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US Diplomat: Free Trade & Drug War Initiatives Working

Matthew Rooney praised NAFTA & the Merida Initiative while on a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in the San Diego/Tijuana region.

— NAFTA worked and Mexico is winning its war against drug trafficking — albeit slowly and painfully. Those were the messages one of the top officials at the Department of State who works on on U.S. relations with Mexico delivered during a speech in San Diego.

Matthew Rooney, a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, spoke about trade, border infrastructure and security at the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla March 21.

Rooney said the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, had accomplished “everything it set out to do,” including integrating supply chains across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, and creating jobs in all three countries.

However, he said, as a result of post-9/11 security concerns along the border: “we undid some of the integration of our economies that we had created under NAFTA.”

Rooney said the Obama administration was committed to “finding ways to get back on track,” by synchronizing regulatory differences among the countries, improving border infrastructure, and enhancing cooperation among law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the two countries first announced a bilateral committee to improve border management in 2010. Still, wait times have not improved at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the world’s busiest land border crossing.

Authorities broke ground on a project to expand the San Ysidro border crossing a year ago in order to alleviate traffic; they expect to complete the first phase in 2014.

Merida Initiative Working

In an interview after the talk, Rooney said the U.S. program to assist Mexico in fighting organized crime is working. In effect since 2008, the U.S. has provided more than $1 billion in military and security equipment under the Merida Initiative. It also includes programs to strengthen Mexico’s justice system.

Rooney said the splintering of Mexico’s dominant cartels is evidence that the program is working.

“They’re still powerful, they’re still dangerous, and the fight among them is dangerous, but they have definitely fractured,” he said. “So in that sense, I think, that’s kind of an initial success.”

Fights among cartel members over leadership and territory are thought to be a major cause of the violence that has claimed more than 50,000 lives since Mexican President Felipe Calderón deployed the military to break up the cartels in late 2006.

Real success, Rooney said, would take time. Mexico’s drug war strategy was intentionally shifting from a national to a local level, he said.

“I think the approach was always to confront the cartels using the armed forces,” he said. “But nobody ever thought that was the real solution to the problem. The real solution to the problem is reformed institutions of police and reformed institutions of justice.”

Rooney said the U.S. was beginning to work with Mexico to strengthen state and local police forces, which have jurisdiction over the majority of drug-related crimes.

Still, he said, Mexican law enforcement agencies and the justice system “had a long way to go to reach the point where they’re fully respected and considered transparent and reliable by the populace.”

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