By Nina Catalano -
News south of the U.S. border is not good these days. Mexican drug traffickers are supplementing their already gruesome violence with terrorist tactics, and Central America is increasingly faced with the destabilizing spillover effects of Mexico’s war: homicides increased 37% in El Salvador last year, while Guatemala continues to lurch through chaos. U.S. officials, on the other hand, are touting the pending deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to the border and the recently passed 2010 Supplemental Appropriations Act, which provides an extra $175 million in assistance for Mexico. But is it enough?
Two new reports highlight the critical nature of the situation. The first report, released July 21st from the Government Accountability Office, reprimands the State Department for failing to provide much-needed Mérida Initiative aid in a timely fashion. The Washington Post, noting that “neglect of Latin America has become something of a fine art in Washington” since the end of the Cold War, puts the problem succinctly: “This record of malfeasance is bad enough. But in Mexico’s war, the United States also plays the role of supplier [of guns] to the enemy–and it does that far more efficiently.” The G.A.O. report also criticized the lack of outcome performance measures that would enable evaluation of progress toward Mérida’s strategic goals. According to the G.A.O., although State has “primary responsibility” for coordinating the $1.6 billion program, its strategic documents “lack certain key elements that would facilitate accountability and management.”
The second key report, from the Associated Press, examines prosecution of the drug war on the ground in Mexico. Of 226,667 drug suspects arrested between December 2006 and September 2009 (the most recent available data), less than 25% were charged, only 15% reached a verdict, and the number of guilty verdicts is known only to the Mexican attorney general’s office. In Ciudad Juárez, the dearth of successful prosecutions is nearly as chilling as the bloodletting: with 2,600 murders in 2009, the A.P. reports that “prosecutors filed 93 homicide cases that year and got 19 convictions. . . . Only five were for first-degree murder, court records show, and none came under federal statutes with higher penalties designed to prosecute the drug war.” One Juárez-based trafficker disappeared completely last year after being accused of fifteen murders: state officials claim they transferred him to federal authorities, while the attorney general denies he was ever in federal custody.
These reports may be cringe-inducing, but they can also inspire change. Indeed, Section 1010(b) of the new Supplemental Appropriations Act requires funding destined for Mexico be made available “only after the Secretary of State submits a report to the Committees on Appropriations detailing a coordinated, multi-year, interagency strategy to address the causes of drug-related violence and other organized criminal activity in Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, which shall describe–
- the United States multi-year strategy for the region, including a description of key challenges in the source, transit, and demand zones; the key objectives of the strategy; and a detailed description of outcome indicators for measuring progress toward such objectives;
- the integration of diplomatic, administration of justice, law enforcement, civil society, economic development, demand reduction, and other assistance to achieve such objectives;
- progress in phasing out law enforcement activities of the militaries of each recipient country, as applicable; and
- governmental efforts to investigate and prosecute violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
In broad strokes, this move is to be welcomed. The development of robust performance measures is not only a foundation of good public policy, but also key to avoid falling into the trap of empty post-hoc affirmations of progress so often seen in drug politics. A coherent regional strategy, anticipating spillover and negative feedback effects, is essential. In the details, though, what should the U.S. be measuring?
As I wrote last year in Mexican criminal law journal Iter Criminis (text here in Spanish), effective performance measures for Mérida should: 1) evaluate both the operative capacity and democratic accountability of Mexico’s justice institutions; 2) take seriously public opinion regarding the security situation; and 3) work within the framework of Mexico’s ambitious constitutional reforms. In light of the recent A.P. and G.A.O. reports, the U.S. should also focus serious, sustained attention on the nuts-and-bolts of cooperation in the prosecution of drug suspects–both within Mexico (between local, state and federal authorities) and regionally.
As Adam Isacson from the Washington Office on Latin America recently testified before Congress, meaningfully reducing drug supplies and increasing citizen security requires coordinated efforts more closely resembling “nation-building” than a “war on drugs.” Likewise, Mérida’s indicators should properly reflect the policy’s strategic institution-building goals.
For more views and commentary from Nina, check out her blog, Drugs, Law and Conflict.