and information-sharing to prosecute illicit gun trafficking from the United States, a top priority for the Mexican government. At the same time, the widespread legal availability of high-powered firearms in the United States—including online and, depending on the circumstances, without mandatory background checks—generates a universe of weapons and of potential buyers and traffickers that represents a significant challenge for law enforcement efforts. Meanwhile, as both U.S. senators and civil society organizations have pointed out this year, the legal sale of weapons to Mexican security forces also requires more robust safeguards to prevent their use in crimes. Mexican authorities have detected troubling rates of loss of official weapons, while security forces implicated in enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings have received U.S. guns.

The Bicentennial Framework also includes bilateral actions to combat human smuggling. This commitment, accompanied by plans to combat human trafficking, echoes one of the agreements announced following Vice President Harris’s visit to Mexico. Several U.S. agencies had already announced anti-smuggling initiatives and task forces this year (such as Operation Sentinel and Joint Task Force Alpha). However, anti-smuggling efforts will have a limited impact as long as migrants and asylum seekers lack legal avenues to migrate and seek protection, and as long as they are exposed to high levels of crime and violence in Mexico. These factors lead many people on the move to seek some degree of protection from authorities and criminal groups by paying smugglers. To make progress in this area, it is essential not only to reduce violence against migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico and criminal networks’ control over migration routes, but also for the United States to change its current border policies and open access to its asylum system, including at ports of entry.

Despite ongoing tensions, the topics mentioned above are generally the subject of some degree of existing bilateral communication or coordination, at least between certain institutions. Among other examples, in response to a freedom of information request by media outlet Infobae, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry reported a list of meetings between Mexican and U.S. officials and agents in 2021, including a series of bilateral meetings on border security, migration, and arms trafficking; meetings between U.S. officials and Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera, UIF); and meetings between U.S. authorities and Baja California’s state prosecutor’s office (recalling that Tijuana is a key entry point for U.S.-bound fentanyl).


Reducing violence: the Bicentennial Framework’s vision and the importance of prosecuting crimes and human rights violations

One of the Bicentennial Framework’s objectives, and one of the Mexican population’s highest priorities, is to reduce homicides and other high-impact crimes. Violence in Mexico has reached unprecedented levels in recent years. In 2020, Mexico registered a record total of 36,773 homicides (a rate of approximately 29 per 100,000 inhabitants). Official data record 939 femicides in 2020, although in total 3,957 women were murdered, an average of more than ten women per day. The number of disappeared and missing people has surpassed 95,000, of whom over 32,000 were last seen between 2018 and November 2021. According to monitoring by the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, thousands of people are forcibly displaced each month, while a government survey puts at 281,373 the number of households that moved to a different home or place of residence to protect themselves from crime in 2020.

Homicides are particularly prevalent in certain regions of the country and, in many cases, are associated with organized crime, the best-known face of lethal violence in Mexico. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) ranks Mexico fourth on criminality out of the 193 countries included in its 2021 Global Organized Crime Index. At the same time, it is important to note that violence in Mexico is not limited to the activities of organized crime, nor to those of private individuals and entities: cases can involve a range of non-state and state actors.

To reduce violence, the Bicentennial Framework foresees collaboration to reduce “exploitation of vulnerable people by criminal groups through education and economic opportunity,” as well as actions to address the causes of violence and attend to communities’ needs. These commitments clearly reflect elements of López Obrador’s vision for violence reduction, although they are not entirely new in bilateral cooperation. The Framework’s implementation plan will have to define the scope and focus of such efforts.

A number of other planned strategies reveal a central focus on consolidating institutions capable of providing security and justice to the population, including through effective criminal investigations. The two governments plan actions to “effectively and consistently conduct[] homicide investigations, professionalize the criminal justice and law enforcement systems, and expand knowledge to implement best practices to combat gender-based violence,” as well as to build accountability, ensure “robust, fully functioning justice systems,” and guarantee human rights. The Joint Statement also foresees forensic cooperation to solve disappearance cases (another commitment from Vice President Harris’ visit), along with the possible creation of “multidisciplinary Homicide Task Forces focused on high-impact crimes linked to transnational criminal organizations, with… support for investigation and prosecution.”

These strategies rightly emphasize the need to tackle impunity, a key structural factor that perpetuates violence in Mexico. According to Mexico’s 2021 national victimization survey, out of all crimes committed against the population in 2020, just 1.2% led to concrete results such as a suspect appearing in court or some form of reparation (in 2019 the figure was 1.4%). In the World Justice Project’s 2021 Rule of Law Index, Mexico ranks 129th out of 139 countries in criminal justice. An analysis of official data by NGO Impunidad Cero estimated that, in 2019, authorities solved only one in 10 intentional homicides, with some states close to 100% impunity for this crime. Another study by the same organization found that states with lower budgets for their security and justice institutions “show higher impunity for intentional homicides (or homicide rate).” In 2019, security and justice institutions at the state level—the jurisdiction in which most crimes are committed in Mexico and whose authorities are generally in charge of homicide investigations—had a combined average budget of $3.74 Mexican pesos (roughly USD$0.18) per state inhabitant per day.

Regarding disappearances in Mexico, despite the 2018 entry into force of the General Law against disappearances, prosecutions for disappearance crimes remain the exception to the rule. In various states, the number of people who were disappeared from 2018-2020 far exceeds the number of investigations opened for disappearance crimes by the respective state prosecutors’ offices. At the federal level, the Superior Audit Office (Auditoría Superior de la Federación, ASF) found that in 2020, the National Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) had more than 1,600 disappearance investigations pending; the ASF found that such cases remained in the investigation phase for years and were not prosecuted. The FGR’s Special Prosecutor for disappearances informed WOLA that it had obtained no convictions for disappearance crimes from 2018-2020. Authorities have yet to establish some of the investigative and identification tools mandated by the General Law against disappearances, including the National Forensic Database (Banco Nacional de Datos Forenses).

Another crucial pending task is the effective investigation and punishment of torture. This serious form of violence impacts victims, families, and communities, as well as undermining the justice system itself, since it corrupts investigations, leads to the imprisonment of innocent people (with corresponding impunity for guilty parties), and teaches and normalizes the use of government institutions to commit and cover up crimes.

Impunity for torture in Mexico remains almost universal. According to the latest official human rights census, during 2019, the national and state-level human rights commissions recorded 2,143 acts of torture and 5,012 acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in complaints classified as presumed violations (a figure that does not purport to include all the cases that actually occurred in the country that year). However, of 25 state judiciaries that responded to WOLA’s information requests in mid-2021, only one reported torture convictions in 2020 (Sonora, with three convictions, all on appeal), and none reported convictions in the first half of 2021. The lack of convictions is due primarily to prosecutors’ failure to bring charges. At the federal level, the FGR’s Special Prosecutor for torture reports having brought charges in one or two cases annually in recent years, despite thousands of federal torture complaints. Regarding the exclusion of evidence obtained under torture, only Baja California’s state judicial branch identified cases in which such evidence had been excluded in 2020 and 2021; the remaining 24 judiciaries either failed to answer or reported that no evidence had been excluded or that they did not keep track of this information. The FGR has still not made the National Registry of Torture Cases operational, nor has the government adopted the National Program to Prevent and Punish Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; both are tools mandated by the 2017 General Law against torture.


Discourse clashes with reality: militarization advances in Mexico

As mentioned above, López Obrador rejected the Merida Initiative citing its militaristic nature, even though the last decade had seen a shift in assistance towards building the rule of law. Simultaneously, however, the López Obrador administration itself continues to deepen different forms of militarization and militarism in Mexico.

The experience of the past 15 years shows that military deployment in policing tasks has been ineffective as an anti-violence strategy and has led to serious human rights violations. Despite this, today military deployment in security tasks in Mexico is at its highest level. This includes over 80,000 army troops (according to Sedena’s response to a freedom of information request by Mexican news outlet Animal Político) and some 90,000 members of the National Guard, a militarized force that replaced the Federal Police and that the government plans to convert into one of the armed forces under Sedena’s command (a role that it already fulfills in practice). Beyond territorial deployment, the militarization of public security raises serious concerns about civil-military relations and the autonomy with which the military is operating in Mexico. In the words of security experts Ernesto López Portillo and Samuel Storr:

[The armed forces] have been allowed autonomy in the construction of security policies. With the support of President López Obrador, the army indirectly obtained the legal framework it sought through the National Guard Law… Now that it is evident that Sedena and Semar [Secretaría de Marina, the Navy] have failed to comply with the National Guard Law—they created an institution in their own image, without sufficient minimum police qualifications, subordinated and integrated into the armed forces—the army is already responsible for designing its own reform. The next step, if approved, will finally incorporate the Guard as a third force of the army…

Another expression of militarization under past Mexican governments has been the designation of military officers to occupy civilian positions. This pattern not only continues today, but López Obrador has publicly recommended to incoming governors that they consult with the heads of Sedena and Semar before appointing their state public security ministers. According to media counts, at least nine current state public security ministers come from the armed forces. At the federal level, among other examples, the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) and numerous migrants’ shelters expressed their serious concern in December 2020 because “in 18 states, people with a military background have been placed in charge of the state branches or offices” of the National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM).

Another indicator of the growing role of the military is the growth in its budget. According to an analysis by NGO México Evalúa of the 2022 proposed federal budget, funding for the armed forces (counting the National Guard as a military force) has gone “from being only 18% higher” than funding for civilian federal security and investigative institutions in 2018 “to being 271% higher” in 2022.

Likewise, the armed forces are not only building some of the federal government’s most emblematic large-scale infrastructure projects, but López Obrador has announced that the military will manage several airports and industrial and tourism projects once they are completed. In October, Sedena published the concession it received to run the Felipe Ángeles International Airport for 50 years, extendable up to 100. The construction of such mega-projects occupies a central place in the president’s public communications strategy, reinforcing the centrality of the armed forces in his vision for the country.

Militarization of policing tasks was originally portrayed as a temporary measure, citing the need to professionalize and strengthen civilian institutions. Today, it is clearer than ever that militarization perpetuates a cycle in which, instead of prioritizing efforts to address civilian institutions’ weaknesses and deficiencies, the government cites these flaws to justify long-term militarization within and beyond the security sphere.

Militarization also means, of course, that Mexico’s armed forces participate in the bilateral relationship with the United States beyond the military sphere. The Navy’s special forces, in particular, are known for their bilateral collaboration in operations against criminal actors. While there has not been specific U.S. cooperation with the National Guard, the fact that this force is now in charge of federal policing tasks suggests that it will be an interlocutor in bilateral security efforts. Meanwhile, in the realm of migration enforcement, tens of thousands of National Guard and army troops participate in the de facto externalization of the U.S. southern border to the southern border of Mexico. In August 2021, the head of Sedena, General Luis Cresencio Sandoval, declared that the military’s main objective at Mexico’s southern border is to “stop all migration.”


Conclusions and recommendations

An initial comparison of the Bicentennial Framework to the four pillars of the Merida Initiative shows areas of continuity, albeit with adjustments and evolutions, coupled with opportunities to introduce more transformative approaches to bilateral cooperation. However, the most promising aspects of the Bicentennial Framework contrast sharply with Mexico’s current security model, calling into question whether Mexico’s authorities at the domestic level, and the U.S. government in the context of the bilateral relationship, will truly overcome the errors of the past and improve security as envisioned in the new agreement. Additionally, various analysts have signaled that, despite a renewed commitment to security cooperation, the concrete areas in which the U.S. and Mexican governments have a shared vision and desire to collaborate are, in fact, limited.

Notwithstanding these challenges, it would be a mistake for all parties not to seize this moment to push for the new framework to translate into real-life improvements for the population. First, given the grim context on both sides of the border, it is essential that a public health approach to drug use fully prevails over the failed “war on drugs” paradigm. Addressing drug use through a health lens means, among other things, that strategies and collaboration in this area should be led by each country’s health authorities and institutions, rather than by security institutions. Harm reduction and evidence-based treatment for drug dependence, both of which are elements of the Bicentennial Framework, should be at the heart of bilateral and domestic actions. Additionally, both countries’ authorities should advance in the decriminalization of drug use and the creation of regulated drug markets (beginning with marijuana), as well as dramatically reducing the use of prison for non-violent drug-related offenses. As mentioned above, actions in this area should include the liberation of people currently incarcerated due to laws and policies that reflect the prohibitionist and punitive model.

To improve security in Mexico, it is necessary to transform the environment of impunity that enables current levels of violence. This, in turn, requires a strategic focus on consolidating capable and trustworthy civilian security and justice institutions. Several existing areas of bilateral cooperation remain relevant to increasing Mexico’s institutional capacity, including support for the country’s young, adversarial criminal justice system and assistance to improve forensic technology and practices. It is crucial to support the operation of databases such as those ordered by Mexico’s laws against disappearance and torture, and to strengthen broader efforts to ensure that criminal investigations analyze patterns of violence and make full use of context analysis. Beyond building capacity, security and investigative bodies require effective internal and external accountability mechanisms. In this area, lessons learned from the United States’ broad range of experiences with external police oversight can continue to inform discussions and incipient initiatives to construct external supervision mechanisms in Mexico.

In addressing transborder crime, a topic that requires urgent bilateral attention is the kidnapping and extortion of migrants, a crime that tends to victimize people on both sides of the border: kidnapped migrants in Mexico and relatives in the United States who receive ransom demands. In addition to strengthening criminal investigation of this practice, in order to react to kidnappings in real time, the two governments should establish protocols that allow families to report kidnappings to U.S. authorities without fear of deportation, and that set out appropriate responses by Mexican authorities, prioritizing the liberation and security of the kidnapped migrants.

All areas of the Bicentennial Framework will also require clear indicators to measure results, recalling that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified deficiencies in monitoring the Merida Initiative’s impacts with reference to its goals, objectives, and risks.

Finally, the fact that the Bicentennial Framework’s initial documents speak of a public health approach rather than a “war on drugs” is not just the product of an evolving dialogue between two governments: it reflects U.S. and Mexican civil society documentation and proposals over many years. Victims, collectives, and organizations play a fundamental role in achieving real-world advances in health, security, and justice. Their voices and recommendations should be taken into account by both governments.

Maureen Meyer contributed to this commentary. The author also thanks Coletta Youngers and John Walsh for their valuable comments.