US, Mexico seek to revamp fight against drug cartels

Mexico City (AFP) –


The United States and Mexico are set to discuss an overhaul of their joint fight against drug cartels during a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said Mexico no longer wants helicopter gunships and other weapons to combat drug traffickers, urging the United States to invest in regional economic development instead.

Ahead of Blinken's visit, his first to Mexico as the top US diplomat, Washington indicated that it was ready to revamp a 13-year-old program called the Merida Initiative that provided US military firepower, technical support and security training.

"We believe we are due for an updated look at our bilateral security cooperation," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

He said Washington wanted to see the "significant gains" made by the Merida Initiative "preserved, that that cooperation is deepened and that we have an updated approach that accounts for the threats of today."

The Mexican government has gone further, calling for an end to the Merida Initiative.

"We don't want it to be like it was before when they brought us a helicopter gunship and a photo was taken of the US ambassador with the president," Lopez Obrador said in June.

He argues that investing in development projects in the region would help counter not only drug trafficking but also migrant flows -- another major challenge facing the two countries.

Under the Merida Initiative, the United States has given Mexico about $3 billion since 2008 for law enforcement training and equipment such as Black Hawk helicopters.

At the same time, US authorities have focused on helping Mexico to arrest drug kingpins like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and send them to the United States to face trial.

- Merida Initiative 'dead' -

Blinken, accompanied by US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, will hold meetings with Lopez Obrador and other top Mexican officials, including Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, during his one-day visit.

Mexico will use the talks to push for steps to speed up extraditions between the two countries and reduce the flow of arms from the United States, Ebrard said this week.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is making his first visit to Mexico as the top US diplomat
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is making his first visit to Mexico as the top US diplomat Manuel Balce Ceneta POOL/AFP/File

In August, Mexico filed an unprecedented lawsuit against major US gunmakers in a Boston court over illegal cross-border arms flows that it blames for fueling drug-related violence.

Mexico is plagued by cartel-related bloodshed that has seen more than 300,000 people murdered since the government deployed the military in the war on drugs in 2006.

Many experts believe the strategy of militarization has failed because it has resulted in the cartels being fragmented into smaller, more violent cells, while drugs continue to flood into the United States.

The new security framework will focus "not just on crime, but also on the underlying cause of crime," a senior US administration official said.

"We're going to be looking at ways we can increase joint efforts to decrease demand for narcotics," he said.

The two countries would continue to pursue the cartels, including their laboratories and supply chain, the official said.

But the new strategy would put more emphasis on stopping flows of firearms and drug money from the United States to Mexico, in order to "deny revenue to these cartels," he added.

Forging a new joint strategy will not be easy, said Michael Shifter, president of the US-based think-tank Inter-American Dialogue.

"The Merida Initiative is indeed dead," he said.

"Mexico is expected to press for significant US assistance and investment in the southern part of the country, but with budget pressures and other priorities in Washington, US officials are unlikely to be receptive," he said.