A Primer on Plan Mexico

Updated July 10, 2008

On June 30, President George W. Bush signed into law the “Merida Initiative”—better known as Plan Mexico—just days after it passed Congress as part of the Iraq supplemental funding bill. The measure had to go through several versions before finally being approved by both houses, as legislators went back and forth with the Bush administration and Mexico President Felipe Calderón’s government over human rights conditions.

In the end, even the weak conditions that had been placed on the bill were largely removed. Both administrations proclaimed themselves satisfied with the deal, and Congress hailed a new era in binational cooperation. But with human rights relegated to the sidelines, Mexican society and U.S.-Mexico relations face a militarized future in which the unchecked power of abusive security forces adds to, rather than resolves, the alarming violence of organized crime.

The final aid package of $400 million differs little in content and conception from the original version presented by President Bush on Oct. 22 of last year. According to the Bush proposal and authorization by the House of Representatives, the entire three-year package could allocate up to $1.6 billion to Mexico, Central American, and Caribbean countries for security aid to design and carry out counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and border security measures.

Mexico and the United States face a joint challenge in decreasing transnational organized crime and they must cooperate to strengthen the rule of law and stop illegal drug and arms trafficking over the border. But in the rush to tag Plan Mexico on to the Iraq supplemental and demonstrate support for Mexico to Latino voters, many legislators paid little attention to the specifics of the measure. The initiative contains fatal flaws in its strategy. Its military approach to counter-narcotics work will escalate drug-related violence and human rights abuses and result in an inability to achieve its own goals.

Although presented as an unprecedented effort to fight burgeoning drug trafficking and violence related to organized crime in Mexico, the “Regional Security Cooperation Initiative” goes far beyond stopping the flow of illegal drugs. It fundamentally restructures the U.S.-Mexico binational relationship, recasts economic and social problems as security issues, and militarizes Mexican society.

Due to the changes that took place to obtain passage of the measure, we must now await the Secretary of State’s spending report in mid-August to know the precise details of much of the plan. Under the Bush version, over half the packet was earmarked for Mexican military and police forces with $205 million to the armed services alone. In the version approved by Congress, the military aid was reduced to $116.5 million this first year, which could either mean that delivery of one of the two $50 million-dollar maritime patrol planes and a few of the $13 million-dollar surveillance helicopters will be delayed, or that a higher percentage will go to police forces, or a combination of the two.

The reduction in military aid will make very little practical difference. Both the army and police forces have been accused of documented and yet legally unresolved human rights violations. At the same time, no money is allotted for drug treatment and harm reduction in either country, and the colossal “cooperation” package ignores the serious problems that exist within the United States, including the entry of illegal drugs, widespread sale and consumption, crossborder gun-running, and money laundering.

This aid packet would place the United States’ binational relationship with one of its closest and most sensitive allies in the realm of vaguely defined security issues. While mandating a huge increase in aid to Mexico, it includes no funds to finally address the poverty gap and development needs of our southern neighbor. It also locks an incoming administration into the disastrous Bush counter-terrorism strategy of first strikes and gunboat diplomacy applied to a bordering nation—right at a time when the U.S. public is demanding a change in foreign policy.

Members of human rights groups in Mexico and the United States now have no option but to monitor the results of this misguided policy. This task should be carried out with the broadest possible citizen participation so when Plan Mexico comes up for appropriations again it can be evaluated on the basis of real results and not political vagaries. The U.S. and Mexican congresses should also insist that the security strategy supported by this aid be held to specific criteria of review.

To begin a public debate on the dangers inherent in Plan Mexico, first it is important to understand what it is.

What is Plan Mexico?

Plan Mexico, or the Merida Initiative, was presented after months of anticipation and hermetic negotiations as a three-year, $1.4 billion “Regional Security Cooperation Initiative.” Members of the U.S. Congress immediately complained that the Bush administration provided no information to congressional committee members until the deal was done.

The request for fiscal year 2008 for $550 million—$500 million to Mexico and $50 million to Central America—was attached to the Iraq Supplemental Appropriations Bill. On June 26, Congress passed the bill with slight variations. The Mexico portion was reduced to $400 million in the first installment, and Central American aid increased to $65 million, including Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The Secretary of State must present a spending plan to the appropriations committee by mid-August. The details so far provided reveal $116.5 million to the Mexican military and $73.5 million for “judicial reform, institution building, anti-corruption, and rule of law activities.” What follows is a breakdown of the original plan. Despite the lack of adjusted numbers, the congressional version appears to follow along these same lines, with reductions in some line items.

Under the rubric of Foreign Military Financing, Plan Mexico allocates up to $116.5 million for the Mexican Armed Forces—about 30% of the total. The original packet listed the purchase of eight Bell helicopters (at $13 million each, with training, maintenance, and special equipment) for the Mexican Army and two CASA 235 maritime patrol planes (at $50 million each, with maintenance) for the country’s navy.

Plan Mexico also allocates $48 million for “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement” to Mexico. Direct aid to the police and armed forces makes up over 40% of the packet. Most of this money ends up lining the pockets of defense companies for purchase of surveillance, inspection, and security equipment, and training. The Mexican Federal Police Force receives most of this funding, with Customs, Immigration, and Communications receiving the remainder.

The rest of the 2008 Bush appropriations request is comprised of $112 million in the “Rule of Law” category for the Mexican Attorney General’s Office and the criminal justice system. This money is earmarked for software and training in case-tracking and centralizing data. The original initiative also earmarked $12.9 million to the infamous Mexican Intelligence Service (CISEN) for investigations, forensics equipment, counterterrorism work, and to other agencies including the Migration Institute for establishment of a database on immigrants. The U.S. government allots $37 million of the Bush packet to itself for administrative costs.

The proposed 2009 budget of a reported $450 million to Mexico is much the same, with a larger share going to the police over the military, assuming that by then the notorious corruption among those agencies will have been at least partially remedied—a dubious assumption at best ($120 million to the armed forces and $252 million to the police and other law enforcement agencies).

All of these programs are directed to the goals of supply interdiction, enforcement, and surveillance—including domestic spying—according to the “war on drugs” model developed in the United States in the early 70s under then-President Richard Nixon.1 This military model has proved historically ineffective in achieving the goals of eliminating the illegal drug trade and decreasing organized crime, and closely related to an increase in violence, instability, and authoritarian presidential powers.

The congressional version adds $1 million to support the UN High Commissioner’s Office on Human Rights in Mexico. It also adds a series of conditions not found in the Bush version. The first states that “fifteen percent of these funds may not be obligated until the Secretary of State reports in writing to the Committees on Appropriations that the Government of Mexico is:

(1) improving the transparency and accountability of federal police forces, and working with state and municipal authorities to improve the transparency and accountability of state and municipal police forces, through mechanisms including establishing police complaints commissions with authority and independence to receive complaints and carry out effective investigations;

(2) establishing a mechanism for regular consultations among relevant Mexican Government authorities, Mexican human rights organizations, and other relevant Mexican civil society organizations, to make recommendations concerning implementation of the Merida Initiative in accordance with Mexican and international law;

(3) ensuring that civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities are investigating and prosecuting, in accordance with Mexican and international law, members of the federal police and military forces who have been credibly alleged to have committed violations of human rights, and the federal police and military forces are fully cooperating with the investigations; and

(4) enforcing the prohibition, in accordance with Mexican and international law, on the use of testimony obtained through torture or other ill-treatment.”

This list does not require anything that the Mexican government is not currently required to do. In most places, police complaints mechanisms already exist and the condition is not clear about what the legal follow-up on a complaint should be. Mexican citizens will testify that in most cases, there is none.

The second condition does create a new body but that group is reduced to making recommendations on implementation of the Merida Initiative. It has even fewer teeth than the National Human Rights Commission, which has issued scores of recommendations that have been ignored by security forces and government agencies.

Finally, the prohibition on torture in Mexico represents progress in the legal realm but has been a dead letter in practical terms. In fact, the International Civil Commission on Human Rights documented scores of cases of torture in its 2007 visit to Oaxaca, Chiapas, and San Salvador Atenco. The number of cases—exacerbated by the lack of legal prosecution—led the Commission to call the human rights situation in Mexico “extremely critical.”2

In any case, human rights conditioning from the U.S. Congress has been a double-edged sword. It has been applied with obviously political criteria in the past, and frequently lacks clear standards of evaluation to the point where even many human rights groups reject the practice. Mexico has always objected to the “certification” process by which the U.S. Congress decided if a nation could receive counternarcotics aid and the process was later modified so Mexico has been exempted from certification since 2002. Ambassador Garza quickly attempted to assuage Mexican sensitivities, claiming the requirements in the Merida Initiative did not amount to certification.3 The final conditions require only a pre-report, without U.S. checks on compliance subsequent to delivering the aid package.

The NAFTA Connection

The “Merida Initiative” received its name from a meeting between Presidents Bush and Calderon in Merida, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, in March 2007. The official story is that President Calderon, already committed to a “war on drugs” that relies heavily on the use of the army in supply interdiction, requested U.S. assistance at the Merida meeting and, after negotiations on the details, the U.S. government acceded.

With the emphasis on counter-narcotics efforts, in the lead-up to the October announcement of the package, both governments marshaled studies and statistics to support the contradictory thesis that drug-trafficking and related violence in Mexico had reached a crisis point, and that Calderon’s offensive against the drug cartels was working.

This is not the real story of the plan’s origins. The Bush administration’s concept of a joint security strategy for North America goes back at least as far as the creation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) as an extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).4 When the three North American leaders met in Waco, Texas in March of 2005, they put into motion a secretive process of negotiations between members of the executive branches and representatives of large corporations to facilitate cross-border business and create a shared security perimeter. Subsequent meetings, including the April 2008 trilateral summit in New Orleans, extended these goals amid mounting criticism.5

Through the SPP, the Bush administration has sought to push its North American trade partners into a common front that would assume shared responsibility for protecting the United States from terrorist threats, promoting and protecting the free-trade economic model, and bolstering U.S. global control, especially in Latin America where the State Department sees a growing threat due to the election of center-left governments. While international cooperation to confront terrorism is a laudable and necessary aim, the Bush national security strategy6 entails serious violations of national sovereignty for its partner countries, increased risk of being targeted as U.S. military allies, and threats to civil liberties for citizens in all three countries.

Moreover the counterterrorism model, exemplified by the invasion of Iraq, has by all accounts created a rise in instability and terrorist activity worldwide.

Extending the concept of North American economic integration into national security matters through the closed-door SPP raises grave questions about how security is defined and who does the defining.

Thomas Shannon, sub-secretary of Western Hemisphere affairs for the State Department put it bluntly in a speech on April 8, saying that the SPP “understands North America as a shared economic space and that as a shared economic space we need to protect it, and that we need to understand that we don’t protect this economic space only at our frontiers, that it has to be protected more broadly throughout North America. And as we have worked through the Security and Prosperity Partnership to improve our commercial and trading relationship, we have also worked to improve our security cooperation. To a certain extent, we’re armoring NAFTA.”7

The SPP effort seeks to lock in policies that do not have consensus and have not been debated among the public and within Congress. Citizen groups in all three countries have called for a halt to SPP talks due to the lack of labor, environmental, and civilian representation, and transparency to the public. On the security front, the Bush administration’s concept of military-based rather than diplomacy- and social policy-based security is strongly questioned in the United States and outright rejected among the vast majority of Mexicans and Canadians.

In this context, instead of reviewing policies and opening them up to public debate, the Bush administration has launched its boldest advance yet within the SPP context—Plan Mexico. Speculation was that the plan would be announced at the Montebello SPP meeting in August of 2007, but perhaps because of the presence of SPP protestors at that meeting President Bush delayed the official unveiling of the “Merida Initiative” several months. However, the last two SPP meetings have included discussions of Plan Mexico and the State Department has been clear about its crucial role within the overall SPP economic and security framework.

It is important to understand the roots of Plan Mexico in the Bush administration’s deep integration agenda. The plan implies much more than a temporary aid program for fighting drug cartels. It structurally revamps the basis of the binational relationship in ways meant to permanently emphasize military aspects over much-needed development aid and modifications in trade and investment policy. The scope of the Regional Security Cooperation Initiative demonstrates that it goes far beyond a joint war on drugs and cements into place failed policies on immigration enforcement, militarization of the border, economic integration policies, counterterrorism attacks on civil liberties, and the intromission of security forces into social policy and international diplomacy. To do this, the outgoing Bush administration has relied on the support of two economically dependent allies to try to assure that its policies will be irreversible under a Democratic presidency in the United States.8

What’s Wrong with Plan Mexico?

Plan Mexico embodies a logic of confrontation that can be criticized on the following eleven points:


    1. The “war on drugs” model doesn’t work.


Mexico has a serious problem with illegal drug trafficking and drug-related violence. But there is more than one way to go about solving it.

The Merida Initiative departs from the mistaken pretext that interdiction, enforcement, and prosecution will eventually stem illegal crossborder drug-trafficking. Studies have shown that treatment and rehabilitation are 20 times more effective in decreasing the illegal drug trade.9 Yet the Merida Initiative contains not one penny10 for treatment or rehabilitation in either country.

Working against the stated goal of decreasing the binational drug trade, the Bush administration recently cut back funds for domestic treatment and prevention programs. This approach moves in the wrong direction.

The supply-side model fails for one obvious reason: where there’s a buyer there will be a seller. And since it’s a black market, the seller must be a member of organized crime and stands to make an enormous, tax-free profit.

The experience of Plan Colombia reveals the pitfalls of the Plan Mexico now before Congress. Plan Colombia is a similar U.S. military aid package designed to fight the drug war. Since its inception in 2000, it has contributed to entrenched violence and corruption in that South American country while failing to reduce drug flows to the United States.

Over the past seven years of Plan Colombia the United States government has spent some $6 billion dollars supposedly to fight the war on drugs; 76% of that has gone to the Colombian military. The results are well known: Colombia remains the primary source of cocaine on the U.S. market, the price has gone down, and the purity has risen. Despite environmentally devastating fumigation campaigns, numerous studies show that the surface area planted in coca has increased or remained constant.

As a result of crackdowns, drug cartels have adopted more sophisticated equipment and forms of organization—and closer relations with Mexican cartels. In a balloon effect, a new route opens up when an old one is closed off and new drug lords rise up through the ranks when existing leaders are imprisoned or killed.

In addition to its failure to detain drug production, processing, and transit of cocaine, Plan Colombia has spread into aid for the Colombian rightwing government in its war against leftwing guerrilla insurgents. The U.S. government’s involvement in counter-insurgency efforts was authorized by Congress in 2003, when it agreed to formally broaden the scope of Plan Colombia to authorize the use of military aid beyond counternarcotics activities and lift previous restrictions. As a result, investigative journalist Frank Smyth wrote that by 2001 Colombia had surpassed El Salvador as the largest counterinsurgency effort of the United States since Vietnam.11

With the arrival of arms and money for the Colombian armed forces, the violation of human rights, the displacement of entire communities, and assassination of civilians has become so widespread as to be alarming even to proponents of Plan Colombia. In the recent authorization of new funds for the plan, the House of Representatives approved a version that cuts military aid, reduces fumigation, and conditions aid to more stringent human rights requirements. The total aid to Colombia’s government continues to be huge and largely military, but along with the likely rejection of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia due to human and labor rights concerns, it marks a minimal recognition in Congress that the drug war model in that nation is simply not working as intended.

The upshot today is that a drug user has equal if not greater access to cocaine on the streets of U.S. cities and it’s cheaper and more potent than ever.12 Colombia continues to be the number one source of cocaine to the U.S. market. Over 3.8 million people have been displaced from their communities, paramilitary groups responsible for 80% of human rights violations run rampant, and Colombia is a militarized society trapped in internecine violence.

This experience should be carefully analyzed before replicating a failed model with heavy collateral damage to the social fabric of an allied nation. Although Mexico is a very different country—there is no civil war or widespread guerrilla activity—the lessons of Plan Colombia are worth taking into consideration on the eve of Plan Mexico. The failure of the drug war model in Colombia, and Afghanistan, would seem to warrant at the very least a cautious attitude toward applying it in other countries—especially one as geographically and economically close as Mexico.


    1. Funding and equipping Mexican security forces in the current context of corruption and impunity will worsen the problems, reduce civil society’s role in reform, and inhibit construction of democratic institutions.


Unfortunately, Mexican security forces are presently often more part of the problem than the solution. The State Department 2007 report on human rights13 in Mexico notes, “Corruption continued to be a problem, as many police were involved in kidnapping, extortion, or providing protection for, or acting directly on behalf of organized crime and drug traffickers. Impunity was pervasive to an extent that victims often refused to file complaints.”

Ranking members of Mexican security forces on local and national levels maintain close links to drug traffickers, working for them directly in many parts of the country. The army has traditionally been more independent of this dynamic, but its deployment within the country in the drug war is increasing its involvement and leading to human rights violations. Many armed forces deserters, that totaled 17,000 last year alone, receive counternarcotics training and then pass it along in service to high-paying drug cartels. The infamous Zetas (a drug trafficking network comprised of former law enforcement and military agents) illustrate the lethal capacity of military-trained groups that operate with drug cartels.

Military equipment also ends up in the hands of the cartels. The U.S. Office of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms reports that 90% of arms decommissioned from organized crime in Mexico came from the United States, many registered to the U.S. Army.14 Senator Alfonso Sanchez Anaya reported to the Mexican Congress that 15 million arms circulate illegally in Mexico.15 In Iraq an investigation revealed the existence of thousands of “missing” arms thought to be in the hands of insurgents and delinquents. The black market in arms is booming. Given this situation, the likelihood that U.S. military equipment ends up in the wrong hands is more like an inevitability.

By excluding community prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation programs, neighborhood watch initiatives, and other measures that create a more active role for civil society, the initiative tends to convert the citizenry into a protectorate of the armed forces. The redefinition of crime as a national security threat also removes it from the community realm.

The point is not to vilify the Mexican armed forces, police, and government. Many honest and brave individuals can be found among their ranks and some have given their lives fighting corruption. Extreme statements like that of Tom Tancredo on Nov. 8, 2007 who said, “The degree of corruption inside the government and the military is so great that it’s hard to see where the government ends and where the cartels begin,” respond more to a Mexico-bashing mentality than a serious concern for the real challenges Mexico faces.

But this is the reality of the situation and the challenge for U.S. binational policy is to support effective measures to clean up the corruption and end the impunity while developing mechanisms of cooperation in combating transnational crime.

Some organizations have called for passing the Merida Initiative with a human rights certification process attached. These are contradictory aims since the plan itself will worsen human rights violations. Giving arms, military equipment, spy and surveillance capacity, and training to security forces with a history of abuses that the justice system is unable or unwilling to check is like pouring gas on a fire. Ignoring root causes of criminal activity and market demand makes it very likely that military aid will empower delinquency and feed corruption.

Human rights certification, while well-intentioned, has not worked in Colombia. The benchmarks of the evaluation have been movable and often politically defined. Also, many nations regard them as a form of intervention.


    1. Plan Mexico promotes the militarization of Mexican society with few legal or social controls.


The model of confronting the trafficking, sale, and consumption of drugs with military means increases violence and weakens democratic institutions. In countries where these are already weak it can create serious obstacles to a transition to democracy.

Former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Louise Arbour warned of using the army in the streets on her last visit to Mexico. “I understand there are those who say that at times you have to turn to a more powerful force such as the army, but it seems to me that in the long term it is frankly dangerous,” Arbour told television network Televisa. “The army should not be doing the job of the police.”16

General José Francisco Gallardo, the major proponent of human rights guarantees within the Mexican Army and a constitutional scholar who was imprisoned for his efforts states, “Here what should be done is to form a national police force that carries out these functions and is not under the military … The presence of the army in matters that are not under their jurisdiction displaces the constitutional faculties of the civil, federal, state, and municipal authority and goes against Art. 21 of the constitution.”17

When asked if the Calderon strategy of militarizing the drug war could lead to a return to the “Dirty War” of the 70s, Gallardo—as a young soldier, one of the few members of the armed forces to protest the torture and assassination that marked that period—told the author, “We are already experiencing a return to the Dirty War.”18 He cited the widespread practice of torture and arbitrary detentions as proof of systematic human rights violations in contemporary Mexico.

The 2007 report of the Mexican National Commission on Human Rights19 recommended the gradual withdrawal of the army from the internal drug war. Militarizing society by involving the army in internal functions beyond its constitutional mandate constitutes a threat to democracy. As is well known in Latin America, the Cold War militarization of society and ideology paved the way for military dictatorships that murdered civilians and set back progress toward democracy by decades. Human rights violations are expected to rise.

The corollary to increased military support in internal matters is the rise of uncontrolled paramilitary forces as has happened in Colombia. In Mexico, the use of paramilitaries has been largely confined to attacks on Zapatista communities in the southern state of Chiapas.20 Since 2006, paramilitary organizations have been used in the state of Oaxaca to repress social and indigenous movements there. It is likely that an increase in militarization of Mexican society will lead to an increase in the scope and activity of these groups.

Both governments have been quick to defend the plan stating that no U.S. troops will be deployed on Mexican soil. An important difference between the domestic version of the war on drugs and that which the U.S. government has applied in other countries is the use of the Army. When the war on drugs model began, military over-extension in Vietnam, an unpopular draft system, and drug addiction among soldiers, as well as constitutional prohibitions, ruled out use of the Army. The version for export has included both U.S. and home country armies. Plan Colombia dispatched U.S. troops to Colombia but Congress has maintained a troop cap. Today a similar situation of military over-extension, now due to the war in Iraq, places practical restrictions on the use of U.S. troops.

However, the deployment of U.S. troops cannot be the sole measure of militarization to evaluate the Regional Security Cooperation Initiative. The war on drugs in Latin America is fought more by private-sector mercenaries and national armies trained by the U.S. military. Plan Mexico follows this strategy, for the above reasons and particularly to avoid riling Mexican sensitivities regarding national sovereignty. Militarization through building up national armies to fight within their own borders and sending in private companies such as Blackwater can be even more dangerous for Mexico than U.S. troop presence. Accountability mechanisms are weak or non-existent.

Unless checks and balances appear that have so far not been revealed, Plan Mexico could contribute to the creation of a police state in Mexico. This poses a particular threat to women. Already in addition to what happened in San Salvador Atenco (May 2006), security forces have been involved in rapes and sexual torture in cases in Oaxaca, Zongolica, and Coahuila.


    1. Plan Mexico broadens Mexico’s presidential powers, skewing a weak balance of powers.


The war on drugs model has always had this as an unspoken objective: to strengthen the executive power without effective counterbalances or transparency, subtracting powers from other levels of government and restricting citizen rights.21 In Mexico, barely emerging from decades of presidential authoritarianism, moving in this direction could erase years of building a more effective balance of powers.

Since his hotly contested election by half a percentage point in 2006 and accusations of irregularities upheld in part by the electoral institutions, President Calderon faces a challenge to consolidate his rule. U.S. policies should encourage a process of political reconciliation, not reliance on the armed forces to bolster presidential powers.

After taking office Calderon rapidly built an image of strength in arms. He dispatched over 24,000 army troops to Mexican cities and villages, and created an elite corps of special forces under his direct supervision.

The message of a weak presidency bolstered by a strong alliance with the military has not been lost on Mexican citizens. While some believe this is the only way to attack public insecurity, others have criticized(22) the repressive undertones, the danger of returning to presidentialism, increasing human rights violations, constitutional questions, and threats to civil democratic institutions.

For the Bush administration the war on drugs model serves to lock in pro-corporate economic policies and U.S. military influence in the region. When the United States exports its “war on drugs” it becomes a powerful tool for intervention and pressuring other nations to assume U.S. national security interests as their own. This global policeman role creates dependency on the U.S. military and intelligence services and militarizes diplomacy. The Pentagon takes the lead in international policy, while relegating international law and diplomacy to a distant second place.


    1. The war on drugs model invariably extends into repression of political opposition in countries where it has been applied, blurring the lines between the war on drugs, against terrorism, and against political opposition.


A 2004 report documents the impact of increased U.S. military aid in Latin America and concludes that “Too often in Latin America, when armies have focused on an internal enemy, the definition of enemies has included political opponents of the regime in power, even those working within the political system such as activists, independent journalists, labor organizers, or opposition political-party leaders.”23

Persecution of dissidents has been well-documented for many periods of Mexican history including present day. The International Civil Commission on Human Rights writes in its preliminary conclusions from a fact-finding tour in February 2008: “There have been widespread arbitrary arrests of members of social movements and, on occasion, of members of their families merely for being related to them. It is normal for those who are arrested to be subjected to torture and physical abuse. To justify the arrests false evidence is used …”24

Journalists who report on state or drug-cartel related violence also become victims of selective silencing. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Mexico 10th in the world on its “Impunity Index.” Colombia, after nearly a decade of Plan Colombia’s prescriptions for increasing rule of law, ranks fourth in the index for the unpunished assassination of journalists.25


    1. Plan Mexico indiscriminately replicates the Bush counter-terrorism model, placing at risk democratic institutions and civil and human rights in Mexico where the threat of international terrorism is practically non-existent.


Counter-terrorism measures included in Plan Mexico ignore the fact that the threat to the United States and the threat to Mexico are not equivalent in size or nature, nor are the political contexts. Mexico is emerging from authoritarian rule, with many non-democratic institutions and practices still intact and increasing signs of a return to impunity and rule by political bosses.

Obliging Mexico to adopt emergency counter-terrorism measures including domestic surveillance, phone tapping, warrantless searches—the “Gestapo law” (which is how the Mexican news media refers to it) proposed by the Calderon government that was defeated by popular outcry—and definitions of social protest as a criminal activity could damage fragile civil liberties protections and democratic institutions. The Merida Initiative includes funding for espionage systems directed at national citizenry, and surveillance equipment. Reforms dictated under the SPP have authorized house arrest and other measures considered a violation of rights but common in the United States now under the Patriot Act.

Since the U.S. government’s definition of “terrorism” is so broad and ambiguous, the counterterrorism model has led to mission creep and attacks on internal dissidence. The Regional Security Cooperation Initiative provides a dangerous stepping stone in that process.


    1. Plan Mexico intensifies border conflict by viewing immigration through the same military lens as terrorism and organized crime.


By including “border security” and explicitly targeting “flows of illicit goods and persons,” the initiative equates migrant workers with illegal contraband and terrorist threats. This ignores both the root causes of Mexican out-migration and the real demand for immigrant labor in the United States.26

The Merida Initiative Joint Statement(27) reads, “Our shared goal is to maximize the effectiveness of our efforts to fight criminal organizations—so as to disrupt drug-trafficking (including precursor chemicals), weapons trafficking, illicit financial activities and currency smuggling, and human trafficking.”

The millions of dollars allocated to the immigration institute are focused on tightening Mexico’s southern border through monitoring, bio-data collection, and a Guatemalan guest-worker program and border control. Mexico has a history of offering refuge to Central Americans and accepting them into its society. That has been changing as the U.S. government has pressured Mexico to intercept Central American migrants before they make it to the northern border.

Plan Mexico advances that process and increases Mexican participation in stopping its own migrants at the northern border too. Putting immigration in the same basket as terrorist threats has already served to promote the U.S. government strategy of militarizing the northern border. The U.S.-Mexico border provides a case study in how U.S. counter-terrorism programs lead to militarization, loss of national sovereignty, and violations of human rights and even death of migrants. For Mexican workers thrown out of a job by the U.S.-Mexico trade agreement, being snagged as criminals by their own government at the border is a cruel irony.

Illegal immigration is not a problem that can be solved by draconian security measures. Our experience with militarized border security measures to date shows that they are extremely expensive, and the criminalization of immigrants leads to increased hostility and violence that erodes communities. The loss of labor also harms local businesses.

A better policy would recognize immigration as a result of economic integration and adjust trade, investment, and community development programs accordingly in both countries. Job generation, local infrastructure development, programs aimed at regulating migratory flows and preventing conflict would go much farther to enhance border security in the short and long term.


    1. Reforming the Mexican justice and prison systems requires political will in Mexico, not U.S. taxpayers’ money.


The $112 million allocated for 2008 in the “rule of law” portion of the Merida Initiative to the Attorney General’s Office and other criminal justice agencies includes mostly information technology systems for centralizing data collection, forensics labs, and training for the court system and law enforcement personnel. Although viewed by some as the “soft” part of the initiative, these programs raise serious questions as to their efficacy and appropriateness.

First, to increase the “rule of law” what Mexico really needs is the political will—not additional resources—for reform to work. To give an example: the murder of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez has become an internationally known case and received millions of dollars from the Mexican government and international agencies to resolve the crimes. Numerous commissions have been formed and faded away without delivering results.28 A state-of-the-art forensics team called in to analyze the evidence that hadn’t already been destroyed wrote up a report. Although they concluded their investigation, the report has not been released. Human rights activists close to the cases believe that they could implicate economically and politically powerful individuals.

Second, the Mexican laws and legal system are not the same as the U.S. system. While police departments and other agencies have long-standing agreements for training and cooperation, a grand plan for the U.S. government to train and reform the Mexican legal system is viewed as negative intervention by many Mexican jurists. Mexican judges from the Supreme Court and lower courts have publicly stated objections to U.S. funds for the court system. For years, members of the judicial system have resisted attempts by international financial institutions to impose governance programs mandating reforms in the Mexican judicial system, not because the country doesn’t need to improve in this area (the justice system is notoriously bad) but because only Mexico can revamp its judicial system. Plan Mexico would break through that resistance and mandate U.S. plans and training in both the judicial and prison systems.

The U.S. government would do better to improve its own legal system in the joint effort to control the illegal drug trade and organized crime. The fact that the United States is the largest market for illegal drugs indicates a dismal record in control of illegal drug retailing, distribution, and consumption. Moreover, measures such as mandatory drug sentencing have been proven to discriminate racially and economically; consider that African-Americans make up 13% of drug users and 59% of those convicted.29 Drug convictions, usually for users rather than dealers and leaders of organized crime, have led to over-crowding in U.S. prisons. Although this method has not proven to be the most effective in dealing with the problem, the privatized U.S. prison system creates market incentives for imprisoning casual drug users and migrants—both of which form part of the Merida Initiative. This diverts resources and attention from going after leaders of organized crime and, given Mexico’s already dangerously over-crowded prisons, could lead to violent riots.


    1. Plan Mexico does not represent real binational cooperation.


Several members of Congress have heralded the Merida Initiative as an unprecedented step toward binational cooperation. They argue that the United States government implicitly recognizes U.S. responsibility for the transnational drug trade by offering the aid packet to Mexico to combat organized crime.

In fact, the plan places the onus of the drug war on Mexico and includes no counterpart measures to reduce the U.S. market, improve customs control on the northern side of the border, reduce retailing and distribution, eliminate illegal arms traffic, and prosecute money-laundering—all problems located firmly within the United States.

Moreover, although President Calderon has heralded the measure as an example that the U.S. government is willing to assume its part in fighting the illegal drug trade and rise in organized crime, the bulk of the budget for the initiative will never make it to Mexico. In addition to the 40% that would be spent on the military helicopters and surveillance planes, most of the rest of the budget goes to defense contractors and information technology (IT) firms in the form of outlays for intelligence equipment, software and hardware, and training. A huge part of this budget goes directly to U.S. private sector defense and IT companies and the U.S. government, not to Mexican security and government agencies.

As some attack the plan for the resources destined to an “undeserving” Mexico, Plan Mexico could well end up being another defense company pork barrel.


    1. Plan Mexico violates Mexican sovereignty.


Plan Mexico includes training of Mexican police and armed forces using U.S. techniques, technology, and priorities. Few nations would accept this arrangement in the vital area of national security. As the network of U.S. anti-narcotics and customs agents and training units in Mexico grows, the ability of the country to apply policies based on its own national needs and priorities decreases proportionally.

Mexicans have always been protective of Mexican sovereignty. U.S. government officials often regard Mexico’s reticence to engage in joint military and police actions with the United States as if it were a hyper-nationalist flashback, but Mexico has guarded its neutrality in foreign affairs and public opinion views with skepticism of U.S. foreign policy, especially since the invasion of Iraq, with the majority preferring a degree of autonomy from U.S. security interests.

The U.S. public would reject Plan Mexico if the roles were reversed. Imagine the following news story in the morning paper:

“Plan United States, completely funded by the Mexican government, will place Mexican drug enforcement agents in border customs offices and key points in the interior, including Laredo, Kansas City, Miami, and New York. A new wiretapping system, produced by SPY-MEX and supervised by Mexican intelligence officers, will monitor private communications of U.S. citizens suspected of involvement with organized crime, while Mexican-made planes overfly communities thought to be located along drug trafficking routes. The U.S. army, recently deployed to cities across the nation to fight the drug war, will receive arms and training from Mexico.”

Newspapers and blogs would explode with cries of a Mexican re-conquest and the sacrifice of U.S. sovereignty. Yet there is virtually nothing in this scenario that is not already on the table for Mexico.

When in her testimony before Mexican Senate committees, Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa mentioned the counter-terrorism activities “to detect terrorists(30) who might try to attack our neighbor,” her comments drew fire from legislators as proof that the U.S. seeks to impose its own counterterrorism agenda.

Although U.S. troop presence in Mexico has been ruled out, Mexican civil society has begun to react to what they see as excessive U.S. intromission. U.S. military training under Plan Mexico has raised concerns on both sides of the border.

The role of private contractors in implementing the package remains unclear and a source of dismay. One security source says Blackwater will likely be the major beneficiary, despite its tarnished reputation following its shooting of Iraqi civilians. Corruption in contracts related to both training and equipment purchase seems a certainty given recent experience in Iraq.(31)

It also doesn’t help that it was tacked on to the Iraq supplementary funding request. Any linkage between Plan Mexico and the Bush U.S. security doctrine as applied in Iraq increases suspicions among Mexican politicians and public.


    1. Plan Mexico Divides Latin America


For the Bush administration, Plan Mexico has an explicit role to play in its overall geopolitical strategy in the hemisphere. Mexico is one of only two far-right governments among the major countries in the hemisphere. The other, Colombia, has received billons of dollars of U.S. military aid, also originally as part of a “war on drugs” that soon broadened into an overall military alliance. President Bush’s insistence on pressuring the Democrats to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement in the context of the New Orleans North American Trilateral Summit unveils the administration’s underlying geopolitical aims in Latin America. Under the Bush National Security Doctrine, this kind of alliance requires adhering to the premises of that doctrine including pre-emptive attacks, unilateral action, and disdain for international law.

The Bush administration has developed a with-us-or-against-us policy toward U.S. neighbors in Latin America. To varying degrees, it views the wave of center-left governments (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay) as a threat to its strategic interests. Moves to modify international market economies, increase state involvement in redistribution of wealth and public control of natural resources and basic services, and constitutional reforms to recognize rights of indigenous peoples are generally considered counter to U.S. interests.

The administration and the rightwing think tanks that have developed the strategy explicitly formulate hemispheric security policy in terms of U.S. hegemony. The American Enterprise Institute’s Thomas Donnelly calls the Western Hemisphere “America’s third border“(32) and argues that “American hegemony in the hemisphere is crucial to U.S. national security.”

Stephen Johnson,(33) deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs in the Defense Department, recently made the connection between Plan Mexico and Washington’s bid to recover its influence in a slipping geopolitical context.

“While a groundswell seems to exist for greater engagement with the United States, there are challenge states such as Venezuela, Cuba, and to some extent Bolivia and Ecuador. For now, Venezuela and Cuba are clearly hostile to the United States, western-style democracy, markets, and are actively trying to counter our influence. Our challenge is not to confront them directly, but instead do a better job working with our democratic allies and friendly neighbors.”

Plan Mexico is seen as an historic opportunity for the United States to gain military influence in Mexico and use it as a platform in the ideological battle with Venezuela and Cuba et al. This is a dangerous and wrong-headed strategy for international relations in the hemisphere, where mutual respect and self-determination should be the guiding principles for lasting peace. It also compromises Mexico’s relations with its southern neighbors.

Strong international relations should be based on mechanisms of cooperation between nations that have each established national security policies based on their own needs. What has legislators and civil society worried on both sides of the border is the reach of Plan Mexico in recasting the binational relationship, to create what the Bush administration calls “a new paradigm for security cooperation.”

Opposition to Plan Mexico

Despite a lack of public information, many organizations have come out against the Merida Initiative. In addition to doubts about the efficacy of the war on drugs model for eliminating traffic in illegal drugs, one of the strongest and most frequent criticisms relates to the poor human rights record and corruption of the Mexican security forces that would directly receive the aid. Numerous human rights organizations on both sides of the border base their opposition to the plan on cases of blatant violations that have never been investigated or prosecuted in Mexico. A few examples suffice to illustrate their concerns.

1. In an April 30, 2008 letter to William Delahunt of the International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight Sub-Committee of the House of Representatives, the AFL-CIO stated its opposition to the Merida Initiative, citing “systematic and often violent violations of core labor rights” and specifically naming two cases. The first is the assassination of the leader of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Mexico, Santiago Rafael Cruz, with no follow-up on the part of authorities on evidence indicating a link between his union activities and his murder. The second involves “a full-scale attack on the National Union of Mine and Metal Workers” by the Calderon administration and the mining company Grupo Mexico, in which three union members have been murdered with no investigations or prosecutions, and the lack of follow-up on the company’s responsibility in the death of 65 miners in an explosion at the Pasta de Conchos mine in February 2006.34

The letter states, “Without significant and concrete improvements in institutional mechanisms to weed out criminals, provide training in human rights, and establish effective civilian oversight, additional funding to these security forces is likely to worsen corruption and violence.”

2. In 2006 protests by citizens of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca—including unionized teachers, students, indigenous peoples, and city-dwellers—were forcibly put down by state and federal security forces. Paramilitary groups and snipers for hire also participated in an orchestrated effort to defeat the movement to remove the state governor accused of fraud and violence, and improve working conditions for teachers and living conditions in the communities in which they work. Human rights organizations documented the murder of 23 persons, as well as numerous cases of abuse, torture, arbitrary detention, and wrongful imprisonment. The murder of movement leaders has continued to date and brought the death toll to 62, according to the International Civil Commission on Human Rights.35 Among the dead was U.S. journalist Brad Will whose assassins were caught on film. Despite evidence, the state has refused to seriously investigate or prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes and the Federal Attorney General’s office closed the case. U.S. groups oppose appropriations to Mexican security forces on the basis of this unresolved case and others like it.

Other high-profile cases include the Ciudad Juarez murders; the murders, and torture and rape of protestors in police custody in the farming community of San Salvador Atenco36 in 2006; and journalist Lydia Cacho, who was arrested and threatened after writing a book that revealed the involvement of major industrialists and politicians in a pedophile ring.

Since being dispatched to wage the war on drugs, the Mexican Army has accumulated an alarming number of complaints of violations of human rights, including several incidents of fatal shootings at checkpoints, rapes, and brutality. The 2007 Mexico Human rights Report of the U.S. State Department37 notes reports of security forces involvement in “unlawful killings by security forces; kidnappings, including by police; physical abuse; poor and overcrowded prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detention; corruption, inefficiency, and lack of transparency in the judicial system; confessions coerced through physical abuse permitted as evidence in trials; … corruption at all levels of government; … violence, including killings, against women …”

In February and March of 2008 the International Civil Commission on Human Rights investigated the status of human rights violations in the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Atenco. The commission carried out over 650 interviews with victims of abuses. It concluded: “The CCIODH holds that the cases of Atenco, Oaxaca, and Chiapas exemplify a more widespread situation characterized by a pattern of continued and commonplace behavior on the part of different federal, state, and, in some cases, local authorities. This model of behavior can clearly be understood as the politics of the state.”

The argument of groups opposing Plan Mexico is not that, given the deplorable state of its judicial and law enforcement systems, Mexico does not deserve the U.S. aid package, as if this were a type of reward for good behavior. This is a presumptuous position—the Mexican people need and deserve U.S. support for development programs. The problem is the type of aid envisioned in Plan Mexico. Empowering (and enriching) corrupt and abusive institutions before reforming them empowers abusers, and potentially deepens and consolidates corruption.

One of Mexico’s foremost human rights groups, the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, states, “The Merida Initiative is characterized by a lack of a human rights perspective, a human security approach that mistakes the security of states for the security of human beings … It is time for the international community to stop supporting short-sighted policies such as this one.”

Despite concerns that Mexican protections of human rights and civil liberties are insufficient to assure that lethal aid and security force training will not be used against innocent civilians, many human rights and policy groups supported Plan Mexico, calling for the addition of human rights conditions.38 These conditions, as mentioned, were largely dropped. Organizations in defense of human rights now are left with a non-binding monitoring role in the face of an expected increase in human rights violations.

The Need for a Better Plan

Mexico is at a critical juncture. Its weak democratic institutions have been shaken and discredited by their inadequate response to electoral polarization and to vast social inequality that destines millions to poverty or out-migration. Human rights abuses still characterize much of law enforcement agencies. The justice system remains bound to powerful interests, and lacks independence from the federal government and state and local governments.

Mexico can either take up the challenge to strengthen democratic institutions, or it can fall back into rule by force and authoritarianism.

At this critical juncture, the Merida Initiative is a potentially devastating step backwards.

Despite the gravity of Mexico’s condition it still lacks a careful diagnosis.

Faced with a real problem—the strength of drug cartels in Mexico and the United States—Plan Mexico prescribes solutions that replicate the logic of force and patriarchal control that the drug cartels rely on. Then it applies these solutions not only to a bloody frontal battle with drug traffickers, but to a multitude of complex security threats with roots deep in Mexican society.

Before putting the army in the streets—with all the legal, political, and practical risks that entails—the dramatic increase in drug use in Mexico should be treated as a health epidemic and addressed at once through education, options for young people, and rehabilitation. Calderon’s war on drugs includes construction of treatment centers but focuses on supply and enforcement, and Plan Mexico includes exclusively enforcement and intelligence actions. The main result so far has been to unleash violence in most regions of the country. The death, arrest, or extradition of ringleaders has set off battles for succession and renewed turf wars. Meanwhile, it’s not clear that the price and availability of illegal drugs have been affected on U.S. or Mexican markets.

Both the United States and Mexico should reject appropriations that place the emphasis on a military solution to their shared drug dependency. Ironically, the one part of Nixon’s drug policy that actually worked—expansion of treatment services—is the one part that has been the least emulated. The military-police arm of the “war on drugs” has proved to be not only a failure but a threat to the same social values it claims to defend.

The priority should be to develop national plans and mechanisms of binational coordination that work, and whose side effects—like militarization, human rights abuses, and the sophistication of criminal elements—do not cancel out the benefits. If anything is known about arming conflict, it’s that no matter which side you arm—and the guns invariably end up on both sides—it escalates violence.

The sheer scope of the Merida Initiative reflects the Bush administration’s military/police focus in international security issues, just when those strategies have hit a low point in popularity within the United States. Any incoming administration should have the freedom to develop new and more effective policies with one of its closest neighbors, instead of being locked into failed and unpopular policies by the outgoing administration.

Major human rights organizations in Mexico and the United States have already come out against the Merida Initiative. It will soon be voted on in the U.S. Congress. To avoid the pitfalls of this policy, a more effective binational plan should address root causes, develop mechanisms of binational coordination, and assume U.S. responsibilities and obligations.

End Notes

  1. See Carlsen, Laura “Plan Mexico,” FPIF, http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4684.
  2. CCIODH English.
  3. http://www.univision.com/content/content.jhtml?cid=1552012.
  4. See Laura Carlsen, “Deep Integration: The Anti-Democratic Expansion of NAFTA,” http://americas.irc-online.org/am/4276.
  5. See http://americas.irc-online.org/am/5178 for an analysis of this meeting.
  6. “National Security Strategy Sept. 2002,” http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.pdf.
  7. Thomas Shannon, Speech to the Council on the Americas, April 3, 2008.
  8. Shannon stated this explicitly in the above speech: “Both Canada and Mexico have gone through political transitions and maintained a commitment to the Security and Prosperity Partnership. We are the only country that has not gone through a political transition yet, but we will shortly. The hope of President Bush is that with this meeting in New Orleans, which will be the fourth meeting of the SPP at a leaders’ level, that this will effectively institutionalize a U.S. commitment.