Drugs, Human Rights, Trade, and Distrust: The Evolution of U.S.–Mexican Relations


Last month, citing human rights concerns, the United States quietly withheld about $5 million in counternarcotics assistance for Mexico. The State Department declined to certify that Mexico met conditions imposed on the aid by Congress under the Leahy Amendment, triggering the 15-percent reduction in funding for Mexican security agencies. Though more than $140 million of other U.S. funding will continue to flow, the decision — first reported by The Washington Post and confirmed by a deputy spokesman at the State Department — was cheered by human rights advocates. A senior official at Human Rights Watch told The New York Times that the cut was “unprecedented.”

The State Department’s decision is symbolically important, but Mexico’s muted reaction was perhaps even more surprising. The Mexican government limited its response to a statement that criticized “unilateral practices,” but painted the aid cut as a consequence of U.S. executive–legislative relations. The focus was instead on the “deep and mature bilateral relationship” between the two neighbors. The muted Mexican reaction is no doubt a reciprocation of the State Department’s low-key handling of the issue and recognition of the fact that most aid money continues to flow, but also a reflection of the evolution of Mexican foreign policy toward the United States. Changes in Mexican politics and the “maturation” of bilateral ties allow U.S. policymakers to give greater weight to human rights without jeopardizing the broader relationship. The United States should use that space to respond to the growing concerns of Mexican citizens about human rights and accountability while reevaluating the failing military-led response to Mexico’s insecurity.

For decades, Mexico’s ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), seized on any slight from the United States as an opportunity to play up its nationalistic credentials (and downplay its lack of democratic ones). In practice, a certain level of U.S.–Mexican cooperation continued, but it was circumscribed.

That changed when the PRI lost the presidency in 2000 for the first time in seven decades. During two terms, the conservative Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) constructed close collaborations with the Department of Defense, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and U.S. intelligence agencies. Collaboration grew more intimate as the violence in Mexico increased in response to President Felipe Calderón’s frontal assault on narcotics cartels. At Calderón’s request, the two countries assembled the Mérida Initiative, which has sent more than $2.3 billion in counternarcotics assistance to Mexico to date. Initially much of this aid was earmarked for military hardware, but the funding has since shifted to judicial reform, civil society, and border security. Though the aid should be strengthening Mexico’s investigative capabilities with training and new forensics labs, impunity remains the norm for criminals and state agents alike.

Under the PRI, Mexico was one of the strongest critics of the U.S. drug certification process. Like the human rights-oriented Leahy Amendment, this process required the president to report to Congress that a country was cooperating with U.S. counternarcotics efforts. Much of Latin America resented the public U.S. evaluation. The battles peaked in the late 1990s with congressional resolutions proposed in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999 disapproving the State Department’s certification of Mexico. Mexico had long seen the entire process as an unacceptable intrusion into its domestic politics. In many respects, the human rights certification process is even more intrusive. Whereas the Mexican and U.S. governments were on the same side of the fight against drug traffickers (at least at the federal level), the United States is now calling out failures in how the Mexican state treats its citizens and responds to abuses. Washington has prioritized maintaining Mexican security cooperation, but growing civil society mobilization against the country’s human rights situation could push the State Department and some in Congress toward more strident — and public — criticisms.

Many in Washington worried that the return of the PRI to the presidency in December 2012 would upend cooperation on counternarcotics. Upon taking office, President Enrique Peña Nieto tried to emphasize his economic agenda over continued security problems. In 2013, much was made over changes to how U.S. intelligence officials operated in Mexico. Others intimated that the PRI would offer secret pacts to cartels, reviving stories of past PRI complicity with drug traffickers. In reality, all of the major Mexican parties have been penetrated by organized crime at various levels; the problem is pervasive, and for decades the PRI was the hegemonic political force. Elements of the PRI were complicit even as others combated organized crime. These charges against the PRI reached a crescendo when cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from prison in July 2015. At the national level, the close cooperation continued — as evidenced by the continued captures and killings of top cartel figures, often using U.S. intelligence.

As I discuss in my new book, Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, the image of a supposedly “anti-American” PRI was decades out of date. It failed to reflect the massive changes to the party during the 1990s, especially during the six-year term of President Carlos Salinas. Even as president-elect, Salinas sought to change the tone of U.S.–Mexican relations, meeting his counterpart George H.W. Bush and establishing the “spirit of Houston,” named after the locale of their pre-presidential meetings. In the United States, Salinas is most remembered for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but his efforts to change relations went beyond trade. The Salinas administration drastically altered the PRI’s rhetoric about the United States. It minimized significant disagreements — including over a brazen, DEA-orchestrated kidnapping in Mexico in retribution for the torture and killing of undercover agent Enrique Camarena — in order to keep other aspects of the relationship on track. Domestically, the PRI was seeking to shift its political base and gain the support of business elites who had close social, educational, and commercial ties to the United States.

But Salinas’ reasons for the changed approach to the United States were also geopolitical. Mexican leaders proposed NAFTA in early 1990, months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, Salinas privately talked about a post-Cold War order of three political and economic blocs: one led by Japan in East Asia, another led by a reuniting Germany in Europe, and a third signaled by the recent U.S.­–Canada free trade agreement. Only after efforts to deepen ties with Japan and Europe in 1989 bore little fruit did Salinas definitively turn north. NAFTA was a product of efforts to improve ties with the United States, but once Mexico took the decision to join the North American bloc (as Salinas then saw it) cooperation spiraled out from trade to a host of other transnational issues. Mexican attitudes toward the United States, both among ruling elites and in the wider population, have fundamentally changed. As a result, so have U.S.–Mexican relations.

Despite the aid cut, close cooperation in the fight against drug cartels will continue. Unfortunately, so will the violence and human rights violations in Mexico. U.S. military aid is unlikely to change that. U.S. citizens’ demand for drugs will be met, and many of the bloody consequences will fall on Mexico. The renewed U.S. taste for heroin has spawned new production zones and supply routes in Mexico, detailed this month by the DEA. This competition exacerbates long-term security problems, especially in rural Mexico. These heroin-producing regions have seen some of the worst violence, as evidenced by the frequent discovery of mass graves.

The U.S. strategy adds to these problems. Counternarcotics cooperation has taken a page from the war on terror’s focus on “high-value targets.” However, killing cartel leaders seems to actually worsen levels of violence, as cartels splinter and battle both one another and the state. The “success” of the kingpin strategy stands in stark contrast to the overall effort. After some evidence that violence declined in 2013, killings are again climbing. The country has been rocked by shocking episodes of violence, most notably the still-unresolved disappearance of 43 students in the southern state of Guerrero, but also cases involving summary executions by Mexican armed forces. Official accounts of these incidents have been questioned by national and international human rights institutions, and the president’s poor handling of them has drained his support to just a third of the population. In short, the State Department had good reasons to withhold the funds; a certification of Mexico’s progress on human rights would have been mocked by many in the country. While traffickers, police and security forces, and politicians continue to evade judicial accountability, vengeance will take the place of justice.


Tom Long is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, just released by Cambridge University Press. He is a lecturer at the University of Reading, and was previously a visiting professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter at @tomlongphd.