Why We Need to Rethink the Mérida Initiative as a Function of National Security

Having suffered a stunning defeat in its efforts to reform healthcare and then securing a resounding win in its pursuit of across-the-board tax cuts, the Trump administration has now sharply pivoted to immigration and its cornerstone campaign promise: the border wall.

CNN, which obtained documents outlining President Donald Trump’s master plan for securing the border, reported Saturday the plan will cost $33 billion, with $18 billion carved out for Trump’s signature border wall. According to the proposed plan, entitled “Critical CBP Requirements to Improve Border Security,” this leaves the remaining $15 billion for technology, personnel, and readiness investments.

This raises two obvious questions: Will this strategy make us safer, and just how will it be paid for?

America has attempted to throw money at the border problem before. For example, the U.S. and Mexico entered into a strategic partnership to combat transnational organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and money laundering in 2008, known as the Mérida Initiative. It was modeled after Plan Colombia, the bilateral U.S.-Colombian effort that rescued Colombia from decades of civil war, which was fueled by the narcotics trade.

This bilateral security cooperation agreement includes intelligence sharing, and the U.S. supply of equipment and training to Mexico. The four official pillars of the project are identified as: 1) disrupt capacity of organized crime to operate, 2) institutionalize the capacity to sustain Rule of Law, 3) create a 21st century border structure, and 4) build strong and resilient communities.

When first signed into law by President George W. Bush, the program had broad bipartisan support and was viewed as a “quantitative and qualitative jump in support for the drug fight in the region,” by senior policy analysts at The Heritage Foundation. Democrats supported the initiative but placed human rights conditions on some of the aid.

And even with the 2016 election that signaled regime change in America, the Mérida Initiative continues to survive and remains a staple on the state.gov webpage.

Available statistics show that from the program’s inception, the U.S. Congress has appropriated a total $2.8 billion to the program.

Yet, tragically, in spite of robust U.S. financial support, violence has continued to surge across Mexico. Last year was Mexico’s bloodiest in two decades. And even with the declaration of war against the powerful drug cartels in 2006 by Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s president at the time, drug-related violence has continued to plague the country. And a decade after the employment of military forces to confront the narco-traffickers, it appears that a cessation of the wanton violence is not within reach.

Therefore, harsh criticism has been leveled at the Mérida Initiative from some U.S. lawmakers who view the program as throwing money at a problem that cannot be mitigated by gifting treasure to a corrupt government.

I understand this skepticism intrinsically. Between 2013 and 2014, I had the privilege of serving as the FBI’s deputy legal attaché and acting legal attaché, at the U.S. Embassy located in Mexico City, Mexico. In this position, I functioned as the FBI director’s direct representative to the Mexican government and law enforcement entities.

It was an enormously humbling and gratifying tour. And resulted in my abiding affection for our southern neighbor — its culture, its people, its history, and its long-time stature as a loyal U.S. ally and friend.

But this longstanding friendship can’t ignore the fact that corruption in the country is so widespread as to be referred to as México’s “original sin.” One Mexican police officer whom I completely trusted — as he had escorted me and other in-country FBI personnel on numerous forays into dangerous parts of Mexico’s hinterlands on fugitive hunts — sadly advised me:

“In my country, as it relates to the government and law enforcement, assume corruption, until proven otherwise.”

Indeed, our relationship with Mexico is a complicated one. It is fraught with guilt and the remnants of misgivings resulting from a contested war over territory between 1846 and 1848. In its bloody aftermath, the United States shrewdly walked away from the conflict by subsuming fully one-half of Mexico’s sovereign territory.

And this complicated love-hate relationship is also predicated on the fact that many Mexicans have family members who reside in the United States. Some have legally emigrated there and others have crossed the border illegally or overstayed a visa.

In a country with a tiny middle class, U.S. dollars sent home are central to helping poor families survive. And the lure of labor opportunities provides a clarion call to those intent on securing illegal border routes into the U.S.

The porous 2,026-mile U.S.-Mexico border has been frequently cited by security hawks as containing the most prolific narcotics-trafficking and human-smuggling routes.

Trump’s proposed plan seeks 864 miles of new wall and approximately 1,163 miles of replacement or secondary wall.

Many have asked why this is important and just how additional wall construction would address the identified threats.

Allow me to explain the threats here:

From a counterintelligence perspective, one of my chief concerns while posted to the U.S. Embassy was to ensure that hostile foreign powers [think: Russia, Iran, China, or North Korea] didn’t gain entry into Mexico via its loosely-patrolled 541-mile southern border with Guatemala or via one of its crowded anonymous resort cities like Cancun or Cozumel.

Once inside Mexico, these foreign agents could simply travel northward towards a subsequent illegal border crossing.

And on the counterterrorism side, my assistant legal attachés were hyper-focused on the potential ingress into the U.S. along those same cross-border routes by elements of terrorist organizations [think: the Islamic State or al-Qaeda].

Drug-traffickers, spies, and terrorists sneaking across the border— not the migrant worker seeking a better way of life for his family — were what kept me up most nights during my posting to Mexico City.

So what is the U.S. government’s response to these threats? Well, in my experience, it began with weekly participatory meetings at the embassy mandated by the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. These meetings (Country Team, Rule of Law, and one focused on the Mérida Initiative) brought together elements of the State Department’s political, economic, management, security, and public diplomacy sections.

And during my tenure at the embassy, under the direction of the Obama administration, the particulars in disbursement of Mérida funds were preeminent in cooperative law enforcement talks.

But what if that money was put to better use than supplying cash and equipment to a Mexican government incapable of stemming the graft and corruption that is its hallmark?

The Trump presidential campaign ran on a platform to “build a wall” and “have Mexico pay for it.” Since elected president, Trump has certainly played fast and loose with certain facts. However, his supporters give him credit for a level of nuance that goes beyond an initial hearing of his words.

Speculation has abounded around ways in which our southern neighbor could conceivably contribute to the erection of a wall without cutting a check. Would this entail a reduction in other federal aid to Mexico or higher tariffs than currently allowable by the unpopular NAFTA agreement?

The wall certainly is a hot-button partisan issue. Some Republicans see it as necessary defense against illegal border crossings, while Democrats view it as ineffective in its design and a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

But what if Mérida funding could be redirected? Bipartisan assessments concur that America’s War on Drugs has largely failed. Part of this failure is attributable to our own system of justice, which is in desperate need of having its sentencing guidelines restructured.

And a second component of this admitted battle loss is an inability to stanch the steady and unrelenting flow of narcotics along the southern border routes. Plus, America has a seemingly unquenchable, insatiable appetite for narcotics, and crafty Mexican drug-traffickers are only too happy to assume the risks associated with meeting that demand.

But let me propose a bipartisan offering requiring compromise on both sides — something in short supply in D.C. these days — to better confront some contentious issues in front of us.

Democrats want movement on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and a permanent protection solution for the Dreamers — the almost 788,000 people who arrived in the U.S. as children and have lived here continuously since June 2007.

And the Trump administration and some Republicans on Capitol Hill want a wall. But a “big, beautiful wall,” as Trump describes it, is infeasible along significant portions of the 2,026-mile border. There are areas where arduous terrain would impede construction. In these areas, as allowed in the Trump plan, beefed-up Border Patrol details and upgraded electronic surveillance would be far more effective.

So, what could a comprehensive immigration plan look like?

Impossible to fathom its cost neutrality related to the federal budget, but it could include a diversion of Mérida funds to be split between several initiatives. Funding for Trump’s $33 billion border plan is spread out over a decade. Fiscal year 2018 only requires a $1.6 billion commitment, with gradual increases per annum.

The right could win construction of a partial border wall, upgraded electronic surveillance equipment, and the hiring and training of additional Customs and Border Patrol personnel.

And Democrats could get, not just “deferred action” for the Dreamers, but a plausible path to citizenship. And with an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants currently thought to be living in the U.S., some of the diverted Mérida funding could be used to hire and staff an additional State Department section and Homeland Security unit to deal with the process of identifying and legalizing those who have not committed crimes while living here. They would have to go to the end of the line, per se, as related to citizenship applications, but they could meet certain simple requirements for legalization, such as learning English and registering with the Internal Revenue Service to pay taxes.

I learned Spanish at the age of 48 in order to better assimilate in Mexico. Do not tell me it is too burdensome for migrants to learn English, in order to gain eligibility for the program.

And finally, since the Republicans would make large concessions to find a way forward for the Dreamers and the 11.3 million “in the shadows,” Democrats running big cities should suspend “sanctuary city” declarations and cooperate with the federal government to deport illegals who commit crimes inside the U.S.

Are my suggestions an infallible panacea to address these critical issues?


But they are a hell of a good place to begin the conversation.


Image: Getty 

About the Author(s)

James A. Gagliano

CNN Law Enforcement Analyst and Adjunct Assistant Professor at St. John's University. Gagliano is a West Point graduate, former Airborne-Ranger Infantry Officer, and retired FBI Supervisory Special Agent. Follow him on Twitter (@JamesAGagliano).