Small Wars Journal

The Mérida Initiative at 7 Years: Little Institutional Improvement Amidst Increased Militarization

Wed, 09/16/2015 - 8:35am

The Mérida Initiative at 7 Years: Little Institutional Improvement Amidst Increased Militarization

Michael Hoopes

Introduction and Overall Findings

The following report assesses the nature of U.S. assistance to the Mexican government's recent efforts to combat organized crime. The Mérida Initiative, introduced by U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2007, is the most organized, intensive form of U.S. foreign aid to Mexico to date. By the end of FY2014 the U.S. had given the Mexican government $2.35 billion in aid. Criticism of the efficacy of such assistance has become increasingly common, with many arguing that the funds mostly support corrupt Mexican security forces. Criticisms from U.S. lawmakers, government officials, and the public also hold that U.S. aid to Mexico has failed to adequately fund economic development and community-building initiatives that many argue would strike at the root causes of Mexico's burgeoning criminal insurgency.

This report finds that despite the post-2009 efforts of the Obama Administration to re-brand the Mérida Initiative as a program that seeks to deemphasize support of Mexico's security institutions in favor of programs aimed at building Mexico's economy, civil society, and justice system, the U.S. government continues to support a Mexican security apparatus widely perceived as corrupt and inefficient. Such findings imply that in order to more effectively influence positive security outcomes in Mexico, the U.S. government should place stricter limits and conditions on the assistance it lends through the Mérida Initiative and Department of Defense programs like the Foreign Military Sales program. Moreover, the recommendation for the U.S. government to limit support to the Mexican state's security efforts is bolstered by the Mexican security crisis of 2014, in which the Mexican security forces and local, state, and federal politicians were found to be complicit in an array of human rights violations.

Background: The Mérida Initiative

Mexico’s “War on Drugs” began in late 2006 when its newly-elected president, Felipe Calderón, began a nationwide campaign to uproot Mexico’s powerful drug cartels using military force. Soon after the government’s campaign began, Calderón and then-U.S. President George W. Bush began discussing potential improvements for security cooperation between their two countries. Later, on October 22, 2007, the United States and Mexico announced the Mérida Initiative, a cooperative security agreement aimed at bolstering President Calderón's strategy of using head-on, militarized force to uproot Mexico’s powerful drug-based criminal organizations. Aimed combating “the growing operational and financial capabilities of criminal groups that traffic in drugs, arms, and persons,” the original initiative planned to contribute $1.4 billion to support Mexican law enforcement activities by giving training and equipment to be used in operations against the trafficking of drugs, arms, currency, and humans (see U.S. Department of State, 2007).

Early Criticisms and Obama Administration Adjustments

Because the initial incarnation of the Mérida Initiative focused on assisting Mexican authorities in the nuts-and-bolts aspects of their armed conflict against criminal organizations, U.S. lawmakers' earliest criticisms of the Initiative emphasized the concern that funds would be fueling a corrupt and inefficient Mexican national security machine. In May 2008, the U.S. Congress held back $100 million of the initial $500 million transfer promised Mexico on the grounds that the State Department was yet to demonstrate that Mexican authorities were meeting satisfactory human rights standards (Lacey, 2008). At the time of the Congressional action, an official from Human Rights Watch traced impunity in the military to the fact that human rights abuses were only investigated internally. Echoing the criticism from human rights groups at the time, one U.S. Senator cited the need to withhold funds on the grounds that the Mérida Initiative was a “partnership” and not a “giveaway” (2008).

The criticisms of the Initiative's emphasis on lending materiel and tactical support to security institutions persisted after the end of Bush’s tenure, likely producing an eventual adjustment of the plan. Within the first year of President Barack Obama’s presidency, the U.S. Department of State developed new goals for the Mérida Initiative based on four pillars that superseded the original goals developed by the Bush Administration. These four pillars were (1) disrupting organized criminal groups, (2) institutionalizing reforms to sustain rule of law and respect for human rights, (3) creating a 21st century border, and (4) building strong and resilient communities (see U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2010).

Building Institutional Capacity

Whereas the Mérida Initiative initially emphasized assisting direct security operations by Mexican forces through the transfer of weapons, equipment, and the training of security personnel, the four pillars introduced by the Department of State in 2009 represented a new, two-fold focus on both the more traditional security initiatives and the more subtle approach to combating organized crime and drug trafficking through institutional reform. After discussing this new four pillar approach, Roberta Jacobson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, indicated a concerted effort to depart from the Initiative's initial focus when she stated the following before Congress in 2010: “We are moving away from big ticket equipment and into an engagement that reinforces progress by further institutionalizing Mexican capacity to sustain adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights, build strong institutions, promote full civil society participation, transform the nature of our borders, and by providing intensive technical assistance and training” (Jacobson, 2010).

While the pillars of disrupting the capacity of organized crime and creating a 21st century border structure would continue to be accomplished “through equipment, technology, aviation, and training” and through “better infrastructure and technology,” the pillars of institutional reforms to strengthen rule of law and communities would rely on more novel approaches (see U.S. Department of State).  To strengthen rule of law, reforms to Mexico's justice system have counted on considerable U.S. funding and training. Mexico's overhaul of its justice system began in 2008 when legislation was passed to transform historically opaque written court proceedings into oral proceedings that gave victims, defendants, and attorneys direct access to a trial judge (Zabludovsky, 2015).

Though the onus of judicial reform is on the Mexican government, the Mérida Initiative has taken considerable stewardship in the process in terms of training and funding—to date contributing roughly $75 million to the reform (2015). The most notable form of support is the Promoting Justice (PROJUST) initiative, introduced by the State Department in November 2014 as a five-year program meant to facilitate the Mérida Initiative's efforts to support Mexican judicial reform. Administered through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with an initial $68 million funding package, PROJUST will provide training and technical assistance to judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and victim assistance workers in all 31 Mexican states (see U.S. Department of State, 2014).

To strengthen civil society and provide economic alternatives to the lucrative narcotics industry, funds from the Initiative's Economic Support Fund (ESF) have totaled $179 million from FY2008 to FY2014. In the state of Baja California, for example, the ESF has given micro loans to fund one family's small welding business and a leadership workshop that helps lower-middle class Mexicans return to school (Ortiz, 2014). It was reported in 2013 that such workshops, administered by USAID with Mérida Initiative funds, placed 70 percent of workshop participants into jobs or schools within one year (see USAID, 2013). Other efforts to strengthen civil society using the ESF include the funding of social programs like the-nonprofit Asociación Scouts de Mexico, which involves at-risk youth in Boy Scout-like after school activities.

The Limits of Institution Building

Two interconnected factors—the limited amount of funds devoted to institution-building and the limited implementation of institution-building initiatives— have combined to greatly limit the potential for success of the Mérida Initiative's non-security/military assistance to Mexico. The first inhibiting factor to the Initiative's institution-building goals is the limited scope by which they are applied. As of early 2014, only three Mexican cities—Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Monterrey—were the targets of U.S. funds and programs to build stronger communities, making such community-building initiatives inadequate on a national scale. Although drug-related violence was initially most intense in these northern cities—gateways to the U.S. market the cartels were fighting to control—more southern Mexican states like Mexico State, Michoacán, and Guerrero—where drug production, access to ports, and distribution are now hotly contested among cartels—have replaced more northern states as the most violent battlegrounds of the fight.

Second, despite the assertions by the Obama Administration and State Department officials like Roberta Jacobson that “We are moving away from big ticket equipment” toward an emphasis on strengthening civil society and rule of law, only the first portion of Jacobson's stated commitment has held true. Data collected by the Center for International Policy on U.S. aid to Mexico shows the sort of drop in military aid that Jacobson was talking about, as U.S. foreign military financing dropped from $265 million in FY2010 to just $7.9 million in FY2011, now at just $5 million for FY2015. The same is true for funds for narcotics control and law enforcement, as the $343.5 million given by the U.S. in FY2009 has dipped to $25.7 million in FY2015 (see Security Assistance Monitor). In terms of the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) portion of the Mérida Initiative, Jacobson's assertions were also correct, as the $299 million in military equipment given to Mexico in FY2009 dipped to just $5.3 million in FY 2010. The same figure rose to $8 million in FY2011 until 2012, when FMF assistance was not included as part of the Mérida Initiative (Seelke & Finklea, 2014).

Though the above data indicates a drop in aid to Mexican security institutions, the fact that U.S. economic aid to Mexico has fallen in almost exact proportion to the drop in security assistance invalidates Jacobson's testimony of the Obama Administration's prioritizing of efforts to strengthen civil society. Data collected by the Center for International Policy proves this, as a graph displaying U.S. military vs. economic aid shows both declining in unison until FY2015, when military aid now totals $93.4 million and economic aid totals $102.9 million.

The imbalance between non-material support to Mexican society and direct support to the Mexican security apparatus is more notable within the Mérida initiative itself. Assistance through the Initiative's Economic Support Fund (ESF) from FY2009 to FY2014 stands at $153.5 million, compared to the $1.48 billion in assistance given to the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) fund that trains and equips both U.S. and Mexican security agencies to combat organized crime groups engaged in drug production and trafficking (2014). Though much of the INCLE funds go to U.S. agencies to conduct operations on the U.S. side of the border, the disparity between economic and security assistance as reflected by the Mérida Initiative budget is noteworthy.

The 2014 Mexican Security Crisis

Three key events of 2014 definitively confirm the failures of the Mexican government's security policy. First, criminally-infiltrated vigilante groups in the violence-prone state of Michoacán gained official approval by the government. Second, 15 unarmed civilians with ties to organized crime were massacred in the state of Tamaulipas by members of the Mexican army. Third, 43 teachers college students were disappeared and likely killed by state security forces acting in concert with organized crime groups in the town of Iguala, Guerrero. These three events evidence two key inefficiencies of the Mérida Initiative: the limited application of initiatives that seek to combat violence by supporting civil society and the prioritization of support to a corrupt state security apparatus.

First, all three human rights failures occurred in geographic locations that fall out of the three city scope of the Initiative's civil society initiatives. Rather than being a spontaneous phenomenon, the tension leading to the Iguala massacre was years in the making as young teaching students in the region had long been protesting Guerrero's corruption, lack of jobs, inefficient education reforms, and low pay for teachers. Though the Michoacán case is less pertinent to deficiencies in civil society, the proliferation of criminal-infiltrated civil defense militias competing for drug and agricultural markets can likely be traced to a state economy that offers insufficient alternatives to employment in the drug trade. Thus, while both cases could not have been completely remedied by U.S. involvement, the driving factors of both conflicts could have likely been mitigated by the civil society and economic development initiatives being funded by the Mérida Initiative in crime-prone cities like Ciudad Juarez.

More notable is the fact that the 2014 crisis, especially concerning the Iguala massacre, shone light on the risks associated with ongoing U.S. support to Mexico's security apparatus. Reflecting on the apparent involvement of elected and security officials at the local and national level in perpetrating and covering up the massacre, Mexico expert John Ackerman noted in early 2015 that “two [U.S.] presidents and almost $3 billion later, Mexico is more unsafe, chaotic and authoritarian than before” (Ackerman, 2015). Although overall U.S. funding of Mexico's security efforts has dropped considerably in recent years, the Iguala massacre nonetheless caused regional experts and journalists to question the validity of continuing to fund and train security personnel within institutions that remain corrupt. Noting this reality, Ackerman proposes, “Instead of funding and defending the state against corrupt elements of society, the solution in Mexico lies in empowering society to combat the corrupt elements of the state” (2015). In other words, the U.S. must alter the Mérida Initiative to de-fund corrupt institutions.

The Ongoing Militarization of U.S. Foreign Aid to Mexico

The withholding of Mérida funds on the grounds of Mexico's unsatisfactory human rights performance has occurred in the past. In fact, it is written in the Initiative that 15 percent of all funding installments shall be given to Mexico on the condition that human rights standards are being met by the state. In 2010, for example, the State Department cited the Mexican Congress's failure to pass justice reform legislation when it withheld 15 percent—$26 million—of a $175 funding package. Funds have also been frozen by the U.S. legislature, as was the case when the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs blocked the release of $95 million of a $229 million funding package for 2012-2013. In supporting the withholding of funds, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy echoed criticisms of the funds going to still corrupt security institutions when he stated that “there's a concern that the Mérida Initiative has not achieved what people hoped for.” Leahy continued, noting that despite President Peña Nieto's promises to depart from the violence of the Calderón years, “it's not clear yet what president Peña Nieto intends, and what he is doing differently” (Carlsen, 2013).

Despite the efforts to place stricter conditions on the release of aid, those efforts have been infrequent and limited in effect. Most often, security aid is often released to Mexico without pushing the State Department to establish performance measures on aid that would establish conditions on aid that ensure positive outcomes conducive to lower crime and respect for human rights. Demands for such a measurement capacity have been frequent from lawmakers and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, who published a well-known 2010 report that cited the State Department's troubling lack of clearly-defined goals and a methodology for measuring their achievement (see U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2010). As such progress remains elusive, the relatively minor efforts by both the State Department and the U.S. legislature to withhold aid transfers to Mexico have not reflected a comprehensive effort to overhaul the Mérida Initiative into a program that places strict conditions on Mexico's ability to receive security assistance.

Rises in Non-Mérida Military Aid from the U.S.

Just as President Obama's February 2015 request for Congress to apportion funds to the Mexican drug war was made in language that left no doubt as to his administration's plans to continue its previous strategy of supporting Mexico's security apparatus, ongoing non-Mérida Initiative U.S. military aid indicates the same. While U.S. training of Mexican personnel intends to produce more competent security forces, there are no known mechanisms for measuring whether the effects of training programs have positively strengthened the Mexican security apparatus's policing capacity and respect for human rights or have simply been mitigated by already corrupt security institutions. If critics of U.S. security assistance are correct, then such training assistance fails to address the root causes of corruption and incompetence among Mexican security forces.

Although Foreign Military Financing was dropped from the Mérida Initiative beginning FY2012, and despite increasingly stronger calls to cut aid to corrupt institutions, the U.S. government has continued to steadily support Mexico's security forces through other means. Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense has used nearly $60 million from its Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance and Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program budgets to provide over 7,000 courses to approximately 9,000 members of the Mexican military in special tactics, anti-narcotics operations, and anti-terrorism activities. In the midst of the State Department's efforts to re-brand its assistance to Mexico as prioritizing non-security aid, the Department of Defense program has grown from 2,659 trainees in 2013 to over 4,000 in 2015 (Acierno & Kinosian, 2015).

More questionable than U.S. training of Mexican forces is the ongoing militarization of Mexican forces made possible by the recent rise in U.S. arms and equipment sales. Despite rhetoric from U.S. and Mexican leaders that the drug war cannot be won militarily, Mexico's defense equipment expenditures made possible through U.S. government arms sales programs have spiked during Peña Nieto's presidency. Whereas Mexico initially purchased U.S. equipment through direct commercial sales, it now participates in the U.S. government's Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program (which presumably sells equipment to foreign governments at discounted rates), purchasing at least $1.15 billion in equipment in 2014, a near threefold increase from the 2011 figure of just $400,000 (Lindsay-Poland, 2015).

Whereas the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) states that a foreign nation may participate in the FMS program “when the President formally finds that to do so will strengthen the security of the U.S. and promote world peace,” such a mandate proves incompatible with the Mexican case (see U.S. Department of Defense). As one author stated in March 2015, “Ongoing militarization is an unsettling prospect as human rights watchdog groups have linked Mexico's military build-up under former President Felipe Calderón to a sharp rise in reports of torture and abuse by security personnel,” adding that the Peña Nieto administration's efforts to reign in government abuses have been undermined by widespread reports of human rights abuses committed by Mexican security forces in 2014 (Gagne, 2015). 

Peña Nieto's Questionable Security Policy and Ongoing U.S. Support

As Mérida funding continues, President Obama continues to imply that the Mexican government, even in the wake of the crises of 2014, is displaying performance worthy of further funding. For example, in a January 2015 press conference, President Obama responded to questions on recent allegations of state involvement in the Iguala massacre by voicing support for his Mexican counterpart. After the two met at the White House in early January, Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to President Obama that expressed concern over his failure to confront Peña Nieto on the government's involvement and mishandling of the Guerrero case (Hernandez, 2015). After the January meeting between Obama and Peña Nieto, the Mexican president told the press that both officials renewed their commitment to collaborating and exchanging information to remain effective in the fight against organized crime (see La Jornada, 2015). Soon after, in February 2015, President Obama appealed to the U.S. Congress for $80 million to be apportioned to “dismantling criminal organizations” in Mexico (Esquivel, 2015).

Especially in light of the 2014 crisis, the question embodied in Senator Leahy's 2013 comment that “it's not clear yet what president Peña doing differently” merits special attention when considering the merits of the type of support that the Obama Administration continues to offer the Mexican government. Elected in 2012 on a platform that promised to prioritize curbing violent crime over the high-profile and militarized operations against organized crime groups favored by Calderon, Peña Nieto has done little to curb violence or depart from his predecessor's policies. Despite these goals, one Brookings Institution fellow echoed most expert conclusions regarding the Peña Nieto Administration's security policy when she asserted in late 2014 that “the Peña Nieto administration fell straight back not only into relying on the Mexican military in combination with the Federal Police to cope with violence...with essentially the same operational design as the previous Felipe Calderon administration” (Felbab-Brown, 2014).

Understanding how little Mexican security policy has departed from the militarized tactics of the drug war's earlier years is important for understanding the degree to which U.S. aid is justified. As the Obama Administration began to respond to human rights concerns associated with the imparting of militarized U.S. aid to Mexico by adjusting overall Mérida Initiative goals to prioritize non-military approaches to curbing violence, it would be assumed that U.S. officials would offer more scrutiny to the Mexican government's reluctance to deviate from its violent, highly militarized approach to cutting violence. This has not been the case, however, as U.S. aid has continued despite the Mexican government's failure to introduce security policies that rely less on militarized tactics carried out by corrupt institutions

The relatively unsuccessful nature of Peña Nieto's more militarized security policy has been reflected in qualitative evidence—the events of 2014—and data on crime and violence levels in Mexico since 2012. Though Peña Nieto assumed office promising to oversee a 50% drop in homicides during his first year in office, the most generous statistics only indicated a 16% drop, and as of November 2014, the national homicide rate had dropped 36% since Peña Nieto's election (see Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Publica, 2014). As welcome as such a drop has been, one expert notes that the decrease in murders, marked by the cooling of conflict in cities like Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, and Monterrey, are “to a large extent not driven by official policies, but are mostly endogenous to the contestation among organized crime groups” (Felbab-Brown, 2014).

The dismal improvements achieved under Peña Nieto's security policy is further indicated in the purported rise of extortion and kidnapping cases in Mexico. Based on the most conservative statistics on crime released by Mexico's Secretariat of the Interior, reported cases of kidnapping and extortion rose 17 and 12 percent, respectively. Though reported cases of extortion by the end of 2014 marked a 26% overall drop since Peña Nieto's first year in office, reported kidnappings for the same time period registered a dismal six percent drop (see Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Publica, 2014).

Given Peña Nieto's overall lackluster ability to reduce violence, it can be reasonably asserted that the Obama Administration's ongoing support of Peña Nieto's fight is not due to the efficacy of his security policies. Such a reality warrants greater scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers, if not for strategic purposes (U.S. contributions only made up 5-6% of Mexico's defense budget in 2013), then for political purposes that would communicate higher expectations on the part of the U.S. government (Dudley, 2013).


Despite the official policy goals expressed by the U.S. and Mexican governments, U.S. support of Mexican security forces through training and cash transfers has remained at high levels. Moreover, while U.S. net assistance to Mexican security forces has declined from its historically high levels of the George W. Bush administration, data show that said decline has not coincided with an increase in U.S. funds devoted to non-security initiatives that seek to remedy Mexico's crime problem, despite public promises by the Obama administration.

While this report does not explore arguments in favor of the United States supporting Mexican security institutions through training and equipment transfers/sale,  Mexico's human rights catastrophes of 2014 support the critics who say that U.S. funds continue to support a state security apparatus rife with corruption. Thus, an analysis of both the nature of the U.S. foreign aid budget to Mexico and the events of 2014 clearly show that the institution-building efforts enshrined in the Mérida Initiative elude achievement.

The U.S. government, specifically the agencies who administer Mérida Initiative and Department of Defense funds to Mexico, by all accounts lacks a program that methodically and specifically assesses the outcomes of their financing and training experts. The 2010 recommendation of the U.S. Government Accountability Office that the Secretary of State “incorporate into the strategy for the Mérida Initiative outcome performance measures that indicate progress toward strategic goals” remains largely unfulfilled, and the more complete implementation of the recommendation would be the crucial step in allowing the U.S. government to properly assess the impacts of the military assistance that those inside and outside the U.S. government continue to deem negative, as this report clearly shows (see U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2010).


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Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Michael Hoopes received his MA in Latin American Studies from the University of New Mexico in 2015, where his research focused on the development of the Mexican state’s domestic security policies from the 1970s to the present.