Outside Oaxaca University, federal police forcibly detain a man. Human rights abuses run rampant among the Mexican military and police force, yet the US plans to provide them with a fresh infusion of funds this year. (Daniel Aguilar: Reuters)
As Congress gears up to fund another year of war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also readying a nearly half-billion-dollar aid package that would initiate a Colombia-like drug war in Mexico. The majority of funds would fuel the Mexican military, known for rampant human rights abuses and participation in organized crime.
In May, the House and the Senate both approved versions of the drug-fighting legislation, dubbed "Plan Mexico," tucked into the "Global War on Terror" supplemental spending bill. The House Foreign Affairs Committee simultaneously passed a bill authorizing $1.1 billion for Mexico over the next three years.
The Bush administration propelled the plan forward this spring, with the president calling it "an important project to help implement a dual strategy to deal with crime and drugs" that will "benefit the people of Mexico and the United States."
Yet, according to human rights advocates, the plan prioritizes companies over people, lining the pockets of American defense contractors while putting both political dissidents and ordinary Mexican civilians at risk. Government documents leaked to the nonprofit Center for International Policy provide an idea of what the specifics of the plan will look like: more than half the funds would pay for technology and personnel to bolster the Mexican military's counternarcotics operations. The initiative would ignore the US's own involvement in the transport and sale of drugs.
Plan Mexico allots no money for drug treatment and rehabilitation.
According to human rights activist Harry Bubbins, the Plan accelerates a dangerous militarization of Mexican society, and places the US at the helm of a foreign mission it can't achieve on its own soil. Bubbins works as communications director for Friends of Brad Will, a human rights advocacy group named after the US journalist who was shot during a teacher's strike in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2006.
"With hundreds of millions of dollars going to helicopters, there is a real concern that the civilian population will be targeted in Mexico, while US corporations like Blackwater profit at the expense of a sound foreign policy," Bubbins told Truthout.
Much of the Plan Mexico funding included in the supplemental will never leave the United States. It will go toward the purchase of Bell helicopters, CASA maritime patrol planes, surveillance software, and other goods and services produced by US private defense contractors.
The bulk of the money that does get to Mexico will fund the counternarcotics arm of its Army, air force and navy, as well as its police force.
A glance at government figures calls into question the efficacy of pouring money into the Mexican Army's coffers to quash drug crime.
A study by the Mexican government showed that about 90 percent of illegal guns seized in Mexico come from the United States. Most of those firearms' owners are drug traffickers. And according to US State Department reports last year, Mexican military personnel are often intertwined with drug rings, with many law enforcement personnel "acting directly on behalf of organized crime and drug traffickers". Oversight within the military, according to the report, is next to nonexistent.
Larry Birns, director of the nonprofit Council on Hemispheric Affairs, describes an incident in which a high-up official in the Mexican Drug Enforcement Administration came to Washington to be honored by the Bush administration for his efforts. At the airport on his way back to Mexico, the official was arrested - for drug trafficking.
"You have this kind of opera buffa taking place every day," Birns told Truthout.
Funding the military in an attempt to stop drug crime isn't just ineffective, Birns says - it's dangerous.
Involving the military in the drug war has been linked to a rise in human rights violations, according to the 2007 Mexican National Commission on Human Rights report, which recommends withdrawing the Army from its civilian regulatory duties.
No matter what its project, the Mexican military and police should not be on anyone's short list of agents to rein in crime, according to Laura Carlsen, program director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy. Carlsen is currently advocating for a group of women raped and sexually abused by law enforcement officials in the town of San Salvador Atenco. The Mexican government has refused to substantively investigate the Atenco case.
"It is undeniable and a serious concern that Mexican security forces have committed grave human rights violations and continue to do so, and that the justice system fails to prosecute these crimes," Carlsen told Truthout.
The military and police force's human rights abuses run particularly rampant when it comes to political dissidents. According to a February 2008 report by the International Civil Commission on Human Rights, arrest and imprisonment of peaceful protesters, movement leaders and even family members of activists are commonplace. "It is normal for those who are arrested to be subjected to torture and physical abuse," the report states.
One of the most publicized examples of violent political suppression occurred in 2006, when the Mexican security forces unleashed a backlash against civil protest in Oaxaca, with mass detentions, acts of torture and killings, including the murder of Brad Will.
When internal law enforcement becomes more militarized, for missions like drug-fighting, human rights abuses often worsen, according to Bubbins. That's the case in Colombia, the US's pet drug war zone where, Bubbins says, "government-sanctioned violence against union organizers and government critics is on the rise."
According to Carlsen, Mexico's current military-led drug war directly fuels political repression, even without added US funds.
"We are already seeing how the drug war launched by [Mexican President] Calderon affects leaders of grassroots movements and dissidents," she said. "In Chihuahua, when the Army moved in, it arrested social leaders on five-year-old warrants for blocking the international bridges - a common form of protest there and often used to protest NAFTA measures."
Carlsen also reports that, since Calderon amped up the Army's counternarcotics drive, Zapatista communities have experienced a sharp rise in military incursions. She describes the strategies used to fight the "drug war" as particularly well-suited for violently putting down protesters.
"This model, as we have seen, in Colombia is easily and inevitably adapted to fighting internal dissidence," Carlsen said. "We can expect an increase in repression of social movements if Plan Mexico is approved."
Although the version of Plan Mexico included in the supplemental contains provisions for human rights "monitoring," these measures are mainly nominal, according to Birns, who noted, "The US is so eager to woo Mexico in terms of NAFTA and immigration - there's not going to be vigilant scrutiny here."
Moreover, the human rights provisions will likely be toned down: Mexican government officials said last week that they'd refuse US aid if it were laden with any conditions. At a meeting with the officials in Monterray, Senator Chris Dodd promised that the US would drop any restriction that "smacks of certification," and both parties appeared willing to compromise on a less vigilant human rights clause.
It's not surprising that Mexico should be affronted by a US effort at regulation on this front, according to Carlsen: unlike the US, Mexico has signed almost all international human rights pacts. The US keeping an eye on the Mexican Army isn't the answer to the danger of abuses and corruption, she said.
US officials don't appear to have a Plan B for keeping Plan Mexico money from fueling violence and crime, judging by Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon's statements on a press conference call last fall.
"There are kind of levels of trust that we need to build with Mexico in this regard, and we can't allow ourselves to be dominated by fear of what might happen," Shannon said.