Merida Initiative Takes Aim at Transnational Crime
Security effort “compelling strategic interest” for United States
By David I. McKeeby
Through the Merida Initiative, the United States, Mexico and several Central American countries are confronting the shared threat of transnational organized crime, says a top U.S. diplomat.
“The United States has a compelling strategic interest in moving quickly to reinforce our partnership with Central America to check illicit activity in the region,” Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon told a congressional panel May 8.
Announced by President Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón in October 2007, Merida grew out of President Bush’s March 2007 visit to Latin America, where regional security figured prominently in his conversations with leaders in Guatemala and Mexico. Shannon’s testimony came as Congress considered the White House’s $500 million request to support the initiative by delivering military and police equipment and training, as well as aid to help area countries more effectively prosecute organized crime.
Drug trafficking and criminal organizations in Central America have grown in size and strength over the last decade, fueled by a northward flow of illegal drugs and human trafficking and a southward flow of unregistered weapons, Shannon said. Increasingly powerful, many of these criminal organizations outgun police and intimidate judges, while drug money further corrupts institutions and reduces public trust in the authorities, he said.
A 2007 U.N. report estimates gang membership at 10,500 in El Salvador, 36,000 in Honduras and 14,000 in Guatemala, while criminal organizations are becoming increasingly active in neighboring Belize, Costa Rica and Panama.
Central American nations have the will, but not the resources to confront criminal gangs, Shannon said, and the aid will go a long way toward jump-starting efforts to improve regional security.
“While traffickers may fly drugs on corporate jets and build fleets of submarines and semi-submersible vessels, Central American countries are barely able to keep operational their basic law enforcement and counternarcotics vehicles, boats or Vietnam-era aircraft,” Shannon said.
Central American gangs are increasingly transnational, Shannon said, noting that Salvadoran-based Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) is believed to have 8,000-10,000 active members operating in 38 U.S. states. More than 1,800 of its members have been arrested in the United States since 2005. In a recent case, the gang's leaders were indicted for ordering the murders of two witnesses in the United States from their prison cell in El Salvador.
“Central America’s collective willingness to work with the United States and Mexico on these issues also represents an important opportunity,” Shannon said. “It provides an unprecedented opening to address security in coordination with neighbors whose countries form a bridge running from the Andes to the border of the United States.”
Public safety already is benefiting from Merida’s efforts to build police cooperation, pool intelligence on gang activities and build more effective justice systems, Shannon said. As a result of the partnership, agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have teamed up with their counterparts from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to develop a shared computer database of fingerprint samples from known gang members. El Salvador has more than doubled the number of police officers dedicated to the Transnational Anti-Gang Unit it operates in partnership with the FBI.
“Only through partnership and shared responsibility will Central America and United States be able to defeat the transnational threats that confront us,” Shannon said. “The Merida Initiative represents the cornerstone of that response.”