When Felipe Calderón comes to Washington this week, his army's troublesome human rights record should be front and center.
- By José Miguel VivancoJosé Miguel Vivanco is director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch.
When President Felipe Calderón of Mexico is received at the White House as part of his official state visit this week, he can expect President Barack Obama to reaffirm the United States’ full support for Mexico’s struggle against its violent drug cartels. So far, that has meant more than $1.3 billion in aid, much of it to the Mexican military. What it hasn’t included — and should — is pressure to uphold the human rights requirements to which both governments have agreed.
The Mexican army’s human rights record is very troubling. Soldiers deployed in counternarcotics operations have engaged in grave abuses, such as killings, torture, rape, and beatings. And if the abuses themselves aren’t worrisome enough for the Obama administration, their impact on the efficacy of the drug war should be. Each time that civilians are abused, Mexican soldiers contribute to the climate of violence and lawlessness in which the cartels thrive. Worse, the force’s abuses have cost it public trust and cooperation, both of which are vital to effective counternarcotics operations.
Understanding this, the United States and Mexico included human rights requirements in the Merida Initiative, a comprehensive plan begun in 2007 to confront organized crime. But rather than cracking down, the Calderón government has largely ignored the requirements and pretended its human rights problems don’t exist. Meeting Obama last year, Calderón publicly challenged human rights advocates to point to "any case, just one case, where the proper authority has not acted in a correct way."
In fact, Mexico’s own National Human Rights Commission has done a comprehensive job of providing just those sorts of examples. Since Calderón came to power in 2006, the commission has issued reports on more than 50 cases involving egregious army abuses, including killings, rape, and torture. In one of those cases from 2007, for example, soldiers raided several communities in Michoacan, arbitrarily detaining 36 people, most of them at a military base where they were tortured to obtain information about alleged ties to drug traffickers. Four of the victims, underage girls, were also raped. The commission has reported receiving nearly 4,000 additional complaints of military misconduct.
In addition to these widespread abuses, Mexico has failed to meet the requirements stipulated in the agreement. For example, Merida requires Mexico to eradicate torture by, among other things, ensuring that the torturers are brought to justice. Yet in its 2009 report on the Merida requirements, the State Department noted continuing abuses and said, "We are not aware that any official has ever been convicted of torture." Nor have steps been taken to ensure that Mexican soldiers implicated in abuses be tried in civilian courts. To date, these trials are prosecuted in military courts, which lack the independence needed to ensure accountability.
The Obama administration has recognized the Mexican military’s ongoing human rights problems but has done little to press for a better result. Despite the State Department’s finding that Mexico had not met the requirements of the Merida pact, the portion of the aid package tied to human rights improvements (a mere 15 percent of the total), the United States released the funds anyway. Mexico received not only the additional funds, but also a powerful signal that Obama was unwilling to enforce the human rights requirements if it meant embarrassing an important ally.
Obama has rightly recognized the United States’ shared responsibility for confronting Mexico’s cartels, as the bulk of the money and weaponry flowing to these powerful criminal organizations comes from north of the border. But by failing to uphold Merida’s human rights conditions, the Obama administration is shirking an important part of this responsibility. And it’s missing an opportunity to help Mexico wage a more effective campaign against its drug gangs — which, after all, was the point of this whole endeavor.