Mérida: continued support for a failed strategy

Liza ten Velde
Monday, May 21, 2012

noSome five years ago, after Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón declared a War on Drugs followed by a firm military crackdown on drug trafficking organizations, the US and Mexico agreed upon the Mérida Initiative; a three-year programme for the provision of US security assistance to Mexico, mainly in the form of security equipment and law enforcement training for police and military. In 2010, the programme was extended, in spite of severe criticism aimed at its support for an anti-narcotics strategy that had by then produced a variety of adverse effects.

Two more years of militarizing Mexico’s domestic law enforcement have not led to a fundamental disruption of drug trafficking operations, nor has the strategy succeeded in lowering the levels of drug-related violence in the country. What it has ‘accomplished’, however, is a severe deterioration of Mexico’s human rights climate related to abuses by army officials employed in domestic law enforcement tasks and to the specifics of military jurisdiction in Mexico.

This development had been predicted; after Calderón presented his plans to employ the military in domestic law enforcement, human rights advocates were quick to issue warnings based on Mexico’s past experiences, arguing that this strategy might very well result in an increase of problems related to corruption and human rights abuses. Now, half a decade later, it has become clear that these concerns were more than justified.

Major problems are arbitrary arrests and detention, of which cases reported to Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos more than doubled between 2007 and 2010. The numbers of reports of cruel or degrading treatment on the part of security forces have seen a similar development. Reports of torture eventually decreased, but remain at a level higher than at the start of Calderón’s War on Drugs. Extrajudicial killings – often occurring at military checkpoints as a consequence of the use of excessive force when firing at vehicles – are another grave concern. Furthermore, over the years there have been numerous reports of military officials tampering with evidence to cover up their involvement with severe human rights abuses.

These violations are complemented by a widespread impunity for the security forces committing them, which – at least in part – is a direct consequence of granting the military jurisdiction over human rights cases involving civilians. In 2010, Calderón proposed a reform to the Code of Military Justice which subjected to civilian jurisdiction cases of enforced disappearance, rape, and torture. Human rights advocates, however, generally judged this measure to be insufficient as cases concerning extrajudicial killings would remain within the jurisdiction of military courts. Also, the classification of abuses in order to determine subsequent procedures would continue to fall under the responsibility of military authorities, in spite of a track record of downgrading the severity of charges brought against military officials. At the same time, a lack of official charges, thorough investigations, and convictions has been fuelled by a widespread fear among the Mexican population because of the human rights violations committed.

In spite of broad recognition of the abovementioned issues, Mérida assistance has continued to support the militarization of Mexico’s counternarcotics efforts, thus contributing to the increasing human rights problems in the country. The fact that the US has annually subjected 15% of certain parts of Mérida funding to human rights conditions initially led human rights advocates to express the hope that these conditions would help overcome some of problems in this field. A year later, however, it was concluded that the provisions of the initiative had already been undermined as the US Department of State failed to issue a clear judgment on whether the Mexican authorities had met the conditions while still deciding to release part of the funds that had been withheld the preceding year because of human rights violations. In addition, withheld funding from 2010 was re-classified as falling under different sets of conditions and released in 2011.

All in all, the adverse effects of Mexico’s militarization of its domestic law enforcement on the country’s human rights climate are so obvious that we are left wondering why Calderón’s War on Drugs strategies and Mérida assistance have not yet been radically redirected, if both Mexican and US authorities are as serious about improving security for the citizens of Mexico as they have continuously claimed to be for the past five years.