By ALFREDO CORCHADO
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Published: 16 November 2013 09:50 PM
Updated: 16 November 2013 10:30 PM
WASHINGTON — Future U.S. security cooperation with Mexico should be focused on strengthening judicial institutions and communities, the Obama administration’s top official on Latin America said in an interview.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said she expects that the Mexican government will use most of the U.S. funds available under the $1.9 billion Mérida Initiative this year to shore up security.
She applauded the recent arrest of key drug capos but expressed concern over a drop in extraditions to the U.S. and dismay over the early release, on a technicality, of drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero, calling it a “major problem.” The U.S. government has since offered a $5 million reward for his recapture.
Jacobson said U.S. officials are gradually adjusting to new strategies implemented by the Mexican Interior Ministry that, at least officially, prohibit agent-to-agent communications, something that has led many U.S. officials to question their counterparts’ commitment to building interagency trust and cooperation.
She described the new policy as “assertive, but not in a way that prohibits conversation and cooperation” with U.S. agencies.
As for extraditions, Jacobson said, “We feel pretty strongly that jailing people in the United States has often been an incredibly effective tool because cartel bosses often recognize that that is a place where they are not going to continue their operations.”
She made her comments as President Enrique Peña Nieto nears the end of his first year in office, a term marked by the passage of key economic reforms, and near the 20th anniversary of the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which redefined the U.S.-Mexico trade relationship.
Once defined by security challenges, the U.S.-Mexico relationship has shifted to focusing more on economic bright spots and on a series of proposed reforms in key areas, including telecommunications, education, taxation and energy. They are designed to make Mexico a more equal and just country, Peña Nieto has said, a goal that Jacobson agrees with.
“All of these reforms have been incredibly important if Mexico is to take full advantage of NAFTA,” Jacobson said. “NAFTA can only take you so far. It’s these reforms that are meaningful, sustainable and real.”
Jacobson acknowledged that allegations the U.S. spied on top Mexican officials have soured the relationship. She stressed that President Barack Obama has “been clear that this is a very key relationship to us. He wants to get that relationship in as good a shape as he possibly can, including [spying] concerns that those partners have brought to us.”
A senior Mexican diplomat said that the allegations of U.S. spying, while not surprising, are seen as a “betrayal to a neighbor.”
“It’s downright humiliating,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I can understand if they were spying to track down a terrorist or a narco, but to spy on the president’s own office, or the embassy? What’s the purpose?”
Across Mexico, drug violence continues to trouble several regions. The Peña Nieto administration says violence associated with drug gangs is down by as much as 20 percent but has provided no breakdown of how many of the 15,500 homicides recorded in the first 10 months of his administration were related to drug violence.
A new surge in violence along the border between Texas and Mexico’s Tamaulipas state has made transportation risky, particularly for Mexican immigrants as some begin to make their way home for the holidays. And last week Mexican marines took control of the port of Lázaro Cárdenas in response to the growing power of cartels in central Michoacán state.
Mexico City’s Reforma newspaper reported last week as many as 250 mayors have been threatened by organized crime groups.
Other cities, among them Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, have reported a significant drop in violence.
Jacobson said Juárez offers lessons for how the U.S. can help Mexico in the long term. She said she sees a sense of urgency in the Mexican government to move ahead with judicial reform.
“I think that’s very welcome, and we are going to give all of the support that we possibly can,” she said.
And focusing U.S. aid efforts on strengthening communities, as in the case of Ciudad Juárez, “can be game changing” she said, as “communities have taken back their streets, their kids, their schools, their public spaces.”
She said that women deserve “an enormous credit” for the progress there.
“It is not by any means only women, but women and mothers in these communities have just been remarkable, advocates for themselves and their children, people who stood up to bad guys and said, ‘No more,’” Jacobson said.
“We have to support them, we — the United States government — the Mexican government, the state government and the private sector.”
Follow Alfredo Corchado on Twitter at @ajcorchado.