Latin America Brief

A one-stop weekly digest of politics, economics, technology, and culture in Latin America. Delivered Friday.

The U.S.-Mexico Drug War Gets a Rebrand

Can the “Bicentennial Framework” be a turning point?

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint news conference with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City on Oct. 8.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a joint news conference with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City on Oct. 8. PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Mexico and the United States nix the George W. Bush-era Mérida Initiative, a Nobel Prize highlights groundbreaking work in the economics of migration, and the Honduran opposition forms an alliance ahead of next month’s presidential election.

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Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Mexico and the United States nix the George W. Bush-era Mérida Initiative, a Nobel Prize highlights groundbreaking work in the economics of migration, and the Honduran opposition forms an alliance ahead of next month’s presidential election.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.


Hyping a Reset

U.S.-Mexico security cooperation is getting a rebrand. Last week, on Oct. 8, top officials from both countries held a high-level meeting on the matter in Mexico City. In the press conference that followed, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard announced the end of the Mérida Initiative, an anti-drug program that has seen the United States send Mexico more than $3 billion in financing for military equipment, law enforcement training, and other crime prevention measures since its inception in 2008.

The Mérida Initiative was born out of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s support for then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s militarized, combat-focused approach to the drug trade. Calderón embraced the so-called kingpin strategy, in which authorities focused on taking down drug bosses in the hopes that doing so would erode the organizations beneath them.

Scholars, however, believe this approach may have had the opposite effect. Many have tracked how the kingpin strategy splintered and multiplied Mexican drug gangs rather than eliminate them. Since 2008, annual homicides in Mexico have more than doubled. On the other side of the border, U.S. drug overdose deaths—which in recent years have been driven up by the mass production of synthetic drugs in Mexico—rose from 36,450 in 2008 to a record 93,331 in 2020.

Washington adjusted the Mérida Initiative’s course under former U.S. President Barack Obama, introducing new efforts to train judges and prosecutors in Mexico to fight crime without the use of force. But over the years, the initiative suffered from a lack of consensus on how to evaluate its performance, Mexican diplomat Martha Bárcena Coqui told El Economista this month. In 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the U.S. State Department had not consistently tracked performance data for its Mérida programs.

At last week’s summit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged that the countries’ past joint attempts at improving safety had relied “too much on security forces and too little on other tools in our kit.” Ebrard said the next phase of cooperation would be “superior” to Mérida because it will be based more on “respect, co-responsibility, and reciprocity.”

In place of Mérida, officials said they are laying plans for what is being called the “Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities,” a nod to the 200th anniversary of official diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States. A joint statement from the two delegations said the measure, due to be finalized in January 2022, will focus on preventing substance abuse, providing economic alternatives to organized crime, promoting human rights, and increasing investigative abilities.

It’s highly ambitious talk. And Mexican analysts were quick to voice skepticism about Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s commitment to improving investigations into organized crime. After taking office in 2018, López Obrador abolished a federal police force that had received years of U.S. training, creating a new force called the National Guard in its place. His government has also failed to comply with a 2018 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling requiring Mexico to create an independent oversight panel to monitor abuses of power by its police.

Although López Obrador has often called for an alternative to Mérida’s military-heavy approach to drug violence—voicing support for “hugs not bullets”—he has overseen a massive expansion of the Mexican military’s role in everyday life. During his term, the number of army and navy personnel deployed inside the country has risen from around 69,000 people to 125,000 people, according to data compiled by Ibero-American University consultants Ernesto López Portillo and Samuel Storr. Those numbers don’t include the new 90,000-strong National Guard, which is composed of around 75 percent military personnel.

In fact, judging the López Obrador administration by its actions—rather than the Bicentennial Framework fact sheet released last week—Brookings Institution fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote that Washington’s desired areas of security cooperation with the United States appear quite narrow. They include reducing the flow of illegal arms to Mexico from the United States.

Washington, far more than Mexico City, is interested in aggressive anti-crime probes. But it was easy enough for Mexico to nod along last week—before any specifics had been agreed to.

Despite the many obstacles facing the Bicentennial Framework moving forward, last week’s meeting showed some concrete progress. Most importantly, it means Mexico and the United States are talking again. In October 2020, the U.S. arrest of a former Mexican defense secretary in Los Angeles on drug charges badly soured relations between the two countries, bringing security cooperation to its lowest levels in some 15 years, former Mexican ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhán told CNN. Mexico largely suspended U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operations on its soil and denied visas to DEA agents. CNN reported last week the agency is still unable to conduct most operations in Mexico.

Besides last week’s dialogue, there are other signs that U.S.-Mexico security coordination is improving. This week, Milenio reported that a joint U.S.-Mexican investigation is probing a Mexican chemical-maker for allegedly importing materials to make fentanyl, a key ingredient fueling U.S. opioid deaths.

It’s a small step. The full Bicentennial Framework as announced is a much taller order. Conceptually, it represents an important move beyond failed war on drugs strategies of the past. At a minimum, ongoing consultations to shape a new approach could bring U.S.-Mexico relations to a more positive place than the low they experienced at start of the Biden presidency.


The Week Ahead

Tuesday, Oct. 19: A Brazilian Senate committee that has been probing the government’s handling of the pandemic presents its findings.

Wednesday, Oct. 20: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Bogotá for high-level U.S.-Colombia talks.


What We’re Following

Honduran presidential candidate Xiomara Castro (left) flashes a victory sign next to her running mate, Salvador Nasralla (right), in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Oct. 13.

Honduran presidential candidate Xiomara Castro (left) flashes a victory sign next to her running mate, Salvador Nasralla (right), in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Oct. 13.EDISON UMANZOR/AFP via Getty Images

Honduran election shake-up. With just 44 days to go before Honduras’s presidential election, two top opposition candidates announced this week they had formed an alliance. Television personality Salvador Nasralla dropped out of the race and called on his supporters to back leftist Xiomara Castro, the wife of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

Nasralla’s endorsement of Castro puts her in a significantly stronger position against Nasry Asfura, the candidate favored by outgoing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. Castro and Nasralla’s combined support is higher than any other candidates’, totaling 36 percent to Asfura’s 21 percent, according to a September poll. But whether the election will be free and fair is another question: Hernández’s party faced serious allegations of vote-rigging in the last presidential election in 2017.

Brazil’s ag-tech boom. The number of agricultural technology firms in Brazil grew by 40 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to government research. Agricultural technology can range from artificial intelligence-based precision farming to lab-raised, pest-eating organisms.

The Financial Times looked at the companies dominating the growing field, including Rizoma Agro, a large organic grain grower that focuses on carbon sequestration (the process of storing carbon dioxide so it does not enter the atmosphere). Last month, Brazil and Chile became the first countries to approve Bovaer, an additive to cow food that reduces cattle-made methane emissions.

Flexing on Mercosur. On Oct. 8, Argentina and Brazil proposed the Southern Common Market trade bloc, known as Mercosur—whose other members include Paraguay and Uruguay—to reduce its shared tariff on all incoming goods by 10 percent. Mercosur tariffs currently average around 13 percent depending on the type of product, according to Brazil’s Ministry of the Economy.

The proposal came after vocal arguments from Uruguay earlier this year that the bloc’s resistance to change is holding back members’ trade relations with other countries. Uruguay has flirted with breaking the bloc’s rules entirely to form a bilateral trade pact with China.

Conflict in Chile. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and deployed troops to four provinces in the country’s south in response to a string of arson attacks against forestry and transportation infrastructure. Many such attacks in recent months have been claimed by supporters of Mapuche Indigenous groups, which have long disputed ownership to ancestral lands in the region.


Question of the Week

Latin America’s largest economies continue to march forward with COVID-19 inoculations. But several poorer countries, including Haiti, are still suffering dramatic vaccine shortages.

As of Oct. 10, what percent of Haiti’s population had received at least one jab?

As Haiti experiences a security crisis and political upheaval, a Haitian health ministry source told news agency EFE  that the country will return around 250,000 vaccines sent by the United Nations’ COVAX mechanism because it does not have the capacity to administer the shots before they expire on Nov. 6. COVAX is slated to make a replacement delivery in the future.


In Focus: The Economics of Migration

Goran K. Hansson (center), general-secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Nobel Economics Prize committee members Peter Fredriksson (left) and Eva Mork (right) give a press conference to announce the winners of the 2021 Nobel Memory Prize in Economic Sciences at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Oct. 11.

Goran K. Hansson (center), general-secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Nobel Economics Prize committee members Peter Fredriksson (left) and Eva Mork (right) give a press conference to announce the winners of the 2021 Nobel Memory Prize in Economic Sciences at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Oct. 11.CLAUDIO BRESCIANI/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images

The mass outflow of Cuban migrants to the United States in 1980—a phenomenon known as the Mariel boatlift—figures into the body of research that earned University of California, Berkeley, economist David Card this year’s Nobel Prize in economics.

In 1990, Card wrote an influential paper that looked at how relatively unskilled migrants’ sudden arrival—spurred by economic troubles at home and new permissions to leave issued by then-Cuban President Fidel Castro—affected wages and unemployment rates in Miami. Counterintuitively, Card found that a 7 percent expansion of the labor market had virtually no effect on wages or unemployment for low-skilled, non-Cuban workers.

The paper was one example of how Card and his fellow prizewinners, Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens, helped mainstream the use of so-called natural experiments in economics. Such experiments consider events that, due to a fluke or policy change, resemble the conditions of a controlled trial. The fact that they unfold in messy, real-world conditions can make conclusions more challenging to pinpoint, leading some economists to scorn them in past decades.

Card’s work—and the methods behind it—helped inspire further research into immigration policies and their effects on labor markets worldwide. In one example, a paper by Michael Clemens, Ethan Lewis, and Hannah Postel found that the 1964 termination of the Bracero program—which had granted U.S. guest-worker permissions for Mexicans in the agricultural sector for more than two decades—did not substantially impact U.S. wages or employment levels, as policymakers had intended.

The growing body of evidence-based research on migration and labor markets is a boon to debates that are often heavy on assumptions and light on facts. Card and his colleagues’ work is known in economics circles as “the credibility revolution.”

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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