U.S.-Mexico Strategic Partnership Needed to Help Mexico Improve Its Security Institutions

For Release

April 28, 2009

The United States should forge a strategic partnership with Mexico that emphasizes reform and long-term institution building as a way to battle the ongoing drug war and other security challenges that face Mexico, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

While much attention has focused on addressing Mexico's recent drug violence, the new RAND report goes beyond the narcotics-violence link and examines a broader set of issues that confront Mexico's security and the security interests of the United States.

"The United States needs to engage Mexico in a way that not only combats narcotics trafficking, but helps to build and strengthen the nation's security institutions," said Agnes Gereben Schaefer, lead author of the report and a political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Our report lays out a high-level strategic roadmap for addressing the security situation in Mexico."

Such an approach would entail a long-term commitment by the U.S. government to support reforms and institution building in Mexico. It will also require the United States to take on shared responsibility for the drug problem by stemming the illegal flow of weapons, bulk cash and chemical precursors from the United States into Mexico.

RAND researchers compiled their recommendations after interviewing a wide range of officials from both Mexico and the United States, as well as nongovernmental experts. They also conducted an in-depth literature review of Spanish and English language sources including primary Mexican and U.S. government documents, Mexican and U.S. media reports, academic publications and the Web sites of nongovernmental organizations.

Almost all of those interviewed agreed that organized crime poses the primary security threat to the United States from Mexico. Organized crime has infiltrated all levels of Mexico's government and police forces, and is involved in many illegal activities that are on the rise, including drug trafficking, human trafficking and arms trafficking.

Mexican drug cartels are primarily responsible for violence that began to increase in 2005 and became precipitously worse in 2008 when drug-related killings reached 6,290 -- more than double what was seen the year before.

Researchers say other security concerns in Mexico include illegal migration and human trafficking, as well as terrorism and rebel insurgencies. The study found no evidence that the concern about terrorists exploiting the border to gain entry into the United States has been realized, though such exploitation must be guarded against, particularly if Mexican institutions continue to weaken.

"Unfortunately, there is no cohesive security strategy in Mexico," report co-author Benjamin Bahney said. "The Mexican government has focused on drug trafficking, but there is no structure in place that links those efforts to other security issues such as illegal immigration, human trafficking, insurgencies and terrorism."

Mexico's policing effort is comparable to that of other countries. Mexico has 370 police officers per 100,000 people, whereas the United States has 225 police officers per 100,000 people. But the effectiveness of policing efforts in Mexico are diluted because services often are duplicated across agencies and rules, responsibilities and authority are not clearly defined, according to researchers.

The United States has been increasing its military and police aid to Mexico, with the annual amount nearly tripling to $45.8 million from 2000 to 2006. In addition, the new Mérida Initiative will provide about $400 million this year in additional aid to Mexico, primarily for technical assistance and equipment such as helicopters to combat drug trafficking.

However, RAND researchers conclude that U.S. aid should focus less on the immediate needs for technology and equipment, emphasizing instead how that technology can instill trust in public institutions. Such an effort might focus on improving transparency and accountability at all levels of the Mexican government, including the state and local police forces.

Other security issues that should be addressed include encouraging the Mexican government to develop a cohesive security strategy and reforming its security structure to bridge the gap between federal and local security forces.

While there has been much attention focused on the need to curb the drug cartels that are waging attacks across Mexico, RAND researchers caution that officials should not neglect the day-to-day security needs in Mexico. The United States should make sure that some of its aid is directed to improving local policing efforts aimed at routine crime and corruption.

"These are the issues Mexicans face every day and it impacts the way they see and trust their institutions," Schaefer said. "Making improvements in these areas is an important part of the institution-building that needs to be accomplished."

RAND researchers identified two other policy options for the United States in dealing with security challenges in Mexico -- maintaining the status quo with no focus on long-term institution building and a retrenchment that would disengage from any partnerships with Mexico.

Adopting either of those alternatives would require less involvement and be less costly to the United States. But neither of the alternatives would have as much of an impact on U.S. security priorities as the strategic partnership approach, according to researchers.

The report, "Security in Mexico: Implications for U.S. Policy Options," is available at www.rand.org. K. Jack Riley also co-authored the report.

The study was conducted in the public interest and supported by RAND using discretionary funds made possible by the generosity of its donors and the fees earned on client-funded research.

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