Not only is the Mérida Initiative undermined, but the Mexican government is increasingly wary to say so. Former president Felipe Calderón criticized during his administration the glaring inadequacy in U.S. efforts to stem the flow of illegal arms south into Mexico. While his government’s estimate of 2,000 illegal weapons crossing the border each day appears to be inflated, the true amount is still startling; a 2012 report claimed that 2.2 percent of the vast U.S. weapons market is destined for Mexico, and that nearly half of all U.S. arms dealers are dependent on such sales.
Since PRI President Enrique Peña Nieto took office a little over two years ago, the United States and Mexico have had cause to celebrate their partnership under Mérida. Their joint “kingpin strategy” has been working, at least in terms of captures, with the leaders of the Knights Templar and the Zetas groups arrested only days apart in early March. Joaquín Guzmán Loera, Mexico’s most wanted drug lord in history, was captured with U.S. assistance in February of last year.
However, they are celebrating quietly. The Peña Nieto administration has walked a tightrope between continuing its deep security partnership with the United States and distancing itself from this same partnership publicly, at the will of constituents. Interestingly, the Mérida Initiative has reflected this: Foreign military financing (FMF)—money used explicitly for military equipment transfers—has ceased as part of Mérida since Peña Nieto took office. In the same timeframe, economic support funds (ESF) have more than doubled and the U.S. has taken a much sharper interest in promoting judicial sector reform in Mexico. In 2010, Mérida was refocused on institution-building as opposed to military technology transfer. The security partnership has certainly not diminished, but U.S. monetary assistance for it under Mérida has.
The new PRI federal government has also successfully reformed Mexico’s penal code for the first time since 1934. The law is meant to standardize the judicial process across all 32 states and correct poor habits such as extended pretrial detention and shoddy examination of witnesses. Its likelihood for success is in question; still, the reform aims to correct what many see as the worst aspect of Mexico’s complex security problem. Additionally, under Mérida, thousands of Mexican law enforcement officers and judicial sector personnel have been trained through U.S. programs in accordance with the reforms currently being enacted in that sector. With the long-term outcomes of cooperation under Mérida yet to be seen, the current U.S. and Mexican administrations have at least been satisfied by the reforms being pushed, coupled with headlining successes in their decapitation strategy against organized criminal groups. This success may leave the Peña Nieto government in a tough position to press the United States on arms control, the driving force behind high levels of violence in Mexico.
It is important to point out that combating arms trafficking was something the U.S. agreed tounder the Mérida Initiative when it was launched in 2007. Subsequent efforts to do so have met more controversy than success; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) became embroiled in investigations into Operation Fast and Furious, through which legal straw purchasers in the U.S. were knowingly permitted to carry about 1,400 weapons into Mexico. The objective was to illustrate the patterns of weapons trafficking from legal sale in the U.S. Southwest to illegal smuggling and sale within Mexico, but two of the weapons ended up at the murder scene of a U.S. Border Patrol agent in December 2010. Setbacks like this one have hampered already limited efforts by the ATF to track and patrol illegal shipments. Still, these efforts do not address the ease with which guns and ammunition can be acquired in the United States; as is the case with drugs flowing north, the sheer volume of weapons destined south for Mexico limits the role even of competent enforcement.
Latin American countries including Mexico have taken note of lax U.S. laws on weapons sales, and have enacted their own measures in an attempt to counter them. Mexico in particular has gone to the extreme of gun control, with only a single legal gun shop permitted in the entire country and operated by the military. As David Kopel pointed out in his work on Mexican gun laws published last year, this creates a twofold problem: While soft U.S. gun laws provide much of the supply of weapons into Mexico, that country’s severe restrictions in turn create a demand for these guns. The right to bear arms is provided in the Mexican constitution, but security forces impinge on this right regularly. Furthermore, inadequate security has led Mexican citizens to arm themselves for self-defense, usually illegally; 14 percent of Mexicans keep firearms in their homes, with the figure shooting to 50 percent in high-violence areas. Adding to Kopel’s analysis is the problem of corrupt Mexican officials “recycling” seized weapons back into the black market, both to criminal groups and ordinary citizens.
So, while the United States can be held accountable for largely ignoring assault weapons sales in defiance of its commitments under the Mérida Initiative, there is still a demand aspect to weapons trafficking that Mexican gun restrictions are responsible for. This is primarily an overcompensation in response to the United States’ unwillingness to take tangible actions in reducing arms supplies in the region. The Senate has yet to ratify treaties like the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty or the inter-American CITFA agreement, and is unlikely to do so. The Obama Administration’s limited efforts to address straw purchases in the Southwest have simply shifted the problem elsewhere. As the Council on Foreign Relations pointed out in July 2013, “the United States undermines its own efforts at preventing arms trafficking with its unwillingness to strengthen oversight of the firearms industry and lukewarm support for multilateral agreements.”
The Mérida Initiative made a promising shift away from approaching criminal violence through strict tactical means, and the beginning of real judicial reform has been achieved during Peña Nieto’s first two years in office. Nonetheless, this success has discouraged the administration from pushing for weapons law reform, in both the U.S. and Mexico, which will regulate the tools that criminal groups use to coerce and create violence. If Mérida is to be successful, this critical aspect of the problem must be addressed firmly.