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Mexico/US: Obama-Calderón Meeting Questions and Answers

Drug Violence, Military Abuse and US Aid

WASHINGTON - 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.

1.  Are military abuses widespread?

2.  When military officers commit abuses, are they held accountable?

 Would these human rights problems be resolved if Mexico removed the
military from public security operations and replaced them with police?

4.  Is US support in the Merida Initiative tied to human rights?

5.  Have Merida's human rights requirements been effective at improving Mexico's human rights practices?

6.  How much aid has the United States given to the Mexican military through the Merida Initiative?

7.  What can Obama do to address these problems during Calderón's visit?


1.  Are military abuses widespread?

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.

2.  When military officers commit abuses, are they held accountable?

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.


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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.

4.  Is US support in the Merida Initiative tied to human rights?

Yes. The legislation creating the Merida Initiative conditioned 15
percent of select funds on Mexico's fulfillment of four human rights

  • 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

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.

6.  How much aid has the United States given to the Mexican military through the Merida Initiative?

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.

7.  What can Obama do to address these problems during Calderón's visit?

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.



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