Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Analysis on US Executive Orders and Bicentennial Understanding Framework

“Socalj” and “HEARST” for Borderland Beat

The Bicentennial Understanding supplants the Merida Initiative between Mexico and the United States.

It has been 13 years since the Merida Initiative came into force, which was based on the assumption of shared responsibility of Mexico and the United States in the face of the threat of drug trafficking. The Foreign Minister of Mexico Marcelo Ebrard indicated that said program was dead and that the Bicentennial Understanding would supplant it.

Unintended consequences from the heavily militarized Kingpin Strategy were among the core arguments for needing to completely reform the Mérida Initiative. The framework of the Bicentennial Understanding promises a shift to address the root causes of violence and the public health problem that is substance abuse. However, many see the new announcements as just the next iteration of the same policies of the past.

“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.

"This helps a lot to the economic stability of the country because the government is reaffirming its commitment to the United States because companies are always afraid that the President is making half-Bolivarian decisions.” Raúl Benítez Manaut, commented in an interview that the agreement is an update of the Mérida Initiative.

Has the Merida Initiative and its Kingpin Act sister policy accomplished what their authors hoped for? Taking a look at the current state of violence and drug use in North America, one could argue that they have not as both have greatly increased since they were implemented.

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 (SNSP) has tripled, according to data collected by the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego.

While violence has escalated over the last several years in Mexico, the same can be said for the number of drug overdose deaths across the border in the United States more than 100,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses in the 12 months leading up to April 2021, representing a 28% increase over the same period last year.

Merida Initiative

The Merida Initiative, funded through the State Department and USAID’s foreign assistance, has evolved over time to reflect U.S. and Mexican joint strategic priorities. Announced in 2007, U.S. bilateral assistance initially focused on providing major equipment requested by the Mexican government, including air assets for the Mexican military and federal police. Since 2011, the focus of Merida Initiative funding has been to support Mexico’s efforts to strengthen its law enforcement institutions, enhance criminal prosecutions and the rule of law, build public confidence in the justice sector, improve border security, promote greater respect for human rights, and prevent crime and violence.

The National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) has noted that cocaine availability decreased in several U.S. drug markets during the first half of 2007, mostly because of record 33.5-ton cocaine seizures by the Mexican Navy. However, it is estimated that the major drug trafficking organizations were then reorganizing and readjusting to the new challenges facing their trade; as a result, drug availability in 2008 was once again on the rise.

The U.S. Congress authorized $1.6 USD billion for the three-year initiative (2007–2010). The U.S. Congress approved $465 million in the first year, which included $400 million for Mexico and $65 million for Central America, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. For the second year, Congress approved $300 million for Mexico and $110 million for Central America, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. An FY09 supplemental appropriation provided an additional $420 million for Mexico; and, $450 million for Mexico and $100 million for Central America was requested for FY10. The Mérida Initiative had included $74 million to be assigned for efforts by the U.S. government to stop the flow of illegal weapons from the U.S. to Mexico. Funding has increased overall while the quantity of drugs being produced and trafficked has actually increased.

Equipment & Training
  • As of March 2016, the initiative transferred 22 aircraft to Mexican security forces including Bell and Blackhawk helicopters, transport aircraft, and jets.
  • Non-intrusive inspection equipment such as ion scanners, gamma-ray scanners, X-ray vans, and canine units for Mexico and Central America.
  • Technologies to improve and secure telecommunications systems that collect criminal information in Mexico.
  • Technical advice and training to strengthen the institutions of justice, case management software to track investigations through the system, new offices of citizen complaints and professional responsibility, and witness protection programs to Mexico.
  • Equipment, training, and community action programs in Central American countries to implement anti-gang measures and expand the reach of these measures.

Kingpin Act

The H.R. 1555 Act of Congress was passed by the 106th U.S. Congressional session and enacted into law by the 42nd President of the United States Bill Clinton on December 3, 1999.

"Its purpose is to deny significant foreign narcotics traffickers, their related businesses, and their operatives access to the U.S. financial system and to prohibit all trade and transactions between the traffickers and U.S. companies and individuals. The Kingpin Act authorizes the President to take these actions when he determines that a foreign person plays a significant role in international narcotics trafficking. Congress modeled the Kingpin Act on the effective sanctions program that the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control ('OFAC') administers against the Colombian drug cartels pursuant to Executive Order 12978 issued in October 1995.

Results of the Kingpin Strategy

Leadership disruptions - especially due to the targeting of drug 'kingpins' by Mexican and US law enforcement - have contributed to the pattern of internal schisms and encroachment by rival organizations that have 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 200-400 active criminal groups operating in Mexico today, many of which are factions that have splintered off from once-powerful groups like Los Zetas and Beltrán-Leyva Organization, only to become incredibly predatory groups in their own right.

This has increased violence as subordinate cells vie for control and/or splinter off into competing groups. Many of these groups, without connections or infrastructure in the drug trafficking world, have expanded into local, violent crimes to fund their ranks and establish control of various territories. Extortion, fuel theft, kidnapping for ransom, and mass killings of civilians have been the results of these fragmentations into smaller groups or “cartelitos.” For example, the extradition of El Chapo has led to the rise of his sons, Los Chapitos in power and increased friction with Mayo Zambada resulting in territorial clashes amongst local cells.

"López Obrador inherited a spiral of violence, it is true, but he has not been able to reduce it," said David Saucedo, a consultant on public security issues.

An example of this is the objective of reducing homicides in the country, which is around 100,000 victims during the López Obrador term. Hence, a prevention platform will be established in vulnerable communities, as well as a task force to deal with high-impact murders linked to drug trafficking and with which investigations and prosecutions are facilitated.

The Path Forward
Reading through the various key points and goals of the new Bicentennial Understanding and the Executive Orders that were announced on a surface level, the Bicentennial Understanding is a reaffirmation and continuation of the largely failed Merida Initiative and Kingpin Strategy targeting the traffickers on the supply side versus public health issues on the demand side, at least in the United States.

While the United States seems to be doubling down on going after high-level leaders, in other words, kingpins; they have expanded headline sanctions to include financial and material suppliers to the cartels as well. The infamous “Culiacanazo,” where Ovidio Guzman-Lopez was captured and then released after a violent takeover of the city, might be an indication of AMLO’s lack of commitment to going after those kingpins.

It seems the general path forward in Mexico is improving quality of life, health and fighting poverty alongside reducing violence and narcotics trafficking with the United States increasing financial sanctions to help cripple cartel networks and stop the supply of synthetic drugs. If anything, it seems like a reduction in involvement from the US, but the new USCTOC includes a Strategic Division that can expand its focus and methods used to fight trafficking, corruption, crime, and violence regarding cross-border issues.

Bicentennial Understanding Framework

The Bicentennial Understanding proposes a new shared vision of security and regional collaboration anchored in respect for the sovereignty of each country and the establishment of a comprehensive and long-term approach to guide future bilateral actions.

"To protect our people, prevent cross-border crimes, persecute criminal networks, the armed forces, and the creation of a binational cooperation committee.”

Two months after the basis of the agreement that will replace the Merida Initiative was announced, the budgets for each area have not yet been defined, nor have documents established to formalize what the renewed binational project consists of. However, some specific objectives and deadlines for results until 2024 were outlined.

The Action Plan presented by the delegations addresses the shared vision that Presidents López Obrador and Biden have built on a bilateral level and that seeks to reduce addictions and homicides, arms, people, and drugs trafficking, among other common priority objectives.

High-Level Security Group (GANSEG)
  1. Subgroup to protect our people
  2. Subgroup to prevent cross-border crimes
  3. Subgroup to persecute criminal networks
  4. Informational subgroup of the Armed Forces
  5. Binational cooperation committee
According to reports from the SRE, the table on border crimes proposed fundamental actions such as the exchange of customs information; increased efforts to reduce illicit arms trafficking; as well as addressing the fentanyl crisis.

The Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), headed by Santiago Nieto, will be more relevant to weaken operations, freeze accounts or identify the illicit actors that support the economic structure of criminal groups. With AMLO, that axis had already been highlighted and now closer cooperation is being sought.

US Executive Order 14059
Imposing Sanctions on Foreign Persons Involved in the Global Illicit Drug Trade

Target foreign individuals involved in the global illicit drug trade through sanctions and through related actions. This EO creates a new authority that extends beyond the existing Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Sanctions by allowing the United States to better target and disrupt activities across the full illicit drug ecosystem.

To date, the vast majority of counter-narcotics sanctions designations have been implemented under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act — or the “Kingpin Act” — which is a statute enacted almost 20 years ago.

In the last two decades, however, the nature of drug trafficking has changed dramatically. Illicit drugs are more potent, addictive, and deadly, and able to kill in mass numbers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the skyrocketing death rate from synthetic opioids.

Today’s drug trade no longer relies on crops or requires vast acreage, but instead on synthetic materials and precursor chemicals. Focusing largely on synthetic opioids and their production. This action targets an array of illicit actors involved in the international proliferation of illicit drugs or their means of production.

Five of these actors are based in China and are engaged in either trafficking fentanyl or other synthetic drugs to the United States or in the export of various precursor chemicals essential to the production of fentanyl. Seven targets designated are Mexican nationals, all of whom are directly or indirectly linked to the trafficking of deadly drugs, including fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cocaine to the United States.

Cartels operate in a more diffuse and decentralized way, hindering their ability to build — hindering our ability to build comprehensive sanctions packages on drug traffickers — the facilitation networks — using the traditional “Kingpin” model.

As a result of today’s action, Treasury designated all nine Mexican drug trafficking organizations identified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as having the greatest drug trafficking impact on the United States.

Newly Sanctioned Organizations
Los Rojos
Guerreros Unidos
PCC (Brazil)

Previously Sanctioned Cartels/Organizations
Sinaloa Cartel
Beltran Leyva Organization
Gulf Cartel
Los Zetas
Juarez Cartel/La Linea
La Familia Michoacana

US Executive Order 14060
December 15, 2021
Establishing the United States Council on Transnational Organized Crime

This council represents an enhancement, a restructuring, and a replacement of the Threat Mitigation Working Group, which previously led government-wide lines of effort to counter transnational organized crime under Executive Order 13773, which was issued in February 2017.

The council will consist of members from the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Treasury, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Today’s TCOs are responsible for killing tens of thousands of Americans every year, harming local communities, driving regional instability, and enabling the malign activities of hostile foreign powers.

Motivated by profit, power, and political influence, transnational criminal organizations weaken our allies and partners as well by corrupting and undermining democratic institutions. They exploit weak governments in countries around the world, leading to national security threats here at home. In addition, some state adversaries use transnational criminal organizations as instruments of national power, offering them a territorial sanctuary where they are free to conduct unattributable cyber intrusions, sabotage, theft, and political subversion.

Now more than ever, the counter transnational organized crime mission requires cooperation across the law enforcement, intelligence, military, diplomatic, and economic communities.

Through the USCTOC, individual department and agency actions will be more strategically aligned and coordinated to overcome organizational barriers and support integrated action. The Strategic Division, a key arm of the USCTOC, is responsible for developing government-wide plans to advance policy priorities. This structure supports departments and agencies in collaboratively and jointly identifying, interdicting, disrupting, and dismantling transnational organized crime networks and their support infrastructures.

A press Briefing explained the Executive Orders but was very generic and spoke in broad terms when responding to questions. Questions about targeting certain countries were met with responses of global intentions but got more specific on what and who could be sanctioned.

“So, if I were to say anything about this EO, it is broader and more powerful and it will permit us to carry out sanctions with greater speed and effect than we have in the past.”

The new USCTOC will enable U.S. agencies and foreign partners to assume the strategic offensive, denying TCOs the ability to harm Americans by targeting their leadership and their illicit support infrastructure in depth.

Main Differences

There are a few differences including the formations of council groups in both the United States and Mexico to oversee a combination of multiple agencies and policies. Mexico takes this a step farther with subgroups focusing on various aspects of crime, reducing domestic drug use, and promoting programs to help curb poverty. The issue of drug use and abuse in the United States should be included as part of the programs to fight organized crime and reduce drug overdoses. Criminal groups thrive on the demand of illegal goods at massive profit margins and while many groups have expanded their criminal activities, drug production and trafficking remain key to the power of many cartels and other organized crime groups.

One of the main functions of the Merida Initiative was providing funding to Mexico and Central American countries as well as supplying tactical equipment, aircraft and training. No funding has been announced yet as part of the framework, it has been said that while there will still be no supply of weapons to the Mexican government, the stoppage of tactical equipment supplies was announced as well. This could be covered under future funding efforts rather than the direct supplying of equipment or it is a result of budget and supply cuts or a hint of worry that the equipment could end up in the wrong hands.

At this point, the United States intends to implement programs to eradicate complaints of human rights violations by the Mexican armed forces. Likewise, extraditions must be applied at the same speed in Mexico and the United States.

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 Kingpin Act (FKNDA) was enacted in 1999 and focused on targeting organizations and their leaders. New sanctions also include individuals, suppliers, and more organizations with the announcements of several aided individuals and cartels.

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. Tragically, more than 100,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses in the 12 months leading up to April 2021, representing a 28% increase over the same period last year.

Of what has been announced so far, it seems the strategy is more of the same, or in some cases less of what was done before. The United States cancel did implement and introduced the strategic division for which likely new methods of the body organized crime, drug overdoses, and trafficking could be addressed. But current strategies have not led to any overall reduction in either.


Whitehouse Whitehouse Whitehouse Whitehouse

Treasury Department

InSight Crime


Crisis Group

El Economista

Trust for America's Health

Gobierno de Mexico

Infobae Infobae Infobae



  1. Interesting article which really shows how USA is being affected, by illegal drugs coming in from Mexico.
    On the other had it also depicts how Mexico is also being affected by the rampant Cartels.

    "Lopez Obrador inherited a spiral of violence, it is true , but he has not been able to reduce it" David Saucedo

    "100,000 victims in Mexico have died during Lopez Obrador term"
    Even before this article came out, I was always saying the president of Mexico and his cabinet is enpt to handle the violence.
    I am ready to get belittled by the Lopez Obrador nuthuggers

  2. Socalj great work informative I must say. This article should serve as a bookmark of the quagmire that affects both countries.

  3. Lopez Obrador and Joe Biden with useless Kamala Harris a recipe for disaster.

    Lets not forget that Barak Obama Bin Laden armed the cartels with Military weapons with Operation "Fast and Furious".

  4. To compilcated for readers to comment on this one.

  5. Maybe is was long, that comprehension skills get lost. I sure understood it I got used to hearing the Merida Inst. and now have to get used to the new name.

  6. Thank you for breaking this down. Much appreciated.🍜


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