Small Wars Journal

The Merida Initiative and Mexico’s Legislative and Constitutional Reforms

Tue, 06/12/2012 - 5:39am

On March 28th, 2012, former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, delivered a speech (YouTube video here) at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.   One of President Fox’s primary speaking points was that due to Mexico’s geographic sandwiching between one of the largest producer’s of illicit drugs in the world (Colombia), and the largest consumers of illicit drugs in the world (the US), his country was suffering from increasingly powerful drug cartels seizing the opportunity to create money and power out of Mexico’s proverbial, middleman location.   Additionally President Fox stated that Mexico’s current President, Felipe Calderón, was making bold and commendable decisions but was still losing the war against drug cartels.  It is in this light that we should attempt to look at Mexico’s war against their drug cartels as a war they cannot win by themselves, and that in part we must take some responsibility. (Referring to this war as only Mexico’s war, and “their” drug cartels is over-simplistic and ignores the spirit of this paper, but for clarification purposes and to maintain an appropriate level of distinction vocabulary must be use that does not sufficiently articulate the issues involved.)

In October 2007, The United States Congress passed the Merida Initiative as a collaborative partnership between the United States and Mexico as a vital step in a unified war against drugs and the subsequent violence and crimes attached with it.  This was an important move from Mexico’s standpoint because it signified an almost unprecedented willingness to cooperate with the United States, which from a cultural standpoint had not always been a favored approach. The Merida Initiative is but one, albeit highly visible, example of Calderón’s approach to fighting the drug wars. 

President Calderón has insisted that Mexico is not a failed state and it appears that he is willing to apply any approach to work towards the truth of this statement. Coupled with the Merida Initiative’s changes in funding, cooperation, and strategy, Mexico has implemented changes to their constitution, as well as overhauls to their judicial process and police forces.

If Mexico is not a failed/narco state, as President Calderón has suggested, then it is most certainly on the verge of becoming one with over 6,200 drug-related killings in 2008 alone and cartels gaining zones of complete impunity against the law. The operations of drug cartels in these zones raises one very important question; why do cartels create zones of impunity?  The answer is simple. They do so in order to establish their own law and operate outside that of the government’s.   Therefore it follows that in order to affect real and permanent change, Mexico must strengthen its rule of law.  There must be a complete overhaul of the entire judicial system in order to diminish both the size and the influence that drugs and the drug cartels have in Mexico. 

President Calderón’s action and policies seemed to have aligned themselves with this idea.  There is an inherent flaw in one very crucial aspect of the Mexican criminal justice system…no one trusts the police.  A recent study found that 90% of Mexicans who had been victims of a crime never reported the crime to authorities. Worse yet, the reason for not reporting these crimes was because the victims felt it would do no good. The Mexican police task force is, and essentially always has been, under-paid and overworked.  The combination of a heavy and dangerous workload, as well as the lack of appropriate compensation, has created fertile ground for bribery, which has surfaced by way of the “mordida” which translates to “small bite.”  The mordida is a cultural implant in the police force in Mexico, and for this reason, President Calderón had to initially use the Mexican army to impart justice on the drug cartels.  However, it appears that through the funding and training of the Merida Initiative, Mexico may eventually have a more trustworthy and competent police force, which would hopefully lead to a more optimistic population that is willing to report crimes. 

 The changes to the Mexican police service are just one piece of the puzzle and judicial reforms are also being implemented.  In 2008, just 1-2% of all crimes reported resulted in sentencing. That same year Mexico began implementing a series of legislative, as well as constitutional, changes to its criminal justice system which include:

1.)  Procedural changes comprised of the introduction of new oral and adversarial procedures, alternative sentencing, and alternative dispute resolution (ADR);

2.)  A greater emphasis on raised standards of the due process rights of the accused (i.e., presumption of innocence, ensuring the accused has adequate legal defense, more impartial roles for the presiding judges, etc.);

3.)  Modifications to police agencies and their role in criminal investigations, making it easier and more reliable for prosecutors to procure evidence for trial;

4.)  The use of “arraigo” to detain members of organized crime for 40 days without criminal charges, as well as other measures to aggressively target organized crime.

As stated above, Mexico has only begun implementing these changes, as well as the corollary changes that must occur in order for their success.  For instance, the law requires new, more advocate savvy attorneys and law schools are adjusting their curriculum to suit their countries developing need for proficient advocates. Lawyers are not the only ones receiving additional training. Judges, police officers, and to some extent, government employees are all undergoing training in order for Mexico to adopt a more adversarial and strict judicial system.  This is in an effort to strengthen and uphold the rule of law. But just as importantly as re-enforcing the actual strength of the law, it is important to strengthen the faith in the law. 


            An early marker to use as a litmus test gauging the success of the implemented procedures and laws is not just the estimated drug-related violence or drug-related money laundering, but whether or not crimes are actually being reported, because as impunity goes, so does the power of the drug cartels.  Power is taken out of the hands of the cartels and returned to Mexico’s citizens when faith is restored in the rule of law, and this is the first step towards eradicating the presence and over-whelming power of the drug cartels in Mexico. 

About the Author(s)

Carlos Nash Licona is a graduate of The University of Georgia, and is finishing his final year of law school at Stetson College of Law where he will graduate with a concentration in International Law.  He has traveled and lived in countries around the world ranging from Mexico, Costa Rica, and Argentina, to Spain, England, and Portugal.  This past summer, Nash was in Buenos Aires studying Argentina's Dirty War and the issues surrounding The Disappeared.  His current scholastic focus is on terrorism and national security issues.