The United States and Mexico have officially entered a new phase of their partnership to tackle transnational organized crime groups and the evolving regional drug trade, yet recent announcements suggest the two countries are relying on some of the same failed strategies.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard met with US government officials December 14 to mark the official start of the Bicentennial Framework, according to a government press release. First announced in early October during a “high-level security dialogue,” the plan proposes a “new shared vision of regional security and collaboration.”

In particular, it aims to prevent substance abuse using a public health focus; reduce arms trafficking through enhanced tracing and investments in better technology; improve information sharing to dismantle illicit financial networks; increase cooperation to facilitate extraditions; and target drug labs and precursor chemicals to disrupt illegal supply chains, among other priorities.

Secretary Ebrard said the new initiative signified the two countries were “leaving the Mérida Initiative behind.” Launched in 2007, that multibillion-dollar binational security effort largely failed to improve citizen security, quell violence, reign in corruption or confront the scourge brought on by organized crime groups trafficking in drugs, weapons and other contraband.

SEE ALSO: 10 Years of the Mérida Initiative: Violence and Corruption

A day after the US and Mexican governments started their new security efforts, the State Department announced “significant steps to enhance … efforts to disrupt and deter transnational criminal activity.” Specifically, officials said they would now offer up to $20 million in total to anyone that could provide information leading to the arrests of Sinaloa Cartel members Ovidio Guzmán López, Ivan Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar, Jesus Alfredo Guzmán Salazar and Joaquín Guzmán López.

The four sons of former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo” – now jailed in the United States after being convicted and sentenced to life in prison on a number of criminal charges – are known collectively as “Los Chapitos.” They are currently battling for internal control of the group with Ismael Zamada García, alias “El Mayo,” one of the group’s oldest members.

US authorities also recently upped the reward for help in arresting Aureliano Guzmán Loera, alias “El Guano,” the older brother of El Chapo and another major Sinaloa Cartel figure who Los Chapitos are also reportedly at odds with.

In addition, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced new designations to the Rojos and Guerreros Unidos crime groups in Mexico for their role in moving drugs into the United States. In Mexico alone, the US government has pledged up to $50 million for information facilitating the capture of a number of organized crime leaders: “Los Chapitos” and “El Mayo” of the Sinaloa Cartel; Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho,” of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG); among others.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that capturing El Chapo’s sons is a “priority,” and if they’re in Mexico, it should be the responsibility of Mexican authorities to bring them to justice.

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US-Mexico security relations may be entering into a new phase on paper, but the targeting of various organized crime groups and leaders with multimillion-dollar rewards and sanctions suggests the plan moving forward will continue to rely in part on a seriously flawed approach: the kingpin strategy.

“The US government is making a big statement by announcing that the first concrete actions taken within the new Bicentennial Framework are a reaffirmation of the kingpin strategy, and it’s very unfortunate,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on US-Mexico relations and organized crime in Mexico.

Since Felipe Calderón launched an offensive against organized crime groups in 2006 backed by the United States and a shared vision of arresting and extraditing criminal leaders, or what has come to be known as the kingpin strategy, violence in Mexico has surged to unprecedented levels.

SEE ALSO: How Mexican Cartels Settled in Canada

To be sure, homicides have jumped nearly three-fold in the last 15 years, as the national government reported 34,515 murders and almost 1,000 femicides in 2020. And since 2007, the number of homicide investigations reported by Mexico’s National Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública – SNSP) has tripled, according to data collected by the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego.

(Graphic courtesy of Justice in Mexico report)

“Leadership disruptions – especially due to the targeting of drug ‘kingpins’ by Mexican and US law enforcement – has contributed to the … pattern of internal schisms and encroachment by rival organizations that has fueled violence,” according to a recent Justice in Mexico report on organized crime and violence in the country.

Not only that, but Mexico’s criminal landscape has fragmented substantially thanks to the outsized focus on crime bosses. The International Crisis Group estimates there are some 200 active criminal groups operating in Mexico today, many of which are factions that have splintered off from once-mighty groups like the Zetas and Beltrán Leyva Organization, only to become incredibly predatory groups in their own right.

Unintended consequences from the heavily militarized kingpin strategy were among the core arguments for needing to completely reform the Mérida Initiative. The Bicentennial Framework promised a shift to addressing the root causes of violence and the public health problem that is substance abuse.

However, at this initial stage it doesn’t appear as if the framework marks a “fundamental change” to the way in which the two countries operate on joint security efforts, according to Jaime López, a security policy consultant and former police official in Mexico. He said it’s possible that direction could change in the future as the plan moves forward, but so far the response seems to be the same scenario with a different name.

Correa-Cabrera agreed, adding that it looks more like a cosmetic change. “It’s the same initiative under a different name, just with makeup,” she told InSight Crime.

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