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Diplomacy in Action

The Merida Initiative

David T. Johnson
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Remarks before the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations
Tucson, AZ
April 7, 2009


First of all, I want to thank you for the opportunity to meet with you this morning and also to tell you how much I appreciate your efforts here, in Tucson, to maintain a focus on international issues. I’ll confess that I’ve never visited Tucson before, but I have a respect for border communities, having spent much of my career focused on them, whether in Ciudad Juarez, Vancouver, or Berlin, during the Cold War. The issues one deals with as a diplomat in such settings has an immediacy for your fellow citizens that you seldom see in other places. I also want to encourage you, as involved members of your community, to encourage the young people of Tucson, whether at the University of Arizona or elsewhere, to consider how they might engage in a lifetime focused on international questions, whether in America’s Foreign Service, its military, its intelligence agencies, or the private sector. We need them, and your word of encouragement could make all the difference.

But enough with my public service announcement. We are here today to discuss the Merida Initiative, America’s security cooperation partnership to combat narcotics fueled organized crime in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

I want to thank Congresswoman Giffords for not only inviting me to attend her Border Violence Summit this afternoon, which has given me the opportunity to come speak with you here this morning, but for her focus on these issues and her recognition of the importance of the U.S.-Mexico partnership.

As I mentioned earlier, I started my career in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, so I am no stranger to the impact cross-border threats can have on the daily lives of people all along the border. Drug-related violence in the United States as well as Mexico, thus far has come mainly in the form of criminals committing violence against one another, though the risk of getting caught in the crossfire – whether you are a bystander or a law enforcement officer – is growing. Mexican law enforcement has suffered significant losses. And while the impact on law enforcement in the United States has thus far been minimal, our Border Patrol is under continuing threat and Arizona’s Attorney General, in a Washington Post interview this weekend, made clear he thought that it was only a matter of time before a border sheriff or other local police officer was similarly threatened. But thus far, the threat of Mexican drug cartels is not so much at our border but throughout our country. These criminal groups have established distribution networks in many American cities, leading the Justice Department to call Mexican drug cartels the “greatest organized crime threat to the United States.”

The Government of Mexico has taken a tough stance against the drug cartels, and it is not backing down. It is instead pushing ever more aggressively to strengthen security and the rule of law in Mexico. Their efforts, while today revealing an ever more violent adversary, can eventually have a positive impact on virtually every American community. Our assistance in the fight against Mexican drug cartels is a critical step in fighting the drug trade in our own cities towns. And the dynamic of the border region makes violence on one side of the border a pressing concern on both sides.

Fear of the violence occurring in Mexican border cities has reduced the easy and frequent crossings that are important to the lives of Americans and to the economic health of American border communities. The transnational nature of this threat clearly makes addressing the violence in Mexico a top priority for security in the United States.

In response, the Federal government has launched a comprehensive effort to counter the threats along the border. The Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice are moving aggressively to step up their efforts to disrupt illegal flows of weapons and bulk cash to Mexico, and to increase inspections and other border measures to deter the flow of drugs and violence into the United States.

For example, DHS is:
  • doubling the number of Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BEST) teams along the border;

  • tripling DHS intelligence analysts working along the Southwest border;

  • increasing Immigration and Customs staff in Mexico in support of Mexican law enforcement;

  • doubling violent criminal alien teams located in Southwest Border Field Offices;

  • increasing the number of Border Liaison Officers working with Mexican law enforcement;

  • instituting southbound rail examinations;

  • enhancing the use of technology at ports of entry, including inspection equipment such as mobile x-ray machines;

  • increasing the number of canine units;

  • increasing engagement with state and local Southwest border law enforcement;

  • increasing the use of mobile license plate readers for Southbound traffic; and

  • continuing its successful bilateral law enforcement and intelligence-sharing operation to thwart the export of arms to Mexico known as Armas Cruzadas.
The Department of Justice is actively engaged in confronting the criminal enterprises responsible for violence in Mexico and the trafficking of drugs, illegal arms and bulk cash across the border. The Mexican Cartel Strategy, led by the Deputy Attorney General, is working with federal prosecutor-led task forces to identify, disrupt and dismantle the Mexican drug cartels. Justice is increasing its focus on investigations and prosecutions of the southbound smuggling of guns and cash that fuel the violence in Mexico, and is attacking the cartels in Mexico in partnership with Mexican law enforcement agencies.

Just last week, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and Attorney General Holder met with top level Mexican security officials to coordinate initiatives to address border threats. A binational working group will be formed by Memorial Day to further examine ways to work jointly to investigate and prosecute gun smugglers, to upgrade shared fingerprint databases, and to increase inspections for southbound vehicles entering Mexico.

As part of Justice’s overall strategy, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is placing 16 new positions in its Southwest border field divisions. Nearly 30 percent of DEA’s domestic agency positions will now be dedicated to the Southwest Border.

DEA is also forming four additional Mobile Enforcement Teams to specifically target Mexican methamphetamine trafficking operations and associated violence along the border, and in other U.S. cities affected by the cartels.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is increasing its efforts by relocating 100 personnel to the Southwest border. It will use economic stimulus funding to fortify its ongoing Project Gunrunner which is aimed at disrupting arms trafficking.

Project Gunrunner has already referred 1,500 defendants for prosecution in cases involving more than 12,000 weapons.

ATF will also work to expand the impact of its eTrace Initiative, which works with Mexican officials to track weapons used by the the drug cartels. The eTrace system will be converted into a Spanish language version by the end of the year and will then be distributed throughout Mexico and Latin America.

The FBI is stepping up efforts along the border through its Southwest Intelligence Group, a clearinghouse of all FBI activities involving Mexico. The FBI will focus on public corruption, kidnappings, and extortion related to the Southwest border. The FBI is also continuing the successful implementation of the Central American Fingerprint Exchange Initiative, also known as CAFE.

This initiative collects, stores, and integrates biometric data from El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and the Mexican state of Chiapas into a central database accessible to U.S. law enforcement. The FBI will continue to implement the Transnational Anti-Gang initiative which coordinates the sharing of gang intelligence between the U.S. and El Salvador.

The U.S. Government is making a concerted effort to cut off the funding for the Mexican drug cartels. Operation Firewall, a DHS-led comprehensive law enforcement operation, targets criminal organizations involved in smuggling large quantities of U.S. currency.

The Treasury Department has made the targeting of the financial networks of the cartels a top priority and is working with the Mexican Government to disrupt money laundering operations. Treasury and the Federal Reserve are working closely with Mexico to analyze cross-border cash flows to distinguish legitimate activity from drug money laundering. They are also training Mexican Government officials on how to conduct financial analysis and financial investigations of the cartels.

While these efforts are aimed at the threat of border violence, and reducing arms trafficking and bulk currency smuggling, the U.S. Government is also committed to reducing domestic demand for illegal drugs. Approximately $5 billion were committed in 2008 to reduce illicit drug use within our own borders, including additional funding in this fiscal year for drug courts that bring judicial, law enforcement and treatment communities together with the goal of breaking the drug addiction of non-violent offenders. I predict this effort will be accelerated this year and in the years to come, since it is key to dampening the demand for drugs that provides the fuel for organized crime.

While I have spent a good deal of time talking about what we are doing here in the United States, a key element of our success in addressing the challenge of border violence is our ability to combine domestic enforcement efforts with our own international presence and by increasing the capacity of our international partners, effectively creating a defense in depth. By enhancing the capacity of law enforcement agencies south of the border, we can enhance the effectiveness of our own U.S. law enforcement agencies north of the border.

Our own experience in law enforcement in the United States has taught us that effective counter-narcotics measures require cooperation at all levels from the local cop on the beat, to specially trained and resourced investigative units, through to highly-skilled prosecutors.

By working with our international partners in the region we can disrupt drug production and supply chains before the narcotics cross our border. The Merida Initiative provides much needed support to increase the capacity of our partner nations, giving them the ability to disrupt the drug supply chain during a critical stage of the fight against the cartels.

Since his inauguration in December 2006, Mexican President Calderon has taken decisive action against transnational criminal organizations operating in Mexico. Under his leadership, counternarcotics and law enforcement operations have expanded throughout Mexico, and he has begun the arduous task of large scale police and rule of law reform. His efforts to combat corruption, confront powerful criminal syndicates, improve coordination among security agencies, modernize law enforcement agencies, and professionalize their staff are indeed without precedent.

But as President Calderon confronts the transnational drug trafficking organizations that threaten his country and the region, violence has climbed markedly.

The Merida Initiative is our contribution to Mexico’s own counter-drug efforts, and it is already beginning to transform United States-Mexico relations. President Calderon’s unprecedented request for security assistance signals a break with the past and the beginning of a broader and deeper partnership. That partnership extends across agencies on both sides of the border.

Under the leadership of Secretary of State Clinton, the Department of State is working closely with key agencies such as USAID, and the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and Treasury both in Washington and at our Embassies in the region to implement Merida projects.

The Merida Initiative will give us and our partners crucial tools to address the challenge effectively, such as:
  • inspection equipment that will prevent the smuggling of arms, bulk cash, persons and precursor chemicals used in methamphetamine production;

  • secure communications, enhanced data management, and forensic equipment that will improve Mexican law enforcement’s ability to target narcotrafficking and cross-border crimes;

  • enhanced data systems in Mexico that will strengthen information systems across Mexican law enforcement agencies and improve information sharing with U.S. counterparts;

  • expanded anti-corruption efforts, including training for ethics and anti-corruption under a police professionalization program, support for citizen complaint offices, and training and equipping inspectors general offices which can confront corruption throughout Mexico’s federal bureaucracy; and

  • judicial reform programs to improve crime prevention, strengthen institutions and the rule of law, including police reforms that will enhance Mexico’s ability to investigate, convict, sentence and securely detain those who commit crimes.

Several Merida projects are moving ahead rapidly, including programs for prison reform and non-intrusive inspection equipment. Initial projects include:

  • a bilateral workshop on arms trafficking held last week in Mexico;

  • the opening of three immigration control sites along the Mexico-Guatemala border in May that will issue biometric credentials to frequent Guatemalan border crossers;

  • implementation of an anti-trafficking-in- persons system for the Mexican Attorney General’s Office in May;

  • and a train-the-trainer program for Mexican Federal Corrections officers – funded by our Federal government but conducted by the State of New Mexico – that will graduate 1,000 officers by the end of the year.

In addition, we have a package of inspection equipment that is ready to be ordered, pending final confirmation from the Mexican Government. The procurements include scanning equipment for the Mexican military, federal police and Customs service. These purchases can be made this month with delivery as early as September. At $72 million, the purchases represent nearly 40 percent of the currently available funds.

The Mexican Customs Service has also begun a pilot project to inspect every vehicle crossing the border. For the first time, Mexican Customs will require all southbound passengers to stop at the border to go through an automated inspection process.
The system weighs the vehicle, scans the license plate, and runs the collected data through various databases and risk analysis tools within eight seconds, thereby enhancing the ability to prevent firearms, ammunition, and bulk cash smuggling.

These efforts indicate that both governments have a shared responsibility to ensure border security. Efforts such as the bi-national Merida implementation teams highlight that relationship as they forge links between U.S. and Mexican agencies. As Merida planning and implementation progresses, we will see day-to-day working relationships that did not exist in the past.

Merida, in and of itself, will not solve all the problems the current crime wave in Mexico inflicts. It is designed to complement efforts already underway by the Calderon administration. But the end result will be unprecedented cross-border cooperation based on the spirit of shared responsibility and more effective law enforcement operations on both sides of the border. And if it works as planned, it will usher in a systemic change in Mexican law enforcement as well as the relationship between our two countries, especially at the border.

To sum up, our efforts to combat narcotics-fueled organized crime in the border region constitute a three -part strategy:

First, our law enforcement authorities are working independently to fight these criminal gangs by stemming the tide of guns and laundered money headed south, investigating and prosecuting drug trafficking in the United States, and improving their own intelligence gathering capabilities.

Second, our law enforcement authorities are creating more effective, lasting partnerships with their Mexican counterparts. They are using this shared threat, and our joint response to it, as a means to develop joint operational relationships that will make communities on both sides of the border safer.

And third, we are helping Mexico create its own capabilities, through support for their efforts to drive systemic change in Mexico throughout their entire justice system, from the federal police, to special teams aimed against organized crime, through judicial reform, right through to more effectively managed prison systems.

This three-pronged effort will take time to yield results. But if we stay with it, we can change the face of our border in a positive way that could yield dividends for generations.

Thank you for your time and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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