Friday, November 30, 2012

December 1: Mexican Presidential Power Transitions from one Human Rights Violator to the Next

by Carlin Christy, Mexico Team
Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto. Photo from
This December 1st, it might have been possible for Mexicans to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The day will mark the official end of President Felipe Calderón’s 6 year term. His presidency is commonly referred to as “el sexenio de la muerte” or ‘the six year term of death,’ given the murders of around 80,000 people which began after Calderón launched a militarized war on drugs shortly after taking office in late 2006.  However, a respite from the massacres, kidnappings, disappearances, and human rights abuses does not seem to be on the horizon, as the presidential power will transition to Enrique Peña Nieto, a member of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which ruled Mexico for 71 consecutive years until the year 2000. 
Peña Nieto comes into office under questionable election results and with an already tarnished human rights record from his time as governor of the State of Mexico from 2005-2011. Certain actions he has taken since winning the July election also seem to indicate he won’t stray too far from the course of Calderón, or Mexico’s financial and strategic partner in the war, the U.S. government and military contractors. 
Although he has stated he will no longer seek to confront cartels head on by taking out capo leaders, Peña Nieto plans to create, strengthen, and professionalize a unified 40,000 strong police force, continue the use of the army until no longer necessary, and expand prisons. He will continue to cooperate strategically with the U.S. and just this week met with President Obama to discuss the continued economic and security integration of Mexico and the U.S.   
Considering Peña Nieto will not drastically alter the approach to fighting organized criminal groups, it is worth looking at the impact this militarized drug war has had on Mexican society under Calderón, with support from the U.S’s Mérida Initiative.
Statistics from Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) recently shared in a meeting with the Senate’s Human Rights Commission paint a dismal picture. The CNDH cited information compiled from January 1, 2005 to July 31, 2012. Five out of the seven and a half years were under Calderón’s administration. 

CNDH data reveals:

·         Cases of torture have increased 500% (In 2005 only 1 torture complaint was received, compared to over 2,000 complaints of torture and cruel treatment in 2011)
·         9000+ complaints of arbitrary detentions, which demonstrates that this is a recurring practice utilized by security forces. Arbitrary detentions increased 121% during this time period.
·         5,568 complaints were received about officials failing to follow required procedures in issuing or executing search warrants
·         2,126 cases of forced disappearances are under investigation and in general, forced disappearances saw massive increases
·         24,091 people are reported as missing
·         46,015 documented murders
·         15,921 bodies remain unidentified
·         1,421 bodies were found in mass graves
·         34,385 complaints against federal security forces were received by the CNDH. (An increase of 84% in the last three years.) Complaints mainly centered around illegal searches, forced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial executions, and torture.

 For me, you were “The Employment President.” 
(image taken from Mexicambio on Facebook)
In addition to data from the National Human Rights Commission, a recent national survey on the perception of citizen security indicated that 55% of Mexicans believe Calderon’s strategy to fight organized crime “was unsuccessful”. Eighty percent indicated that insecurity was worse this year than in 2011. Just 31% of those surveyed were in agreement of the use of military operatives to combat organized crime- a ten percent drop from the start of Calderón’s presidency. 
Yet behind all of the data, statistics and numbers are stories of mothers searching for their disappeared children, families mourning their murdered loved ones, communities fighting to demand justice for crimes committed by security forces. Mexico’s social fabric has been torn apart over the last six years. The pain and suffering of people like Maria Trujillo Herrera, who has four disappeared sons, is indescribable. Yet she and many other victims continue to speak out, at the risk of their own lives, against the absurdity of fighting a war on drugs. 
Another woman who speaks out against the violence and impunity endemic to the Mexican state is Paty Torres. She is among the 26 women who were arrested, tortured, and sexually abused during the violent police repression of the town San Salvador Atenco in 2006.

Paty Torres, survivor of sexual assault by Mexican Police forces in 2006.
Photo by: Liliana Zaragoza Cano  courtesy of website: 
In 2001, the community located in the State of Mexico was the site of protest by a group of farmers opposed to the expropriation of their land to construct an international airport.  Opposition to the plan was so strong it was cancelled. When a conflict broke out over a highway blockade in May 2006, the state government, some say seeking revenge for the 2001 protests, responded by sending in thousands of federal police, armed with firearms and teargas.
Over two hundreds civilians, including members of the campesino group and their supporters, were arbitrarily detained and brutally beaten. Two young people were killed and women in particular were subjected to verbal and psychological abuse as well as sexual torture.  Several detainees remained imprisoned up to four years after the attack. 
The operation in Atenco, characterized by human rights groups as the ”excessive and indiscriminate use of force” occurred under Enrique Peña Nieto as governor. To date, no state or federal police officer or official involved in the attack has been brought to justice, despite a recommendation from The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to investigate and bring to trial those responsible. 
Twelve of the 26 women, including Paty Torres, have brought their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, after failing to receive justice in the Mexican judicial system.
The Atenco case represents the flagrant abuse of human rights, criminalization of social protest, and total impunity authorized and employed by Peña Nieto while governor. Give this history, many civil society groups, activists, and human rights organizations believe the landscape for human rights in the next Presidential administration looks bleak.
The naming of Colombian General Oscar Naranjo as his top security advisor is further cause for concern. Gen. Naranjo is the former head of the Colombian National Police, and is seen as a key figure in the dismantling of Colombia’s major drug cartels.  However, Naranjo is accused of using back room dealings, favoring certain cartels over others, and utilizing corrupt DEA and U.S. Customs officials to achieve his aims.  In addition, the naming of Naranjo signifies Peña Nieto will be favorable to the U.S.’s agenda of military intervention into Latin America as a whole.
This December 1st, instead of exhaling a sigh of relief that should have come after six years of unimaginable violence and insecurity, Mexican citizens may have to inhale even deeper, in order to face the next six years. Or instead, they can do as so many have done throughout the country’s history—organize, resist, and struggle against the powers that for so long have marginalized and repressed those who dare to demand justice and equality in Mexico.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cuba in the limelight

by Diego Benitez, WFP International Team

In April of 2012, in Cartagena, Colombia the U.S. secret service got itself embroiled in a prostitution scandal where members of this elite presidential guard were discovered to have misbehaved with Colombian escorts. While this made headlines throughout the country and was mentioned in nearly all of our mainstream media news sources, what should have truly merited attention was hardly whispered. The news that members of the Organization of American States, a hemispheric platform where governments address overarching policy issues, refused to sign a unanimous declaration as an act of defiance against the exclusion of Cuba from the summit was seldom published. In addition, the fact that several member states refuse to reconvene for a following summit unless Cuba is present, was rarely spoken of. Clearly, prostitutes and a blemished secret service make better headlines than sanctions against socialist countries, that much is obvious. Yet, it was an opportunity to get a glimpse of how opinion in Latin America is swaying and it temporarily placed Cuba in the limelight.

But the OAS summit, prostitutes and the secret service is old news, and as it is apt to do news changes. Now we are captivated by legal marijuana, a fiscal cliff, healthcare reform and the post election buzz referencing Latino voters’ critical role in president Obama’s reelection. Some polls declared he won up to 70% of their vote. This is where Cuba returns, because within that Hispanic demographic was the Cuban American vote which gave Obama a record number of its ballots. Overall, these results represent a historic change in the political landscape especially within a Cuban American group that has traditionally opted for Republican candidates.

While some pundits debate on what this shift in Florida means for the Republican party and more specifically how such a dramatic change occurred within a reliably conservative Cuban American electorate, others, from a younger generation, saw an obvious and inevitable swing of allegiance from a party whose candidate has sworn off dialogue with the Cuban nation to a party whose president has relaxed policies allowing families to reunite, send remittances and permit first time travelers to learn about Cuba on People to People exchanges. Doors have been swung open that will be difficult to close shut. If the momentum for change were ever present, it would be now. The fact that Cuban Americans voted for a Democrat like never before offers the greatest opportunity yet for improved relations between Cuba and the United States.  While this does not mean that Cuban Americans now espouse the Castro led government, it does indicate a desire within the younger generations to change a policy that has been proven ineffective, outdated and obsolete; a desire to access a country that was once prohibited to them; to capitalize on potential opportunities and to connect with cultural roots that have been severed for decades. This is an opening waiting to be explored and now Obama has more breathing room than ever imagined to exploit it.

Every Rose Has Its Thorns

While the opportunity for change is present like never before, there are still many thorny issues to overcome. The economic embargo against Cuba has endured for decades and has outlasted nine presidents. Legal marijuana in Colorado and Washington has temporarily captured our imagination, the fiscal cliff threatens us with economic ruin and healthcare reform begins to take shape, yet, the time will soon come when President Obama will be pressed to tackle the Cuba issue and respond to his Latino constituents. This time around, he will face not only a Hispanic electorate that is less inclined to bring Cuba to its knees but also a galvanized bloc of Latin American nations overwhelmingly opposed to the economic policy that isolates it.

A United Latin America

The fact that Latin American countries have been increasingly leaning towards the left is nothing new. Now more than ever the region has worked to promote economic cooperation and regional integration in this less conservative hemisphere. Economic reforms have been widespread and even Cuba, with its economic debilitations and Socialist structure has enacted reforms to keep pace with the wave of change. South American countries are reaping the benefits and flexing newfound muscle in the absence of U.S. presence. Regional organizations such as UNASUR, ALBA and CELAC have gained ground and it has proven challenging for the United States to exercise influence in Latin America when confronted with unified resistance against obsolete policies on one of its member states. The economic embargo that attempts to isolate Cuba from the rest of the world is a hurdle that makes U.S. attempts to fully embrace regional credibility, integration and prosperity, slothful at best. Lifting the embargo will boost U.S. influence and moral legitimacy while eliminating a cold war relic that has harmed the island nation of 11 million people for over fifty years. With three quarters of the Western hemisphere living below the Rio Grande, the United States cannot afford to be excluded from the Latin American renaissance.

To make matters worse, traditionally conservative right leaning countries including Colombia (our closest  South American ally) and Chile (a breeding ground for neoliberal economics) have joined the cause to end the economic embargo and exclusion of Cuba from regional organizations such as the OAS; placing increased pressure on the U.S. to work within a Latin American framework. President Obama felt this pressure last April in Cartagena, Colombia during the OAS summit when he heard the overwhelming sound of a Latin American choir singing to a Cuban beat. The call was for an end to the embargo and the inclusion of a Latin American member state into the regional association. Adding to the choir, the United Nations recently made its 20th annual and almost unanimous vote condemning that damaging policy. However, the economic embargo (known as the “Blockade” in Cuba) is just one component of a multi- tiered effort to isolate the island; it gets worse.

Irony and The Freckled Road Ahead

The hurdles don’t stop where the embargo ends. As part of our strategy to isolate Cuba from the rest of the world we have placed it on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. This list is a short one: Iran, Syria, Sudan and Cuba. Iraq, Libya, South Yemen and North Korea have all been removed. That’s right, North Korea, a once well entrenched member of the “Axis of Evil” has been taken off the list. It raises the question: how on earth is Cuba still on this list when hostile countries armed with nuclear weapons have been removed? The answer is freckled with irony and residual cold war animosity towards Marxism.

According to the State Department a reason to justify Cuba’s continued presence on the list of state sponsors of terrorism is that Cuba has in the past supported revolutionary movements such as the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). As a point of reference Cuba was placed on the list by the Reagan administration in 1982. What makes this an interesting twist of fate is that the Colombian government is currently engaged in peace negotiations with the FARC and Cuba is a guarantor country, along with Norway, hosting these negotiations. While Colombia sees Cuba as an important actor participating in an historic peace process, the United States manages to see a state sponsor of terrorism instead. Lest the irony be lost here: Cuba is promoting a peace process between two actors of one of South America’s oldest conflicts, not sponsoring war.

While our previous focus on Colombia surrounded a scandal, today we view it with a hopeful eye towards peace. Cuba’s critical role in this process cannot be ignored. The crucial function Cuba is playing in providing a safe atmosphere for peace dialogues may provide her with the much needed momentum to be remove from the list.

What can you do about it?

In keeping in line with our mandate to change policy, Witness for Peace has created a petition to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. We view this as an important step in normalizing relations between our two countries and ending an age old policy that alienates a geographic neighbor and prevents millions of Americans from exercising out rights to travel there.  Please take the time to view and sign the petition.

As the road towards normalized relations gets paved we hope that this point in history offers both Cuba and the United States an opportunity for increased communication and cooperation. This is a unique moment for a change in policy. As part of this momentum, Witness for Peace continues to offer experiential learning opportunities for qualified applicants to visit Cuba and witness firsthand the Cuban reality. To learn more about our delegation’s visit our website at

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Election Blog Series - Drug Policy Reform at Home and Abroad

WFP Colombia Team

With the end of the U.S. presidential election, political commentators have begun predicting what the differences and similarities will be between the next four years and the last four. A slew of articles were dedicated to U.S. policy toward Latin America. Latin Americans heavily favored President Obama in the elections. In Colombia, we watched as a small town held mock elections for the U.S. President, which Obama won handily for the second time. Mitt Romney didn’t even have a campaign manager. The feeling is similar across the region. According to a poll in Chile, Latin Americans in 18 countries selected President Obama as their favorite leader in the Americas. However, respect for President Obama does not mean people are content with his policies or with the relationship between the United States and their countries. U.S. drug policy in the region illustrates this divergence.

While overshadowed by pocketbook issues, drug policy reform is urgently needed. There is growing tension between the U.S. and Latin American governments over the current approach to tackling this joint problem, and its impacts have been felt throughout the Americas. Launched more than 40 years ago, the War on Drugs intended to curb drug use at home by stemming production abroad. Unfortunately, it failed to achieve either goal. At home, punitive policies have failed to address the problems directly related to drugs and drug use, such as abuse, addiction, and adolescent use. Instead, they have led to human rights abuses, racist enforcement patterns, and landed unprecedented levels of nonviolent drug offenders in prison. In Latin America, a militarized drug interdiction and source-eradication strategy has not curbed production or trafficking. It has instead lead to increased displacement, migration, mass human rights violations and the loss of tens of thousands of lives.

Today people from across the Americas, spanning from civil society actors to former and sitting presidents, including some of our closest allies in the drug war, are calling for a new approach to drug policy. Given Latin American leaders’ growing discontent with U.S. policies, shifts in the region’s political ideology, and the joint nature of many issues confronting the Americas, President Obama will need not be able to continue ignoring Latin America in his second term.

Drug Policy under President Obama

The Obama Administration has made positive steps toward investing in drug demand reduction programs in the United States. The Office on National Drug Control Policy’s statements have emphasized drug treatment and prevention programs rather than criminal justice solutions. Still, the Administration’s rhetoric has not been met with adequate substantive reforms. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the criminal penalty disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. Though a step in the right direction, the law reduced rather than eliminated racist law enforcement policies.

The Obama Administration has also endorsed the current militarized strategy of the War on Drugs, continuing its failed and harmful policies abroad. It has not only continued providing hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to fight the drug war in Mexico and Colombia, but exported the same model to Central America, and especially Honduras. In order to skirt human rights restrictions on aid, the U.S.-backed Colombian security forces are now providing training to Honduran security forces, both of which have dismal human rights records. Mexico also tapped a retired Colombian police chief to be a security adviser in spite of his alleged ties to illegal paramilitary groups. Without a fundamental change in militarized drug policy in Latin America, innocent civilians will continue to be the ones who bear the brunt of the violence. This reality was underscored for the Obama Administration after a DEA-led operation killed four civilians.

Governor Mitt Romney didn’t offer any alternatives to the status quo either. He called for an end to medical marijuana use, characterizing it as a wrong step in the direction of drug regulation. He has also called for continued militarization of the War on Drugs abroad, and, had he been elected, would likely have ramped up military aid while decreasing social aid.

There is little difference between the presidential candidates on drug policy, though President Obama seems more willing to discuss alternatives. The real policy difference is between the United States and Latin American countries. Most Latin American heads of state expressed their discontent with the U.S. War on Drugs at the Summit of the Americas in May 2012. Even hard-line conservative governments, including Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a retired military general, recognize the status quo as ineffective and demand alternatives. At the very least, the United States government should recognize its declining ability to maintain the status quo and welcome a policy debate. Washington will not be able to dictate its policy to leaders in the region if they are no longer willing to listen.

First Test for Reform: Starting At Home

As Colorado and Washington voters went to the polls this past Tuesday and re-elected Obama, they also voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, and lawmakers must draft laws guiding its regulation and sale. It is the first time any U.S. state has approved the legal regulation of marijuana, and many are hailing it as progress and comparing it to the beginning of the end of alcohol prohibition. It is unclear what will happen just yet, as both initiatives are in direct violation of federal law. Before the measures were passed, the Department of Justice remained silent when asked how it would respond if voters favored marijuana regulation. Afterward, a representative said federal drug law “remains unchanged” but declined to comment on the states’ initiatives until after further review.

Drug policy reform advocates remain hopeful but uneasy, unsure how the Obama Administration will respond to the measures. It could invoke federal law, but doing so would indicate a complete disregard to the will of voters. "In fact, more people voted in favor of marijuana regulation in the ‘swing state’ of Colorado than for Barack Obama," commented the Drug Policy Alliance’s Daniel Brito. "Advocates of the status quo will have to concede that this is now absolutely a mainstream issue fit for rational discussion, unless they think Barack Obama is somehow a fringe candidate, with his mere 51% support, compared to 54.8% support for allowing adults to choose marijuana over alcohol."

This instance provides a first test for President Obama on drug policy reform. How the government responds to the measures at home could be a signal for how it will react to dissent abroad. The domestic response itself could have a significant impact abroad. For example, regulation in the United States could decrease marijuana exports from Mexico, thereby reducing the power of violent Mexican cartels. These measures are therefore positive from an international perspective as well.