U.S.-Mexico security cooperation has been strikingly close and effective during the tenure of Mexican President Felipe Calderón. A country that had traditionally seen the United States as the principal threat to its national security has come to accept its northern neighbor as a partner in the battle against organized crime. Mexican intelligence agencies and naval units now collaborate closely with U.S. security personnel despite the historic reluctance of Mexico’s highly nationalistic military establishment to do so. At the same time, the United States, a country that had traditionally seen Mexico as a weak and unreliable counterpart, has learned to see its southern neighbor as an increasingly trusted associate. The United States now willingly shares sensitive intelligence with Mexican officials, playing a critical role in improving the effectiveness of Mexican counternarcotics operations. Just a generation ago, this would have been unthinkable.

Yet this could change after the Mexican presidential election, set to take place on July 1. The recent era of cooperation relies on an unusual coincidence of national interests and close personal relationships, rather than on a permanent, codified set of formal agreements. Relying on personal chemistry and common interests, which are liable to be interpreted differently by different governments, makes bilateral cooperation vulnerable to the policy and personnel changes that will come with a new administration in Mexico, regardless of who wins the election. (Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has enjoyed a substantial lead in the final polls and is favored to win.) Moreover, because each of the main candidates has promised to redefine Mexican security priorities, focusing more on fighting organized crime than on cutting off the flow of drugs to the United States, the transition to a new administration will likely damage trust between the two countries, which will in turn threaten to weaken security cooperation. Policymakers on both sides of the border must prepare for this thorny transition in order to mitigate its impact on their shared struggle against organized crime.

According to a March 2012 poll by Consulta Mitofsky and México Unido, the vast majority of Mexicans believe that the government must bring organized crime under control and support the use of the military in this fight until effective police forces are available. But their central concern is reducing violence and crime, not drug trafficking, and less than a quarter of the public says that the government’s current strategy is working. That is understandable: Since Calderón took office in late 2006 and declared war on the country’s drug-trafficking organizations, Mexico has seen a dramatic increase in the brutality and frequency of organized crime–related murders (over 50,000 and counting) and an explosion of kidnapping, bribery, extortion, and robbery.

Despite stump speeches devoid of detail, all three leading contenders -- Peña Nieto; Josefina Vázquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party (PAN); and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who represents a coalition of left-leaning parties -- have signaled their intention to implement three core policy changes, albeit somewhat differently, in deference to these public demands and informed by the successes and failures of the Calderón strategy.

First, the next president will likely build up Mexico’s weak state and local law enforcement, prosecutors, and penal systems, without which the battle against organized crime cannot be won, and will welcome U.S. collaboration in the process. This will be coupled with a greater emphasis on rebuilding communities and creating job and educational opportunities for at-risk youth.

Second, Mexico’s next president will continue the current strategy of countering violent organized crime organizations with force. (This is true even of López Obrador, whose pragmatic streak should override his campaign promise to return the military immediately to the barracks.) But this method will be more targeted than in the past. The Calderón years demonstrated the government’s inability to combat all of Mexico’s crime syndicates on multiple fronts. The new administration will instead concentrate its limited resources on the country’s most violent regions and activities, such as mass killings in public places. Drawing on lessons from outside of Mexico, the government will seek to bring together community members, law enforcement officials, and prosecutors in particular neighborhoods and target specific criminal groups. Since several U.S. municipal police forces have had great success with such an approach, this strategy offers another opportunity for bilateral security cooperation.

The third anticipated policy shift, however, could present a challenge to the U.S.-Mexico relationship. All three leading candidates have promised to shift the country’s crime-fighting priorities away from arresting drug traffickers and seizing drugs and toward stopping the violence associated with organized crime. This is what the Mexican population demands, and it also turns out to be what the country needs. But this modified perception of Mexico’s national interest could produce tension with Washington, where stopping the flow of drugs into the United States continues to be the top priority.

Then there is the people problem. Incoming Mexican presidents have traditionally replaced almost the entire leadership of the federal bureaucracy several layers deep. A new administration in Mexico City will thus create significant turnover in the personnel who work with U.S. officials on security issues. As trusted partners leave their positions in the federal police and the Center for Research and National Security, Mexico’s premier intelligence agency, a bilateral security relationship reliant on individual personalities, rather than on enduring institutions, will suffer. Parallel changes that could take place in the U.S. State and Justice Departments regardless of whether or not President Barack Obama is reelected will exacerbate this issue. Even in the best of circumstances, it will take time for the new players to develop the same degree of mutual confidence that currently facilitates effective cooperation.

In the absence of formal agreements that codify security cooperation, the process of rebuilding faith among these new officials will be further complicated by a bilateral relationship colored by a history of suspicion and mistrust. Mexicans remember decades of U.S. unilateralism and intervention; U.S. officials recall repeated incidents of Mexican stonewalling and intelligence leaks during past attempts to collaborate in the drug war. Developments on both sides of the border in the past year have reinforced these deeply rooted misgivings. The Fast and Furious gun-running sting operation, in which the U.S. administration allowed guns to flow illegally into Mexico without consulting with or even informing Mexican officials, buttressed persisting doubts about the willingness of the United States to eschew unilateralism and treat Mexico as a real partner. The Monterrey prison break last February, during which a Mexican cartel staged a massive escape and murdered 44 inmates from a rival cartel, all with the clear complicity of the prison authorities, renewed Washington’s doubts about the capacity of the Mexican government to be a reliable counterpart, given just how pervasive corruption has become. This concern was later reinforced by the arrest of three high-ranking Mexican army generals in May on suspicion of collaborating with organized crime.

In recent years, the United States and Mexico have made a degree of progress toward setting in place binding agreements and formal institutions to govern security cooperation. The Mérida Initiative, an accord between the two countries adopted in 2008, was a step in the right direction. Although the initiative focuses more on U.S. security assistance than on the construction of collaborative institutions, Mérida created a high-level consultative group, which brings together the relevant cabinet secretaries in both countries for occasional strategy sessions, and a bilateral implementation office, which is responsible for planning and implementing joint operations. These significant but small steps made sense, given how sensitive both the United States and Mexico are about retaining sovereignty over security-related decisions. But current conditions demand more. Further steps should include the creation of a permanent bilateral commission on security cooperation responsible for setting priorities, suggesting joint strategies, and overseeing policy coordination; a permanent bilateral office to coordinate cooperation among border-state governors; and a long-term agreement governing cross-border training and liaison activities.

For now, U.S. policymakers see their capacity to cooperate with the three leading candidates and their parties differently. The positive security cooperation of the Calderón years has convinced Washington that a PAN administration under Vázquez Mota would likely continue to collaborate with the United States, whereas López Obrador’s nationalist bent and promise to return the military to the barracks raises some concern. Potentially most challenging is the PRI’s reputation for corruption and history of tolerance for politicians suspected of working with organized crime. Peña Nieto’s security team will have to overcome the inevitable misgivings of its U.S. counterparts to establish the trust needed to promote the intelligence sharing and joint operations at the heart of effective security cooperation. Peña Nieto’s mid-June selection of a new security adviser, Óscar Naranjo, a Colombian general with a long track record of close collaboration with U.S. counternarcotics officials, seems calculated to address this challenge.

The real, long-term threat posed by organized crime to the well-being of Mexico and the United States means that security cooperation will persist regardless of who becomes the next president of Mexico. Yet in ­­the absence of codified rules governing cross-border security collaboration, the quality of these joint efforts rests on the unstable foundation of good personal relationships and a similar understanding of mutual interests. Because of the natural tendency of politicians to respond to changing public perceptions of the national interest, magnified by the turnover in security personnel, Mexico’s July 1 presidential election will test the strength of U.S.-Mexican relations. To avoid a rocky transition, policymakers on both sides of the border must actively promote trust and confidence among their counterparts and continue the process of institutionalizing security cooperation. If they fail to do so, the advances made during the Calderón years could be lost, giving Mexican organized crime the opportunity to further expand its power and influence.

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  • PAMELA K. STARR is Professor of International Relations and Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California and Director of the U.S.-Mexico Network.
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