Security Cooperation between the United States and Mexico

Security Cooperation between the United States and Mexico: Today, Yesterday, and the Future We Want

by Editors

By Viridiana Rios


“El Chapo must remain here to serve his sentence, and then I’ll extradite him. Some 300 or400 years later, I’ll extradite him” – Attorney General of México, January 2015.

“The instruction is (…) to extradite el Chapo as soon as possible” –President of México, January 2016.

This chapter analyses the relationship between Mexico and the United States in terms of security. The material examines the main characteristics and goals of this relationship, the most recent changes it has faced, and provides five recommendations aimed at creating a healthier, deep and balanced collaboration between these two countries in the near future.

This text is divided into three parts. The first part explores the most recent changes in the bilateral relationship, including its most relevant milestones. The goal is to gain an understanding of how the relationship these two countries currently have has evolved over time. The second part identifies the key characteristics of this relationship, analyzing the four main priorities set by both countries and providing pertinent information and examples of policies implemented to address each priority. Finally, the third part discusses the type of relationship the two countries should aim to have in the near future (setting the year 2024 as a hypothetical goal) and provides five concrete recommendations to facilitate reaching this goal.


  1. How did the United States and Mexico get to the current point of their bilateral relation in terms of security?

The 1951-mile long border between Mexico and the United States represents a long history of bilateral security cooperation. This dynamic has taken varied paths and forms; at times the security cooperation between Mexico and the United States has been weak and inefficient. For example, the period known as “the great campaign”, which started shortly after World War II, which involved a project to eradicate drug trafficking, was in fact a façade construed by Mexico with very little resources invested in reducing illegal drug trade (O’Neil 2014). On the other hand, the security cooperation has also seen moments of high efficiency, but only due to equally high levels of paternalism. Between the 1980s and 90s, Mexico began to dedicate greater efforts to the war against drug trafficking, especially in 1986, when the United States launched a certification process. This process allowed the United States to “certify” Mexico by determining if the country was complying with the agreed steps against drug trafficking (O’Neil 2014). Likewise, the relationship between both countries has historically changed in its concentration, initially focusing primarily on commercial security, especially when the 1994 NAFTA agreement was signed, and later moving towards national security following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 (Shirk 2015).

Given that the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. is so irregular, if we were to choose the historic moment when it took its current form, that moment would undoubtedly be the year 2006. The arrival of Felipe Calderon to the presidency in 2006 represented a milestone for the relationship between both countries because it was the first Mexican administration to identify the war against drugs as a domestic policy issue, instead of a bilateral one. In other words, with the arrival of Calderon, the fight against drug trafficking ceased to be a symbolic fight to collaborate with the United States and started being a fight against the organized crime that operated with impunity in Mexico.

The change can be explained by alterations in the way Mexican organized crime operated. After the events of September 2001, the United States reinforced border security, making it more difficult for drugs to enter U.S. territory and increasing the value of controlling main border crossings. At the same time, drug consumption in the United States decreased. The excess supply faced by Mexican drug cartels became an incentive to sell their products in Mexico. Finally, the arrival of the opposition to the presidency in 2000 reduced the ability of the Mexican government to coordinate its three levels of government into a single security policy. In response, the drug cartels expanded started selling drugs in Mexico, which increased violence (Rios 2012). Facing this new criminal reality, reducing the influence of drug cartels became a way to reduce victimization in Mexico, not just a way to support the United States.

Thereby, soon after the arrival of Calderon, both countries designed the Merida Initiative, the main tool for security cooperation between these two countries in current operation.  Through this, the United States promised to provide security resources to Mexico and to reduce arms trafficking and the demand for drugs. Meanwhile, Mexico promised to attack drug trafficking, improve its judicial system and reduce corruption[1] (Finklea and Seelke 2016).  The Merida Initiative was approved in 2007 and began to operate in 2008, creating a historically close collaboration between the United States and Mexico.

Nonetheless, in December of 2012 a new administration took power in Mexico which lead to a colder relationship between these two countries (Olson 2016). The new Mexican government, led by President Enrique Peña Nieto, had more centralizing tendencies and wanted to maintain a stronger control over security collaboration. For this reason, Mexico began a restructuring of its collaboration mechanisms, transforming or dismantling many of the institutions with which the United States had close connections. Among the most controversial changes was the creation of a “single window” policy or ventanilla única in Spanish, which forced American authorities to channel all its interactions through Mexican federal authorities rather than working directly with local governments, as they had done in previous years.

The relationship remained cool until the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, El Chapo Guzman, unexpectedly escaped[2] from a high security prison for the second time in mid-2015. Enrique Peña Nieto’s government changed its discourse radically, from one precluding El Chapo’s extradition to one in which extradition would be almost immediate after pulling off his recapture. In part, this was because Mexico could not afford for El Chapo escape from prison again, as he had done in 2015. While it is not certain that there was collaboration between these two countries in the recapture of El Chapo Guzman in 2016, it is certain that discussions about extradition would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago, when the Peña Nieto administration had just started and El Chapo Guzman had just been captured following his first escape.


  1. How is the current security relationship between the U.S. and Mexico?

The security relationship between Mexico and the U.S. includes five priorities, not all with equal weight. According to the total resources invested in each one (see Olson 2016), we can deduce that these priorities, in order of importance, are: (1) strengthen the Mexican judiciary system (58% of total granted resources), (2) eliminate organized criminal groups (16%), (3) create infrastructure for a smart border (16%), (4) prevent crime (10%), and (5) counter-terrorism.

I describe each one of them subsequently:

Area of collaboration #1: Strengthen the rule of law and the justice system in Mexico. Both countries collaborate to implement (1) a justice reform that allows for the improvement of efficiency and efficacy in the administration of justice in Mexico, and (2) a police reform that allows for an adequate system of law enforcement throughout the Mexican territory (Finklea and Seelke 2016).


  • Mexico and the United States collaborate to implement the justice reform Mexico approved in 2008. This reform, which according to Mexican legislation must be completely implemented by June 2016, allowing Mexico to move from an inquisitorial system to an adversarial one[3]. There are collaborative actions on this matter. The United States has allocated funds to equip and train the Mexican Federal Police and local police and public ministries in a few states like Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Puebla y Sonora, to set up and develop forensic capacities, and to improve the federal prison system (Seelke 2013). The U.S. State Department has also trained local and federal police officers to develop the investigation capabilities required by the accusatory system. Further, the State Department has worked directly with the PGR, the Mexican Attorney General, in a training program called “Project Diamante” that promotes teamwork throughout the entire chain of justice administration and enforcement at the federal level (Finklea and Seelke 2016).
  • The U.S. and Mexico have established partnerships to professionalize the Mexican police. This professionalization is of great importance to Mexico because it is the first link in the chain of an effective judicial system, as it is to the U.S. because to the extent that Mexican police forces become more professional, trust and collaboration between American authorities like the Border Patrol and Mexican authorities like the Federal Police could increase. Collaborative actions in the area of police reform are less well developed because Mexico still has not been able to get the necessary legal reforms approved to implement a single police force for each state. Nonetheless, the U.S. has allocated almost $24 million for the purchase of equipment and training of local and federal police officers (Finklea and Seelke 2016). Among the areas of training that have been prioritized are the creation of internal affairs offices, the centralization of staff information, and the creation of standard procedures that can be applied to all police departments (Finklea and Seelke 2016). Part of the security collaboration has also been directed at strengthening civil society organizations from both sides of the border that oversee and evaluate police forces in Mexico (Shirk 2016).


AREA OF COLLABORATION #2: Eliminate organized criminal groups. The principal purpose is to prevent cartels, especially “Los Zetas” criminal group, from becoming a direct threat to the Mexican state in addition to prevent criminal groups from engaging in drug trafficking activities in the U.S., trafficking firearms into Mexico, and money laundering in both countries.

Among all the areas of collaboration, this one has the most extensive history, first gaining relevance when President Nixon declared a “war against drugs” in June of 1971. The collaboration between both countries includes joint force operations (collaboration in the search and capture of suspects), and the purchase of equipment that allows for the improvement of Mexican authorities’ research and tracking capacities (Finklea and Seelke 2016). In fact, joint operations between these two countries are more common than it would seem at first sight. Mexican authorities collaborate with a variety of American organizations, including the State Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as joint operations among Mexico, the U.S. and Canada as part of the Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST) (Finklea and Seelke 2016). In addition, a total of $13 million has been invested in communication infrastructure between cities in Mexico and the U.S. to enable the information sharing (Finklea and Seelke 2016). In terms of equipment acquisition and training, the United States allocated nearly $590 million between 2008 and 2010 for the purchase of aircraft, helicopters and forensic equipment. Likewise, it has provided 340 K-9 units to impound, track, and confiscate illegal drugs, weapons and dirty money, and another 20 million dollars to finance the activities of the PRG intelligence unit responsible for analyzing suspected money-laundering activities (Finklea and Seelke 2016).

AREA OF COLLABORATION #3: Infrastructure that creates an intelligent border. An intelligent border is one that is sufficiently porous and effective to allow fast and efficient trade, but sufficiently supervised to prevent the introduction of illegal merchandise, undocumented migrants, or terrorists into either of the two countries.

Recently, important steps have been taken on this front.  In 2016, the two countries were able to finish what had been known as “The Bridge to Nowhere”, an infrastructure project that connects Texas with Chihuahua, but which had been left incomplete because the Mexican part had not been constructed. (Wayne and Wilson 2016). The bridge is currently operating and will help improve bilateral trade.  In addition, officials from the two countries inaugurated the first inspection facilities for freight originating in Mexico  (San Isidro-Tijuana ensuring more rapid transit to California (Wayne and Wilson 2016). This “Freight Pre-inspection Program” will operate at three border checkpoints and is possible only because the Mexican Congress ratified a 2014 law allowing U.S. migration and customs authorities to carry weapons in Mexico (Finklea and Seelke 2016). Furthermore, a transit system for trains was put in place in 2015 (Brownsville-Matamoros) along with a bridge connecting the airport in Tijuana and California (Wayne and Wilson 2016).[4]

AREA OF COLLBORATION #4:  Preventing Crime: This is the most recent area of security collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico. It began to operate officially in 2011 and since then has received nearly $100 million in U.S. aid to create crime prevention programs in collaboration with civil organizations and federal and state authorities in Mexico (Finklea and Seelke 2016).

The intent of this area of collaboration is to promote a culture of legality in Mexico, to favor close ties between citizens and the police, to cut down on risky situations for young people, and to identify ways to collaborate with public and private actors to promote security. There have been many efforts, mainly developed between the United States and the Under-Secretary for Prevention and Civic Participation of the Mexican Interior Ministry. For example, the United States has helped to provide courses that teach legal culture to nearly 800 thousand students each year (Finklea and Seelke 2016).

AREA OF COLLABORATION #5: Anti-Terrorism Coordination This area of collaboration arose after the 9-11 attacks in the United States. The U.S. urgently required intelligence collaboration to prevent possible future attacks that could originate from Mexican territory. From this point forward, the U.S.-Mexico security relationship could no longer continue to focus solely on the fight against drug trafficking, but now also on the prevention of terrorism (Arzt, 2010).

The intent of this area of collaboration is, from the Mexican side, to most effectively safeguard its territory to prevent fundamentalist groups linked to international terrorism from developing an attack against the U.S. from within Mexico. Until now, no terrorist attack has taken shape from within in Mexico. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Center for Research and National Security of Mexico (CISEN) have commanded most of the efforts implemented on this front. After the September 11 attacks, both countries strengthened their borders with more personnel and better surveillance technology. In addition, there is a protocol under which non-Mexican migrants who enter the U.S. from Mexico can be detained and interrogated (Priest, 2013).



While a wide range of bilateral activities has considered all five priorities of the security collaboration between Mexico and the U.S., the truth is that there is still a lot of room for improvement. A better relationship between these two countries must not only be effective in the five areas mentioned above, but this relationship must be also one between equals, two countries with the same level of commitment and responsibility. In other words, it cannot continue to be a relationship between one country that provides resources and another that implements them, but a relationship in which both countries implement measures to help one another. In 2024, we want a relationship that goes beyond the U.S. providing resources and Mexico using them to improve its border infrastructure and its process of delivery and administration of justice.

To achieve this, both countries will have to undertake clear measures in at least five areas.

RECOMMENDATION #1: Extend the collaboration between Mexico and the United States to non-border states. The vast majority of Merida Initiative resources for crime prevention and control have been allocated to a few cities like Tijuana, Monterrey and Juarez. In the long term, this will generate inequality in the quality of judicial institutions and thus the migration of criminal groups to zones that, due to their marginalization, could become even more difficult to deal with. An example of this is Veracruz, a state that has not benefitted from the collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico, and where criminal groups like Los Zetas have recently migrated. Both countries must recognize that the US assistance cannot continue to be biased towards some areas and not others, but that it must be distributed more equitably. Particular attention must be paid to the states that will be home to Special Economic Areas, since legal trade will explode in these states making them more attractive to criminal groups.

RECOMMENDATION #2: Define the rules of the game related to legal marijuana trade between the two countries. There is no doubt that in a few years the consumption of marijuana will be legalized, at least in its medical form. Just now, the Mexican Congress has begun a series of discussions to determine, together with experts and academics, the best way to permit its consumption in Mexico. Both countries must prepare to hold the following discussion: regulating production and commercialization of marijuana. This is important because a good binational trade policy could increase the number of agricultural jobs in Mexico, reinforcing the negative trend in illegal migration to the United States in recent years (Pew Research Center, 2015). Assuming, conservatively, that marijuana production would increase the number of required agriculture jobs by 10%, the industry would generate 35,700 jobs in the formal sector. This means that, at the moment of its creation, the marijuana industry would become the fourth largest sector of the economy in terms of job creation in Mexico (Rios 2015).  These numbers could be even higher if we take into account informal employment.  To date, close to 5.4 million individuals work informally in agriculture, which means that a 10% increase in informal agriculture employment would represent 540,000 additional jobs for Mexico (Rios 2015).

RECOMMENDATION #3: Professionalize the justice system in both countries at the same level so they can collaborate. One of the fundamental reasons for which the Mexican and American security authorities do not collaborate is their extreme difference in terms of professionalization. Mexican police forces are less professional than American ones, which impedes both forces from communicating and working together. The most effective way to professionalize the Mexican police and public ministries is by creating a professional service that incentivizes and provides certainty to public officials. Improving labor conditions for police officers and prosecutors by giving them better hours and more training and by providing decent wages and facilities, should be a high priority for both countries.

RECOMMENDATION #4: Develop joint technologies to prevent cyber crime.  Given that information is one of the goods whose market value has increased the most in recent decades, both countries must begin to work together to create protocols for protection against cyber-attacks. Likewise, physical and digital infrastructure subject to attack on both sides of the border must be protected. Given that the United States has a great advantage in this area, it should be the Americans who train and set the guidelines for Mexico to follow.

RECOMMENDATION #5: Facilitate procedures so that Mexican civil society can gain access to international resources. While the U.S. has started to provide funds to Mexican civil organizations, these funds have been too difficult to obtain and too bureaucratic in their management. The vast majority of Mexican civil society organizations lack the manpower needed to collaborate with organizations like USAID, since this requires a great deal of procedures, accounting, and red tape. It is important to keep in mind that a reduction in the number of steps required to obtain funding could expand the capacity of Mexican civil society to act.



The security relationship between Mexico and the United States has taken many forms and has had different approaches over time, ranging from policies focused primarily on commercial security to a more recent focus on national security.

Currently, this relationship focuses on five aspects: (1) strengthening the Mexican judiciary system, (2) eliminating organized crime groups, (3) creating border infrastructure for a smart border, (4) preventing crime, and (5) anti-terrorism.

Although in each of these aspects there have been important advances that have translated into specific implementation, much remains to be done. The relationship that we would like to see between the U.S. and Mexico in the near future, let’s say in 2024, is one in which both countries have managed to establish an equal relationship, not one where the U.S. only provides resources and Mexico implements them.

To achieve this, the United States needs to improve the way it currently distributes resources and to add some priority topics in the bilateral relationship.  We recommend five specific improvements: (1) expand assistance outside of border states, (2) begin to define clear rules for the marijuana trade, (3) professionalize the police and prosecutors in both countries to the same level so they can collaborate, (4) develop joint technologies to circumvent cybercrime, and (5) facilitate procedures so that Mexican civil society can access to international resources.

The discussion and implementation of these five measures will permit the development of a better and more effective relationship between the U.S. and Mexico; one that builds a more secure border that benefits both nations.



Finklea. Kristin and Seelke, Clare Ribando. “U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond” Congressional Research Service 7-5700. 15 January 2016.

O’Neil, Shannon. “Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States and the Road Ahead.” Norteamérica 8.2 (2013): 195-199.

Olson, Eric L. “Merida Funding for Mexico” Mexicio’s Security Review, 2016. The Wilson Center for International Scholars. 21 January 2016.

Ríos Viridiana. How Government Structure Encourages Criminal Violence: The Causes of Mexico’s Drug War. Doctoral Dissertation, Harvard University’s Department of Government. December 2012.

Ríos, Viridiana. “El empleo que la mariguana generará” Excélsior. 8 November 2015.

Rodríguez Ferreira y David Shirk. “Criminal Procedure Reform in Mexico, 2008-2016” Special Report. Justice in Mexico. University of San Diego. October 2012.

Seelke, Clare. “Supporting Criminal Justice System Reform in Mexico: The U.S. Role” Congressional Research Service 7-5700. 18 March 2013.

Shirk, David. “An Overview of U.S.-Mexico Border Relations” in The Anatomy of a Relationship: A Collection of Essays on the Evolution of U.S.-Mexico Cooperation on Border Management. The Mexico Institute, Wilson Center. 25 November 2015.

Shirk, David. “Police Reform in Mexico” Mexico’s Security Review, 2016. The Wilson Center for International Scholars. 21 January 2016.

Wayne, Anthony y Chris Wilson. “The “Bridge to Nowhere” Connects the United States and Mexico. Border Security, The Mexico Institute. 5 February 2016

Arzt, S. (2010). US-Mexico Security Collaboration: Intelligence Sharing and Law Enforcement Cooperation. SHARED RESPONSIBILITY, 351.

Pew Research Center. (2015). More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the US. línea] http://www. pewhispanic. org/2015/11/19/more-mexicans-leaving-than-coming-to-the-us.

Priest, D. (2013). US role at a crossroads in Mexico’s intelligence war on the cartels. The Washington Post27.



[1] In the FY 2014, 5.5 million dollars were removed from the collaboration package for considering that Mexico was not advancing in compliance with its citizens’ human rights. (Finklea and Seelke 2016).

[2] El Chapo Guzman was captured in 1993 and escaped from a high security prison in 2001. He was re-captured in 2014 and escaped again in 2015. When he was for the third time captured in 2016, Mexican authorities started to discuss his extradition to the U.S., in part because this third escape was devastating for the Mexican government’s credibility.

[3] Among the changes this implies is the implementation of oral juries, the creation of alternative mechanisms to jury to resolve legal conflicts like mediation and negotiation, the implementation of a clearer division of functions between judge and the public ministry, and the expansion of the powers of police investigation (Rodríguez Ferreira and Shirk 2015).

[4] The collaboration in this area can also be seen in terms of training. The Homeland Security Department of the U.S. helped create a training academy for customs officers in Mexico, in order to professionalize revisions of merchandise entering Mexico, and has provided training in investigative activities to the Mexican authorities (Finklea and Seelke 2016).


The U.S.-Mexico Network’s Imagining 2024 project is designed to provide readers a quick overview of key issues in US-Mexico relations – the background of the issue, its current state, where we ought to be by 2024, and how to get there.


Each short essay is coupled with suggested background readings for those interested in a more detailed understanding of the issue at hand.  And as an electronic publication, both the essays and their associated resource pages are updated as needed to keep the information and analysis fresh.

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