As a Foreign Service Officer who has served in the Caribbean, Mexico, Colombia, and now in El Salvador, I have witnessed first-hand the threat that narco-terrorists, narco-traffickers and trans-national gangs pose to the United States and countries in the region. The United States recognizes that these threats do not stop at borders and that individual countries cannot go it alone.
The Merida Initiative is more than just a pledge to send money south of the border to help fix the drug problem. It is a proposal with the potential to change the U.S. partnership with Mexico and Central America and how these countries work together toward the common goal of public safety and security.
The Merida Initiative grew out of President Bush’s 2007 visit to Latin America. The program demonstrates the United States' commitment to strengthening democracy in the region by supporting the efforts already being made.
The aim of Merida is to recognize that the illegal drug and arms trades are not the problem of one nation, but is a war that ignores international borders, and to create a partnership that works to address the problem on both sides of the border. Merida helps Mexico and Central America confront challenges while helping the United States to be more proactive in securing its borders.
Although much of the news has focused on the $400 million approved for Mexico, Merida is a regional initiative that also includes funding for Central America. An additional $65 million in assistance is included for Central America in 2008. In addition, the Administration has requested $100 million dedicated to Central America for the 2009 budget. This assistance will help Belize, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama address criminal threats to their democratic institutions.
The greatest threats to these countries are gangs, drug trafficking, and illicit arms trafficking. Powerful gangs and cartels thrive in the presence of a weak democracy. The Merida Initiative aims to solve this problem by helping these nations strengthen their democratic institutions to fight these threats to their citizens' security. Among other proposed programs the Central American Fingerprint Exploitation Initiative (CAFÉ) will create an international electronic fingerprint database allowing nations to better track criminals across borders. This program in El Salvador will complement the work of the Trans-national Anti-Gang Center which has already produced significant results against gang members in the U.S. and El Salvador, such as the recent joint operation against the MS-13 gang in North Carolina and El Salvador.
The United States has also made a commitment to help solve the problem within its own borders as a part of the initiative. Many of the weapons used drug traffickers and gangs are illegally smuggled from the United States, and the government has been working to stem the flow of illegal arms in order to aid the efforts of the Mexican military.
The plans for Merida are still short-term, but the implications of the initiative are intended to form a new partnership within the region and a sea change in relations between the United States and its neighbors to the south.