(Washington, DC) - When President Barack Obama meets with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico at the White House on May 19, 2010, he is expected to reaffirm the United States' support for Mexico's struggle against its violent drug cartels.
Calderón began an aggressive campaign to combat organized crime after taking office in December 2006. Since then, he has relied heavily on the armed forces in public security operations, deploying more than 50,000 soldiers across the country.
The need for public security is clear. The competition among and fighting within powerful drug cartels, as well as shootouts between cartel members and law enforcement agents, have resulted in nearly 23,000 deaths since 2007.
The United States government became a partner in the struggle against drug-related violence in 2007, when it announced the Merida Initiative to combat organized crime. It has since given more than $1.3 billion to Mexico through the initiative, and the Obama administration pledged to continue its support for years to come.
The United States and Mexico agreed to condition part of the Merida funds on respect for human rights, in recognition of the fact that abuses undermine public confidence in security forces and make them less effective in efforts to confront cartels.
Mexico's official National Human Rights Commission has issued comprehensive reports on more than 50 cases involving egregious army abuses, including killings, rape, and torture, since Calderón took office in 2006. The commission has reported receiving nearly 4,000 additional complaints during this period.
The numbers of both complaints and comprehensive reports of abuses have increased significantly with each year of the military's deployment. In 2006, the commission did not issue a single comprehensive report on abuses by the military; in 2009, it issued 30. And from 2006 to 2009 the number of complaints of military abuse registered with the commission grew ten-fold. Local and international nongovernmental organizations have documented widespread abuses by Mexico's security forces under Calderón, a fact acknowledged by the UN Human Rights Committee.
No. Virtually all military abuses of civilians go unpunished. A major reason for this is that they are investigated and prosecuted by the military itself, and the military justice system is not structured to address human rights violations independently and impartially. The system is extremely opaque and secretive; the defense secretary controls both the armed forces and the military justice system; military judges lack security of tenure; and there is virtually no civilian review of military court decisions. What's more, victims and their families cannot effectively challenge the decision that their allegations of human rights abuses be heard in a military tribunal rather than a civilian court.
Proof of the military justice system's failure to hold soldiers accountable is in the numbers. According to information provided the Mexican government - made available only after Human Rights Watch repeatedly requested evidence that the military justice system was in fact prosecuting abuses - only three soldiers have been found guilty of human rights crimes committed during the Calderón administration. However, one of those convictions resulted from an automobile accident, which does not constitute a human rights violation, and another was overturned on appeal. Therefore, only one case qualifies as a conviction for a human rights abuse, in which a soldier was sentenced to 9 months in prison for killing a civilian by opening fire at a military checkpoint.
For these reasons, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights - the top human rights tribunal for Latin America - mandated in November 2009 that Mexico reform its military justice code to exclude cases involving human rights violations from military courts.
3. Would these human rights problems be resolved if Mexico removed the military from public security operations and replaced them with police?
Mexico's armed forces have not been adequately trained to carry out public security operations, and military officers are not held accountable when they commit abuses. The military is particularly ill-suited to play this role given its history of committing serious human rights violations against civilians.
However, while police in theory are better suited for such assignments, the Mexican police have also been responsible for grave violations. For example, the practice of torture is widespread across Mexico's security forces, in part due to perverse incentives created by Mexico's justice system, in which judges routinely accept the coerced confessions as proof of guilt. In a fact-finding mission to Tijuana two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch found credible allegations of the systematic use of torture by both military and police, including more than 100 cases since 2009 of individuals who alleged they were arbitrarily detained, transported to military bases, and tortured to extract confessions.
Although Mexico approved a comprehensive justice reform in 2008 that explicitly prohibits the use of torture and eliminates many of these perverse incentives, most states in Mexico have yet to put the reforms into practice, and still have six more years to implement it.
Yes. The legislation creating the Merida Initiative conditioned 15 percent of select funds on Mexico's fulfillment of four human rights requirements:
- ending military jurisdiction for the investigation and prosecution of military officers who commit human rights violations;
- enforcing the prohibition on torture and other forms of ill-treatment to extract confessions;
- improving police transparency and accountability;
- consulting with Mexican human rights organizations and civil society to improve the Merida Initiative.
By law, the select funds are to be withheld until the US State Department reports in writing to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations that Mexico is meeting all four human rights requirements.
5. Have Merida's human rights requirements been effective at improving Mexico's human rights practices?
No, the conditions have not been effective, in a large part because they have not been enforced by the US government.
In August 2009, the State Department submitted a report to Congress on the Merida Initiative that showed that Mexico was not meeting at least two of the human rights requirements. For example, on the prohibition of torture, the report said: "Since 2007, we are not aware that any official has ever been convicted of torture, giving rise to concern about impunity. Despite the law's provisions to the contrary, police and prosecutors have attempted to justify an arrest by forcibly securing a confession to a crime." The State Department also reported that it is "uncommon" for civil authorities to prosecute violations committed by soldiers, because such cases are usually handled by military prosecutors and courts.
However, despite these findings, and in contravention of the law, the 15 percent of select Merida funds were released by the US government following the State Department report.
The US government has directed $420.8 million of the Merida Initiative funds to the Mexican military: $116.5 million in the 2008 supplemental budget; $39 million in 2009 budget; $260 million in 2009 supplemental budget; and $5.3 million in 2010 budget.
A December 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that only 2 percent of the $1.3 billion appropriated for the Merida Initiative, or $26 million, had actually been spent by Mexico. This means that the overwhelming majority of US aid to Mexico's armed forces has not yet been spent, and that the collaboration between the US and Mexican militaries will continue for years to come as these funds are put to use.
Obama should impress upon Calderón that it is imperative for Mexico to meet the human rights requirements set out by the Merida Initiative. Because it is in the interest of both countries, Obama should make clear that if Mexico fails in this regard, the United States is prepared to withhold the 15 percent of Merida funds tied to human rights requirements.
Obama should argue that meeting these requirements will not only benefit human rights, but will also make Mexico's security forces more effective in their campaign against violent drug cartels. That's why the United States and Mexico agreed to put the protection of human rights at the heart of the Merida initiative.