Pubdate: Mon, 19 Oct 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Joshua Partlow


Loss of $5 Million for Drug War

Move Comes Amid Numerous Abuse Cases

MEXICO CITY - In a setback for its multibillion-dollar effort to help 
Mexico fight its drug war, the U.S. State Department has decided that 
Mexico failed to reach some human rights goals, triggering a cutoff 
of millions of dollars in aid.

The move, which has not been reported previously, affects a small 
portion of the annual antidrug funds given to Mexico. But it is a 
clear sign of U.S. frustration. It comes as Mexico has been roiled by 
several cases of alleged abuses by security forces, including the 
disappearance of 43 students in the southern state of Guerrero last year.

Through the Merida Initiative, a major U.S. program to support 
Mexico's battle against its drug cartels, Congress has appropriated 
$2.3 billion since 2008 for equipment such as helicopters and border 
sensors as well as training programs for thousands of Mexican officials.

Fifteen percent of the money provided for the Mexican military and 
police is subject to provisions that the country make progress on 
protecting human rights, including enforcing rules against torture 
and prosecuting people for forced disappearances.

To release that money, the State Department is required to write to 
Congress showing how Mexico is taking steps to address those 
problems. But this year, officials chose not to write that report, 
and the 15 percent of the money for security forces, or $5 million, 
got diverted for coca eradication in Peru. The total Merida funding 
for the year was $148 million.

"It's a big decision for them to have made," said Maureen Meyer, a 
Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. "I think 
they basically decided we cannot honestly or in good faith say 
there's been enough progress made in Mexico. It shows how concerned 
the U.S. is about the human rights situation in the country."

Previous holds on money

As far back as 2010, the State Department and Congress have held up 
Merida money because of human rights concerns, but those funds 
eventually were provided after Mexico took action, such as passing 
human rights legislation and limiting the jurisdiction of military 
courts. This year, in contrast, Mexico lost the money.

"From time to time, countries are unable to meet the reporting 
criteria as required by Congress," the State Department said in a 
statement in response to a question about the aid. "This year, we 
were unable to certify that Mexico fully meets the criteria."

Over the years, U.S. diplomats have tended to cast the human rights 
record of Mexican security forces in the best possible light to keep 
them as willing partners in the war on drugs. The State Department 
decision to divert Merida funds to Peru was done without any public 
criticism of Mexico.

"They've handled this more with tweezers than with sledgehammers," 
said Eric L. Olson, a Latin America expert at the Woodrow Wilson 
International Center for Scholars, in Washington. "But it undeniably 
sends a signal that the U.S. is not entirely pleased."

The most recent State Department annual report on human rights, for 
2014, noted that there have been numerous allegations that Mexican 
authorities "committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, often with 
impunity." It also described accusations of torture and 
disappearances by security forces.

Asked for comment on the cut in assistance, the Mexican Foreign 
Ministry said the U.S. certification of its human rights efforts - 
known as the "15 percent report" - is "an obligation imposed by the 
U.S. Congress on the government. It is not an obligation Mexico has to meet."

Mexico's policy is to observe the rule of law and to demonstrate 
"absolute respect for, and protection of, human rights," the ministry 
said in its statement.

In recent years, as drug violence soared and then declined somewhat, 
soldiers and police officers have regularly been accused of killing 
innocent civilians, torturing witnesses and using disproportionate 
amounts of force as they fight drug cartels. In several parts of the 
country, the Mexican military has taken over primary security duties 
after municipal police were disbanded because they had been 
infiltrated by drug gangs.

"Despite years of the Merida Initiative and the efforts the United 
States has made to work with the Mexican government to improve 
justice and accountability, there has been little progress," said Tim 
Rieser, a foreign policy aide to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). The 
"Leahy law" bars the U.S. government from providing aid to foreign 
military units that appear to have committed gross human rights violations.

A string of alleged killings

The most notorious recent case of alleged abuses by Mexican security 
forces involves the disappearance last year of 43 students from a 
teachers college. The Mexican government claimed that municipal 
police from the town of Iguala, in Guerrero state, turned the 
students over to drug traffickers who killed them and burned their 
bodies in a trash dump.

But investigators convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human 
Rights concluded last month that the students could not have all died 
in that fashion because such a large fire had not occurred. They also 
wrote that soldiers allegedly witnessed the violence but failed to 
intervene. Government investigators looking into the case mishandled 
evidence, and witnesses said they had been tortured, the report said.

"Everyone knew that the spotlight was on this case," Rieser said. 
"And yet even still, they tried to whitewash it and cover up what 
happened. It shows the amount of impunity that exists there and the 
belief that you can get away with anything."

A few months before the students disappeared, the Mexican army 
allegedly killed 22 people, including shooting some execution-style 
after they had surrendered, in a warehouse in Tlatlaya, southwest of 
Mexico City. Human rights groups also have compiled allegations that 
witnesses to the killings were subsequently tortured. Three soldiers 
are facing homicide charges in the incident, and seven state police 
officers have been accused of torture.

In January, federal forces allegedly killed 16 civilians in 
Apatzingan, a town at the center of the militia uprising against drug 
cartels in Michoacan state.

Although these issues have raised concerns in Washington, the 
scandals do not appear to have generated much pressure to change 
broader U.S. funding to Mexico.

With Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto facing intense domestic 
criticism and sinking approval ratings as he grapples with a limping 
economy and a difficult security situation, the Obama administration 
is careful not to pile on, said Carl Meacham, director of the 
Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International 
Studies. "They don't want to exacerbate a situation that's already 
incredibly sensitive."

But given the string of alleged abuses, "it's impossible to make the 
case anymore" that Mexico is progressing on human rights, said 
Stephanie Erin Brewer, coordinator of the international department at 
Centro Prodh, a human rights group in Mexico City. "This certainly is 
a very strong message for Mexico."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom