A week before Obama’s scheduled trip to Mexico, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) made it clear that he would block the human rights report on Mexico that is set as a condition for releasing remaining funds through the Merida Initiative. The report was to be presented by Sec. of State Clinton to the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee that Sen. Leahy chairs, but was held up the week prior despite efforts on the part of officials from both the United States and Mexico to negotiate with the State Department and several U.S. legislators for a favorable report.

Mexico’s militarized drug war. Photo: militarismomexico.blogspot.com.

Leahy’s foreign policy aide, Tim Rieser, told officials that there is evidence that the Mexican government has not complied with the four conditions put down in the Merida Initiative legislation. Leahy’s office has concurred with several Mexican and international human rights organizations that human rights violations continue in Mexico’s war on drugs and in fact have increased. In Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s short two-and-a-half years in office, violations have risen 600%, with an average of 140 complaints filed against the army per month. These include serious violations such as torture, homicide, forced disappearances, and illegal raids.

A Breakdown on Merida Initiative Conditions

Under the Initiative, also known as Plan Mexico, Congress must withhold 15% of a portion of the funds pending a State Department report proving progress in four areas of human rights:

  1. Improve the transparency and accountability of federal police forces and to work with state and municipal authorities to improve the transparency and accountability of state and municipal police forces through mechanisms including police complaints commissions with authority and independence to receive complaints and carry out effective investigations;
  2. Conduct regular consultations with Mexican human rights organizations and other relevant Mexican civil society organizations on recommendations for the implementation of the Merida Initiative in accordance with Mexican and international law;
  3. Ensure 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 violated internationally recognized human rights, and the federal police and military forces are fully cooperating with the investigations; and
  4. Enforce the prohibition, in accordance with Mexican and international law, on the use of testimony obtained through torture or other ill-treatment.

This will be the first report issued by the State Department, although the Merida Initiative has received funding for 2008, 2009, and a supplemental for 2009 for a total of $1.1 billion—all of which contain the report requirement. The exact amount of funds conditioned is not easy to calculate. The complex language and hidden sections of the legislation have brought about different estimates from different sources. In the 2008 appropriations the funding under the headings for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) are subject to the human rights withholding, adding up to $24,675,000 of the total $400,000,000. In the Merida Initiative section of the 2009 Omnibus bill some $33,750,000 is withheld out of the $300,000,000 for Mexico approved by Congress.

More recently there has been additional spending approved by Congress including a supplemental bill that allocated another $420,000,000 in funds to aid Calderon. In the supplemental spending, the conditioning changed. To make sure that the Mexican Navy would receive the three CASA 235s that the United States had promised, the supplemental exempts FMF funding—the most sensitive in terms of in human rights violations—from all conditioning. In addition, no specific amount is given for the “judicial reform, institution building, anti-corruption, and rule of law activities” exceptions to the conditioning for the remainder of the funds. However, based on the prior legislation, an educated guess can be made that some $13,000,000 could be withheld.

The Merida Initiative’s final year of authorized funding awaits approval in Congress now. It would grant an additional $236,000,000 to Mexico’s drug war. Again, the legislation does not spell out the amount exempted from conditioning, but it is likely to be around $24,500,000 if previous rules apply. In all, it’s safe to say that if the Calderon administration cannot prove that it is making real progress on reigning in human rights violations by its security forces it stands to lose a total of nearly $96,000,000 in U.S. support.

Human rights organizations and the press have been questioning the State Department about the missing human rights report in the face of increasing evidence of human rights violations by the Mexican military prompting suspicion that the Mexican government would not pass on the conditions. With the North American Leaders’ Summit coming up Aug. 11 in Guadalajara, the State Department wanted to show full support for Calderon’s offensive against drug cartels by releasing the funds. Leahy’s objections to a whitewash on Mexican human rights sent them back to the drawing board with their report.

Robert Wood, the State spokesperson said that “the report is still in the draft stage. And we’re currently reviewing information that we’ve received over the last week for inclusion in the 15% report. I just want to be very clear here. Our goal is to try to produce as comprehensive a report as possible, so as—that Congress can fully understand the steps that the Mexican Government is taking to deal with protecting and expanding human rights in Mexico.”

His response shows that the State Department staff is not looking to produce a balanced report, but to marshal evidence that will convince Congress to rubber-stamp a pass for the Mexican government. To the frustration and disappointment of human rights and citizen groups on both sides of the border, the Obama administration has decided that the Merida Initiative military and security financing is the test of friendship between the neighboring nations, virtually ignoring development or poverty alleviation funding as Mexico faces its deepest crisis in the past decades.

It also ignores the imbalance and lack of results of the Calderon-Merida model. Wood dodged a question on that issue:

QUESTION: “But I mean, what he’s (Leahy) complaining about is he feels that there’s an overemphasis on military strategy and not enough about the rule of law and human rights and the other things that make up into a counternarcotics strategy.”

MR. WOOD: “Well, look, we’ve had conversations with the senator and his staff. And I know that there are those concerns out there. But certainly, we believe President Calderon is doing everything he can to try to improve the situation in Mexico with regard to human rights, particularly as it concerns the security forces. What we’re trying to do is to, as I said, get as comprehensive a picture for Congress so they can understand the steps that the Mexicans are taking.”

Militarization: A Failed Policy

Despite all of the numbers and reports and legislation, Mexico cannot be approved on the human rights conditions in a fair and honest report. As reports of human rights violations increase (and many go unreported for lack of faith in the justice system), the armed forces refuse to submit to civilian courts. Although the offensive targets drug-traffickers, human rights organizations have shown that often the victims of human rights violations are innocent civilians. Reports from the border indicate the widespread use of torture as an interrogation technique in the drug war. In addition—and perhaps more importantly—the militarization of Mexico has increased at an alarming rate since Calderon began his war on drugs. This has meant more fear and fewer liberties.

Detained members of the Indigenous Me’phaa People’s Organization. Photo: SIPAZ.

One of the first freedoms on the chopping block has been social protest. Popular organizations and their leaders, human rights defenders, and progressive movements have been targeted in this war with the pretext of fighting drug trafficking and organized crime. This is most evident in places like the state of Guerrero where indigenous and campesino rights defenders have been harassed, imprisoned, and even killed in the last year.

Even the non-military sections of the initiative have been criticized by members of the Mexican Congress and civil liberties experts. Changes to the justice system supported by the United States and funded in part through USAID with funds from the Merida Initiative create a two-track system of justice whereby individuals accused of organized crime may be treated differently and subjected to unconscionably long periods in police custody with little or no communication with the outside world before they are even charged. This practice, known in Mexico as arraigo, has been documented as the point in which most torture and falsification of crimes takes place. With a definition of organized crime that is much broader than that used in the United States, this system can be used against social organizations as evidenced in the recent case of Zapatista supporters in Chiapas, accused of organized crime and placed under arraigo.

Even staunch supporters of Calderon have come out against the interdiction/enforcement model reinforced through the Merida Initiative. Ramón Galindo, a Mexican senator and Calderon supporter, voiced his concern stating that, “The people of Mexico are losing hope, and it is urgent that Congress, the political parties, and the president reconsider this strategy.” The senator has called on the president to reconsider his tactics and push for stronger local communities while relying less on the military.

What the United States Should Do

In light of growing human rights violations and increasing militarization, the real question is not whether the less than 15% should be released or not, but why the Obama administration has decided to make a dangerous and demonstrably ineffective security initiative its flagship program in one of its most sensitive and critical binational relationships. The initiative bolsters President Calderon but forgets that he governs in a nation of 110 million, not one. At least part of the population has serious misgivings about accepting the social costs of applying the drug war model. The report that Leahy blocked declaring that Mexico is making acceptable progress in human rights would have been a slap in the face to Mexican human rights organizations documenting the increase in violations and to citizens who live amid the violence unleashed in the drug war and the repression of military-occupied cities and communities.

Obama is in the Mexican city of Guadalajara this week to meet with Calderon and Canada’s Prime Minister Harper in a meeting of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP). The Merida Initiative arose out of the larger scheme of the SPP, which pushed “security” to the forefront of relations between the three North American neighbors. As the United States accelerates and arms the drug war in Mexico, it has done little to stop the flow of arms to Mexico or abate the demand for the illegal drugs that the Mexican cartels supply. This is not helping the security of either nation and has proven counterproductive in terms of citizen safety.

Rather than continue the decades-old “war on drugs” model, Obama and his administration should be supporting long-term solutions that strengthen Mexican civil society rather than too-often corrupt security forces. Such a strategy, or combination of strategies, must focus on reducing demand and addressing the public health issues that drug abuse poses rather than fighting a war that cannot be won and includes citizens and their rights among the casualties. It must include more effective intelligence cooperation to attack the financial structures of the cartels, rather than funding military occupation and confrontation. The Bush-era Merida Initiative should be totally revamped, conditions or no conditions.