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News / Nation & World

Mexican president rejects U.S. crime-fighting funds

Lopez Obrador wants cooperation for development

By Mary Beth Sheridan, The Washington Post
Published: May 9, 2019, 5:47pm

MEXICO CITY — For 11 years, the United States has tried to help Mexico fight narcotrafficking and other organized crime through a historic $3 billion plan called the Merida Initiative. Washington has sent helicopters, helped train police and helped redesign the justice system.

Mexico’s new president now says: Basta.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December as Mexico’s first democratically elected leftist president, says he’d like to “reorient” the program away from crime-fighting and toward investment in social programs.

“It hasn’t worked,” he said this week in Mexico City. “We don’t want cooperation in the use of force, we want cooperation for development.”

The surprise announcement has injected a note of uncertainty into Mexico’s relations with the Trump administration. Until now, Lopez Obrador has sought a cordial relationship with Washington, even as Trump has regularly bashed Mexico on immigration.

“This comes perilously close to upsetting the apple cart and really aggravating the United States,” said Eric Olson, a Latin America expert at the Seattle International Foundation, who has studied the Merida program.

The U.S. Embassy downplayed Lopez Obrador’s comments, noting in a statement that the initiative had evolved under different Mexican governments, and saying the Trump administration looked forward “to continued dialogue.”

Lopez Obrador took office promising a new approach to tackling organized crime. He pledged to create social programs to draw young people away from lucrative work for drug gangs. Abrazos, no balazos — “Hugs, not bullets”– was the slogan.

He raised eyebrows by saying he didn’t want to pursue narco bosses — “there is no war” on drugs, he said in January — and would instead prioritize reducing the homicide rate. The U.S.-backed “kingpin strategy” of focusing on drug lords has been widely criticized for causing Mexico’s cartels to fracture into smaller groups, which have expanded into extortion, gasoline theft and other crimes.

Lopez Obrador’s strategy hasn’t brought much change. The number of killings has continued to rise, hitting a record 8,493 in the first quarter of this year.

Analysts say Lopez Obrador seems to have a poor understanding of the Merida Initiative. The Mexican leader, in his news conference on Tuesday, said “we don’t want armed helicopters, we don’t want resources for other types of military support.”

In fact, in recent years, much of the Merida Initiative funding has gone toward training police and prosecutors as Mexico tries to improve its security forces and build a more independent, professional justice system.

Lopez Obrador suggested the Merida money be shifted to his plans for economic development in southern Mexico and Central America, where he has said development would help deter migration.