by Stephanie Brewer, Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez (CentroProdh)
Recently, President Barack Obama announced his intention to deploy U.S. National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico Border. This US military response to Mexican crime may seem new, but the U.S. has been backing Mexico in an increasingly militarized response to crime for the past couple of years under the Mérida Initiative.
As you may know, since taking office in 2006, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón has unleashed a “frontal war” against crime, deploying nearly 50,000 soldiers throughout the country. The results of this military war have been nothing short of catastrophic for Mexico’s civilian population. Reports of human rights violations committed by the armed forces and reported to the National Human Rights Commission have increased nearly ten times, from 182 in 2006 to 1791 in 2009. These include arbitrary executions, forced disappearances, sexual abuse, torture and warrantless searches and detentions.
As documented in numerous cases by the National Human Rights Commission and by non-governmental organizations, the army arbitrarily detains civilians and tortures them in military bases, sometimes falsifying medical certificates to claim that the victims were not tortured, with the aim of eliciting information or confessions related to organized crime. Recurring methods of torture documented by the Commission and by civil society organizations include beatings and application of electric shocks to sensitive body parts. Those who denounce violations face threats and attacks.
Finally, the army operates without meaningful control by civilian institutions. No military human rights violation committed during this presidential administration has been tried by the competent civilian authorities, and the military courts, according to information from the Ministry of the Interior, have sentenced just one soldier to a term of 9 months for shooting and killing a civilian. Meanwhile, the federal government states that civilians killed in the crossfire or by the army are “collateral damages,” despite the fact that as of today, roughly 23,000 civilians have been killed since December 2006 in Mexico’s drug war; last year alone, nearly 10,000 people were killed.
To give one concrete example of the above, we can mention a case that we documented and represented in Center Prodh: the case of four civilians arbitrarily War on Drugs, shot by soldiers in Sinaloa state in March 2008. The four were riding in a car with other family members when a group of soldiers in another vehicle opened fire with no justification, killing the victims and injuring two other passengers. The military authorities immediately took over the investigation, guaranteeing that the victims’ family members will not have access to justice. One family member, the wife of one of the victims, took the case all the way to Mexico’s Supreme Court, but the Court ruled that she did not have legal standing to challenge the military’s assumption of jurisdiction over the case. Thus, the military remains judge and jury in any case of human rights violations that is investigated at all.
In light of the above facts, it is difficult to argue that Mexico is gaining anything by deploying its army to do the work of police. In this context, perhaps the more interesting question is: what does the United States gain by financially supporting the Mexican army through the current Mérida Initiative?
The answer, currently, is quite simply: nothing. Or perhaps, put more cynically, it risks loosing face before the international community for throwing its support behind armed forces that are increasingly known throughout the world as violators of human rights, and whose participation in policing tasks have gone hand-in-hand with skyrocketing levels of criminal violence.
Now let’s ask a different question: what could the United States gain from a thoughtful, holistic, results-oriented approach to reducing criminal violence in Mexico? First and foremost, the U.S. could gain credibility – and advance security – by addressing effectively the engine that drives drug trafficking and drug-related violence in Mexico: demand for illegal drugs in the United States. In this sense, redirecting funding from Mexico’s military to treatment clinics in the United States would certainly bring a much more efficient return than the current Mérida Initiative. The Obama administration recently signaled its intention to place greater emphasis on treatment-based and demand-reduction approaches, although it remains to be seen what degree of change we can expect. Along similar lines, the need for the U.S. to halt the flow of arms into Mexico (U.S. guns currently serve as the armory for drug cartels) cannot be overstated.
To the extent that the U.S. remains engaged in security cooperation programs with the Mexican military and police, the minimum standard for such engagement must be that the basic human rights requirements already built into the Mérida Initiative are respected. By banning the use of torture to obtain confessions and prioritizing police transparency and accountability,the United States acknowledged that human rights were under threat in Mexico. Yet the United States did not keep up to its own standards: last year Washington released the portion of the Mérida Initiative funds supposedly conditioned on progress in these areas despite an obvious lack of advances. This year, then, the U.S. has the chance to regain legitimacy in this area and have a potential impact on human rights by withholding the conditioned funds until true progress has been made.
In short, the most effective steps that the United States can take right now to reduce drug violence in Mexico are to treat the problem on its own side of the border and respect its own laws regarding foreign aid. This is not to rule out all possibilities of collaboration between the two countries in the future, but it’s time to prioritize effective strategies and to place human rights front and center, rather than letting them become the collateral damages of a drug war that is unwinnable on current terms.