Weeks after taking office in January, the mayor of the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo sought advice from the sheriff of Webb County, just across the Texas border, asking what assistance he and his colleagues could provide.
“This is the God’s honest truth — one of the things that we came up with was dignitary protection,” Sheriff Martin Cuellar said of his meeting with Mayor Benjamín Galván Gómez.“And two weeks later they shoot and kill the chief of police (Retired Brigadier General Manuel Farfán Carreola). So they are crying for help, and we need to move. We need to do something.”
This week Cuellar, his brother, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Ambassador William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, say the government is taking steps to answer that call.
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Department of State and the Webb County Sheriff’s Department signed Wednesday will pave the way for U.S. law enforcement officers to train local and state police officers in Mexico — the latest advancement of the Merida Initiative, a $1.5 billion aid package signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2008 to help Mexico, Central America and Haiti combat drug gangs and other organized crime.
The training will not be immediate, Cuellar said, but will evolve over time as law enforcement determines a strategy and reports back to the federal government. The congressman was hopeful that some form of training would occur before the end of the year. Additional agencies in Texas, including the Laredo Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Webb County District Attorney’s office, may also enter into an agreement and join in on operations. The U.S. State department will cover any expenses, Cuellar said.
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“The State Department has to decide, ‘This is the type of training we want and this is where we want it. Guys, can you fulfill this mission?’” Rep. Cuellar said. “It’s pretty exciting. They’ve done some of these MOUs in other parts of the country, but on the border this is the first of its type. “
While the United States has provided training in Mexico since the Merida Initiative was initiated, the concentration has been on federal agents and prosecutors. The day before the Laredo event, Brownfield was in El Paso attending a conference on border security and trade at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he said the transition to training local and state authorities was the logical next step.
“Understandably, the United States’ national government initially focused on Mexico’s national government. That is what national governments do,” he said. “This transition, however, will be to the state and municipal and local institutions where I might remind you 90 percent of Mexico’s police officers and 90 percent of Mexico’s corrections officials, 90 percent of Mexico’s prosecutors are found.”
The move comes after the New York Times reported that America’s intelligence presence in Mexico had quietly increased, leading a host of Mexican federal officials to object to the presence of foreign law enforcement, citing sovereignty issues. But Sheriff Cuellar pointed to Galvan’s presence at Wednesday’s event and their meeting in January as proof that — at least in Tamaulipas — the local agencies are on board.
Congressman Cuellar also failed to see a correlation. “At least in my opinion, there is no connection," he said. "I’ve been talking to the State Department about this for quite a while. For three or four months we’ve been talking about this.”
The Cuellars said the initial phase of the training will be conducted in the host countries, possibly including some in Central America. Later, they said, foreign officers may train on U.S. soil.
Brownfield acknowledged the transition will not be smooth and urged patience.
“Ladies and gentleman, there will be problems, there will be mistakes, there will be missteps, there will be arguments and confusion as we work our way through this transition,” he said.
Yet the consequences of failure, he said, would be enormous.
“If we do not succeed with this Merida Initiative and you are a citizen of Mexico, you have sacrificed your children and their entire generation to continuing to live through the horrors that they have been enduring for the last 10 years,” he said. “And if you are a citizen of the United States of America and this initiative does not succeed, then the support that we are providing to Mexico to address these issues in Mexico will tomorrow be support that we are providing to the El Paso municipal police to address these problems in the streets of El Paso."