Tlatlaya Massacre and U.S. Military Aid
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A few weeks ago, for the second time, the Mexican Secretary of National Defense (SEDENA) denied an access to information request that would require documentation related to U.S. training, equipment or support for members of the 102nd Battalion.
The 102nd Battalion became famous, or infamous, with the Tlatlaya massacre. On June 30, 2014, 22 young people died at the hands of the Battalion. The day after the massacre, the Army released a communiqué stating that 22 criminals had died in a confrontation in which not one member of the Army was injured.
Thanks to investigations by national and international journalists and the help of witnesses who spoke about what happened that night, we now know that the majority of the victims were executed after surrendering. The army was forced to open up a formal investigation.
The Secretary of Defense declared that the documents requested do not exist, after first claiming it had the right to reserve the information. The Mexican armed forces have tried to close a binational investigation that seeks to bring to light not only the events of Tlatlaya, but also the nature of military cooperation with the Pentagon and other US agencies.
“Victims of grave human rights violations in Mexico have the right to know the truth about what happened at Tlatlaya, and the U.S. public has the right to know the truth about the direct role of our government in the ongoing atrocities,” said Washington DC-based researcher Jesse Franzblau. Franzblau, who has spearheaded information requests on both sides of the border regarding the massacre and other cases of serious human rights violations in Mexico, added that although access to information laws have greatly facilitated public awareness on the case of Tlatlaya and others, “what’s missing are the details on the specific role of the U.S.”
The issue is relevant for many reasons. Declassified documents obtained by the independent project the National Security Archive show that the Pentagon has watched the Tlatlaya case very closely. A cable from Oct. 15, 2014 reads, “SEDENA is now investigating the Commander (a Major General) of the military zone overseeing the 102nd Infantry Battalion,” and adds, “if implicated in a human rights violation, the entire military zone and 10,000 personnel will be ineligible for U.S. security cooperation assistance.”
When it is established in the Tlatlaya case—or in any other case—that a Mexican unit has been implicated in human rights violations, the U.S. government is obligated to suspend assistance to that unit. A cable from the U.S. Northern Command dated Jan. 14 subsequently confirmed that the 102nd Battalion was deemed ineligible to receive assistance.
However, the matter did not progress further. Rather than questioning the military commander in charge at Tlatlaya, General José Luis Sánchez León, as part of an investigation of the chain of command, Sánchez was removed from his post and sent to Jalisco. The maneuver on the part of the Army high command, far from dissipating suspicions, reinforced the conclusion that the Tlatlaya massacre could not be laid solely on the shoulders of a few undisciplined soldiers, but rather that it was the foreseeable result of the modus operandi of the armed forces in the drug war.
A recent discovery by the lawyers of the Miguel Agustin Pro Center for Human Rights—the legal representative of one of the Tlatlaya witnesses—confirmed this hypothesis. In its report on Tlatlaya a year after the events, the Center cites the “Order of Recall and Designation of Assignment” from the SEDENA that states: “The soldiers should carry out widespread operations at night, and during the day reduce activity, to bring down criminals in hours of darkness.” The date is June 11, 2014—just weeks before the massacre.
Mario Patron, director of the Pro Center, emphasized the importance of the Order: “This is convincing proof that for the army, we are in a state of exception and in a context of informal, undeclared war, and so they send their soldiers out to bring down criminals.”
In hearings held last month on extrajudicial executions by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, national and international organizations presented evidence regarding this undeclared state of exception: some 15 civilians for each member of security forces killed in confrontations; more than 4,000 civilians died at the hands of security forces between Dec. 1, 2006 and Dec. 31, 2014; 3,967 civilians and 209 soldiers have been killed between 2007 and 2014.
Evidence that the armed forces approve of the practice of extrajudicial executions from the highest levels should be a watershed in the drug war. It should shock society into demanding a return to constitutional rule and respect for human rights.
Moreover, Tlatlaya is not an isolated incident. There are serious questions about the role of the army in Iguala. Its presence at the scene of the crimes, and its refusal to protect the students from the attacks have already been established and there is increasing evidence of complicity and more active participation. Investigations into extrajudicial executions in Apatzingan, Tanhuato and Zacatecas add to the executions at Tlatlaya to show that they are not anomalies.
In spite of the evidence, the Mexican and U.S. governments still defend their war by limiting recognition of responsibility for Tlatlaya to seven soldiers—now three because four were recently released due to irregularities in the case against them. The declassified documents maintain that these individuals did not receive U.S. training, although other members of the Battalion did. The NorthCom report adds with concern that “This incident has received extensive negative coverage in the international press, and along with subsequent cases involving police, has prompted non-governmental organizations to lobby the U.S. legislature to suspend security assistance to Mexico.”
The suspension of U.S. aid should indeed extend to all security aid to Mexico. Not only are serious cases of human rights violations piling up, but also because the militarized war on drugs model is in itself a violation of human rights. The Interamerican Commission for Human Rights and other organizations have made formal recommendations for the withdrawal of the Mexican armed forces from public security tasks, citing both specific human rights violations and violations of international norms. Neither of the two governments promoting the war has responded to these recommendations.
Despite the legal and moral justification for it, it will be difficult to achieve a suspension of aid. Recall that this war was imported from the United States and has been actively promoted by the U.S. government from its inception. For the White House, the Merida Initiative security aid to Mexico is a key piece in assuring U.S. hegemony in North America.
With the Mérida Initiative, the military-security complex in the United States has achieved a level of historically unprecedented intervention in Mexico. The militarization of the drug war is big business. It is the construction of a U.S. security buffer zone and of extraterritorial border control. It is the protection of investments under NAFTA. Given this web of interests, the war is designed to be permanent, no matter what it costs Mexican and U.S. society.
There is intrinsic hypocrisy in being a partner in the war on drugs and a self-proclaimed defender of human rights in Mexico. This hypocrisy came to light recently. U.S. and Mexican newspapers splashed headlines that the U.S. government decided to withhold $5 million from the Merida Initiative because it was not satisfied with Mexico’s progress in human rights. Not mentioned was the fact that this announcement followed a decision to send additional funds beyond the original request for the Merida Initiative—to the same security forces accused of being implicated in human rights violations that, one can assume, cried all the way to the bank.
There’s another reason too why human rights organizations in both countries insist on transparency in the Tlatlaya case and its link to U.S. assistance. This has to do with concerns about the type of training Mexican military and police forces receive at NorthCom, the School of the Americas, and here in Mexico.
In its decision to reserve the information on U.S. training, the Defense Ministry argued that, “the training received by military personnel of the 102nd Infantry Battalion has nothing to do with what happened in that place [Tlatlaya] as they wrongly try to make it seem.”
But how can we be sure? The state of exception that the Pro Center has identified is an apt description of U.S. war operations in Iraq, which is the model used in recent years to train Mexican officials at NorthCom in Colorado Springs. By some estimates, more than 150,000 civilians were killed in Iraq.
No one has been able to explain why the U.S. military is teaching a counterterrorism model of military occupation to Mexican armed forces operating in their own country. A model that increased violence in the Middle East, and in a country that presents no documented threats from international terrorism, but where there have been documented acts of terror and human rights violations on the part of the state.
Moreover, the U.S. armed forces and police are currently immersed in human rights scandals, including the attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, the use of torture, police brutality and assassinations and the killing of civilians by drones. It is not qualified to teach human rights to Mexico—or any other nation.
The Tlatlaya massacre revealed the open contradiction between promoting an irregular war and sustaining principles of human rights. It’s one or the other.
The governments of the United States and Mexico have chosen war. Now, for citizens on both sides of the border, the task is to stop them.
Laura Carlsen is the director of CIP Americas Program in Mexico City, americas.org.
This article was originally published in Desinformémonos.