Between June 2006 and January 2007, thousands of state, municipal and federal police violently clashed with citizens of Oaxaca, Mexico. These protests, which began in support of striking teachers, resulted in 20 deaths and serious human-rights abuses, including torture, arbitrary detention, rape and enforced "disappearances."
U.S. video journalist Bradley Will was among the dead - shot while filming a confrontation between demonstrators and plain-clothed police officers and local officials.
Despite international pressure and more than 1,200 complaints of human-rights abuses received by Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights, no serious or impartial investigation has been carried out. More than a year later, no one has been brought to justice for the murders and widespread abuses.
Now Congress is deliberating on a proposal - the Merida Initiative - put forth by the Bush administration to provide $500 million in equipment to Mexico's law-enforcement and criminal-justice systems to combat drug smuggling and organized crime. But the U.S. State Department itself asserts that impunity and corruption are a serious problem within this system and that the drug cartels are made of up of former and current police.
Yes, the United States and Mexico should work together to tackle drug and security problems. But wisely, some members of the U.S. Congress lean toward the view that aid must be tied to improvements in Mexico's criminal-justice system and in protecting human rights.
At a Senate hearing last month, Sen. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.) raised serious concerns about the human-rights situation in Mexico. He cited a 2003 report by the U.N. Committee Against Torture, which found that Mexican police "commonly use torture and resort to it systematically as another method of criminal investigation."
He also raised concern about widespread impunity of public-security agents implicated in human-rights violations.
The Merida Initiative must be tied to concrete improvements in the protection of human rights. This means putting procedures in place to monitor the arrest and detention of criminal suspects, their treatment in detention, and investigations of alleged abuses by members of the public-security and criminal-justice systems.
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It also means ensuring that mechanisms are in place to avoid the possible use of U.S. equipment in silencing social movements and targeting human rights defenders speaking out about corruption and human-rights violations.
Under the Bush administration's current proposal, approximately half of the money would pay for 10 helicopters for the Mexican military. The military, which has taken on an expanded role in law-enforcement activities and counter-narcotics operations in Mexico, operates with almost complete impunity. The Human Rights Commission this year documented cases of human-rights violations allegedly committed by military personnel during policing operations.
A large portion of the aid package, approximately $120 million, is directed to support the Office of the Federal Attorney General. The current Mexican attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, was head of Public Security in 2006 when federal police were implicated in serious human-rights violations in their response to protests by peasant organizations in the town of San Salvador Atenco. The Human Rights Commission reported two killings, 200 cases of torture and other ill-treatment, and 26 cases of rape or sexual assault of female detainees during the crackdown.
Mora rejected the commission's recommendations to investigate the role of the federal police in abuses.
U.S. aid should assist Mexico in addressing deep flaws in its criminal-justice and public-security system that have allowed violent crime to flourish, and human-rights violations to go unpunished for many years. Without addressing these vital concerns, drug-related violence will continue and human-rights violations by members of the police, military and judicial officials could worsen.
Instead of providing equipment that could be used for continued abuse by security and judicial agencies in Mexico, Congress should see the Merida Initiative as an opportunity to promote human rights in regional security strategies.
Renata RendÃƒÂ³n is advocacy director for the Americas with Amnesty International USA.
© 2007 The Providence Journal Co.