The State Department this month determined that Mexico had not made sufficient progress in working towards its human rights goals, consequently withholding fifteen percent—or $5 million—of its aid to security forces under the Mérida Initiative. In order to grant this portion of funding to the Mexican government, the State Department is required to submit a report to Congress outlining specific steps Mexico has taken to improve its human rights record. No report was filed for this cycle of Mérida funding, and the money was diverted to coca eradication in Peru.
Conditional aid to Mexico has been delayed over similar concerns in the past, but this marks the first time that Mexico will actually lose the money. Previously, the State Department and Congress have allowed the Mexican government to take initiative in order to earn it back; this time, however, no such opportunity exists.
The U.S. government unsurprisingly cites recent high-profile events in Mexico as motivators. The disappearance and supposed murder of 43 students from Guerrero last year—and several other recent, unexplained massacres—still have Mexicans reeling, demanding answers to tragedies that seem enmeshed in corruption. The occurrence of these events, let alone the government’s inability to offer a satisfying explanation of or solution to them, factored heavily into the State Department’s decision.
Ironically, however, the Obama Administration is reportedly reluctant to become too heavy-handed towards Mexico despite making this unique cut in funding. President Peña Nieto is already facing internal pressure due to his apparent inability to address security concerns in his country. Beyond tragedy and corruption, the escape of Sinaloa kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in July was an absolute embarrassment to his administration. So the question for the United States becomes whether withholding security-oriented aid sends a message to Mexico, or whether it further diminishes their ability to enact security and, by extension, human rights reform.
Mérida has purposefully shifted from a security-driven initiative to one based on broader reform, not just in the security sector but also in those that promote accountability. The $5 million withheld was out of a total Mérida contribution of $148 million this year. So, the U.S. government is undoubtedly using such a relatively small amount to startle Peña Nieto’s administration into reform. Unfortunately, this reform still appears very distant. With the United States’ primary incentive for tackling corruption in Mexico based on cash, there is an inherent limit in how hard a line the State Department can draw. Pulling $5 million from security funding is unlikely to change much, but more significant cuts would appear to counteract what the money is supposed to do in the first place.