Critics Fear Anti-Drug Aid Will Fuel Impunity
WASHINGTON, 19 May
Funding for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may be temporarily stalled in the U.S. Congress, but last week lawmakers here did approve 400 million dollars in spending for another controversial war, this one aimed primarily at cutting off the transport of illicit drugs from Latin America into the United States.
Announced by U.S. President George W. Bush last October as a three-year, 1.4 billion dollar aid package to Mexico and nine other Latin American states to combat drug trafficking and organised crime, funding for the plan was passed last Thursday by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives as part of a larger domestic spending bill.
Referred to as the 'Mérida Initiative' after the Mexican city where the plan was developed, most of the funds approved by the Congress would go toward military training and equipment, with a strong focus on Mexico. More than 90 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States from South America is transported through Mexico, according to the U.S. State Department.
However, the initiative -- dubbed 'Plan Mexico' by critics, an allusion to the U.S.-backed drug war in Colombia -- has been widely criticised by human rights advocates, who say it will further a failing war on drugs that has only fueled increased violence and human rights abuses.
After taking office in late 2006, Mexican president Felipe Calderón dispatched more than 24,000 military personnel in a show of force aimed at reining in Mexico's powerful drug cartels. That decision has won Calderón praise from Washington, where his actions are seen as evidence of his commitment to the war on drugs.
But critics of the move say it has led to an uptick in violence, particularly along the border with the United States, while leading to a rash of abuses committed by security personnel. Violence connected to the drug war was linked to 2,500 deaths in 2007, according to the Mexican government, up from 2,350 the year before.
'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,' states Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas programme at the Washington-based Centre for International Policy. She points out that in 2007 alone 17,000 Mexican military personnel deserted, often to receive higher wages working for the drug cartels -- taking their equipment and counter-narcotics training with them.
Mexican military personnel have been linked to a wide range of human rights abuses as their role in domestic law enforcement has increased, ranging from arbitrary detention to rape and murder. 'Over the past year Mexican soldiers have committed egregious abuses while engaged in law enforcement activities,' states a recent report from the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
'[I]n May 2007, for example, soldiers arbitrarily detained 65 people in Michoacán state, holding some incommunicado at a military base, beating many of the detainees, and raping four minors,' the report states.
In an attempt to address the concerns of human rights advocates, the U.S. Congress did dedicate a portion of the initiative funding for 'judicial reform, institution building, and rule of law activities'. A quarter of the funds would also be withheld until the U.S. secretary of state reported that the government of Mexico was taking steps to ensure accountability for those military and law enforcement personnel implicated in human rights abuses, and that the government was 'ensuring meaningful engagement with civil society'.
Yet critics say those measures provide inadequate oversight. 'There are some positive provisions for human rights safeguards, but they don't quite go far enough,' Amnesty International advocacy director for the Americas Renata Rendón told IPS. 'It's definitely lacking.'
Rendón argues that the initiative's human rights provisions do little to address the 'very high levels of corruption that have essentially penetrated all political parties and most institutions' in Mexico. The problem of security personnel committing abuses with impunity has not improved since Calderón took office, Rendón says, 'and we continue to report essentially no progress in investigations into human rights violations throughout the country.'
A recent U.S. State Department report states that the problem of impunity is so widespread in Mexico 'that victims often refused to file complaints'. The report notes that there continues to be reports of killings, torture, and rape at the hands of security personnel, with little movement on several high-profile investigations of those abuses.
Despite the concerns of human rights advocates, it seems unlikely the U.S. Senate will scrap the Mérida Initiative when it soon takes up the measure, which is attached to a politically popular benefits programme for military veterans. However, funding for the initiative has been reduced by 150 million dollars.
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from the state of New Jersey who heads the subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, told IPS the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had assured him that Mexican forces working alongside U.S. agents were held 'to the highest standard, and we would want to see that both continue and be enhanced' through the Mérida Initiative.
And though the Mexican military's human rights track record is troubling, Menendez said, 'There are some immediate security needs that we need to help the Mexicans with, not simply by virtue of being a good neighbour, but in terms of our own security.'
In fact, critics charge that U.S. security needs -- like preventing illegal immigration, including along Mexico's southern border, and stepping up counter-terrorism operations throughout North America -- are at the core of the initiative, but have been overshadowed by the drug war aspects of the plan.
Plan critic Laura Carlsen maintains that the real aim of the Mérida Initiative is to further a Bush administration goal of a unified security strategy between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. She points to ongoing talks between the three governments about creating a shared North American 'security perimetre' through what is known as the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP).
'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,' Carlsen writes, arguing the proposal would further a militaristic approach to security more likely to lead to abuses than to a long-term solution to crime. That strategy 'entails serious violations of national sovereignty' as well as 'threats to civil liberties for citizens in all three countries'.
'Both the United States and Mexico should reject appropriations that place the emphasis on a military solution to their shared drug dependency,' Carlsen argues. '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.'