(Washington, DC) - President Obama should make human rights concerns a central component of discussions about Mexico's public security crisis when he meets with President Felipe Calderón on March 3, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today.
Deaths tied to drug violence and grave human rights violations have increased significantly since Calderón deployed the military in 2007 to combat Mexico's drug cartels.
"One of the most glaring shortcomings of Calderón's strategy against drug cartels has been its failure to address widespread abuses by security forces," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Any serious discussion of how to improve US-Mexico security cooperation needs to speak to this problem."
An estimated 35,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence during the Calderón administration, including more than 15,000 in 2010.
Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has also received nearly 5,000 allegations of human rights violations against the military since 2007, including killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and rape.
Despite the scale of abuses, Mexico continues to rely on its flawed military justice system to investigate and prosecute soldiers alleged to have committed human rights abuses. But military courts have a record of near total impunity, Human Rights Watch said, having sentenced only one soldier for a human rights abuse committed during the Calderón administration.
Using military courts to prosecute human rights abuses is a violation of Mexico's international human rights obligations, and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that Mexico should try such abuses in civilian courts.
The Calderón government has also failed to take adequate steps to protect human rights defenders and journalists at risk, and to investigate attacks against them. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented the failure of federal and state authorities to take basic steps, such as providing regular bodyguards, emergency telephone numbers, or security cameras, to protect human rights defenders under threat in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.
At least 31 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2007. The Office for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico documented 128 attacks and threats against human rights defenders in Mexico from 2006 to mid-2009, only 2 percent of which were adequately investigated.
Calderón has repeatedly promised to develop a system to protect these vulnerable groups, but has yet to propose one, or consult with civil society groups regarding the proposals they have developed, Human Rights Watch said.
In 2007 the US announced the Merida Initiative, a multi-year US security assistance package to aid Mexico in confronting organized crime. The US government has allocated roughly $1.5 billion in Merida funding to Mexico, and the Obama administration requested nearly $300 million in additional funds in the fiscal year 2012 budget. A significant portion of Merida funds allocated has been directed to training and equipping Mexico's security forces.
"Obama should send a clear public message to Calderón that security forces cannot run roughshod over human rights in their efforts to rein in violent cartels," Vivanco said. "The longer the US remains silent on the serious violations being committed in Mexico, the more it sends a message that these abuses are acceptable."