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  • What Does the Trump Administration Mean for the Mérida Agreement?
  • Carolyn Gallaher

Historically, Mexico has not figured prominently in US presidential campaigns. The 2016 campaign was an exception. Republican nominee Donald Trump consistently used Mexico and its citizens as metaphors for what ails the US. During the first presidential debate, for example, he described the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as "the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere" (Gillespie 2016). Mexican citizens fared no better in Trump's rhetoric. He accused Mexico of dumping its rapists in the US and promised to build a wall to keep them out (Gamboa 2016). Given Trump's relentlessly negative portrayal of Mexico and its citizens, this paper asks what Trump's win might portend for the bilateral Mérida Initiative. I argue that Trump will likely weaken what is positive about the agreement and exacerbate what is negative about it. [End Page 179]

A Brief Review of Mérida

In 2007, US President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón met in the Yucatan city of Mérida to discuss the problem of narco-trafficking. Eight months later, the Mérida Initiative was officially born. In the joint press release announcing the agreement, the two countries described narco-trafficking, and the solutions to it as a shared responsibility and promised to improve cooperation between their respective law enforcement agencies. The US Congress also pledged up to $1.4 billion in appropriations to get the ball rolling (U.S. Department of State 2008). To assess what the new Trump administration might mean for Mérida going forward, I begin by briefly outlining the initiative's strengths and weaknesses. I focus on one of the agreement's central strengths and one of its foremost weakness.

A Needed Thaw

The US and Mexico have long had a testy relationship where narco-trafficking is concerned. The low point in the relationship came in 1985 when Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent stationed in Guadalajara, was murdered. The DEA believed Mexican law enforcement purposely bungled the investigation because Camarena's killers paid them off. By contrast, Mexican officials were angry the DEA was operating in their country and believed Camarena was in over his head (Shannon 1988). For the next thirty years, bilateral cooperation on narco-trafficking was limited and marked by mutual distrust.

In this context, the Mérida Initiative represented a major rupture. Mexican government officials had long demanded that the US acknowledge the role of demand in fostering narco-trafficking. As such, when the US announced the agreement by describing the fight against narco-trafficking as a "shared responsibility," Mexicans felt vindicated. Mexican scholar Raùl Benítez Manuat (2009) described Mérida as a paradigm shift in the two countries' relationship. For their part, US officials felt like they could finally engage in cooperation without Mexico labeling their efforts as breaches of sovereignty (Gallaher 2016).

Many observers credit the final capture and arrest of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán to the improved cooperation Mérida begat (LaFranchi 2017). In my interviews for a collaborative research project funded by the National Institute of Justice (award number 2011-IJ-CX-0001) on US/Mexican law enforcement cooperation, I also found that better cooperation bled into casework not directly related to narco-trafficking, such as homicide and child kidnapping cases.


For nearly a decade, human rights groups have accused Mexican security forces of violating human rights in their war against narco-traffickers (Amnesty 2015). When the US works with, or funds, units engaging in these violations, it risks becoming complicit in their abuses. Critics of Mérida claim the US has been slow to respond to this moral hazard. Indeed, Mexico has used Mérida money to purchase military equipment, such as Black Hawk helicopters, and to train military and police units—some with known ties to narco-traffickers (Franzblau 2015). They also argue that the US has been reticent to subject [End Page 180] Mexico to the Leahy Laws, which allow the US Departments of Defense and State to withhold foreign aid to countries not abiding by human rights standards (Seelke and Finklea 2017). The George...


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