WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
22 Mar 2010 | News

Cabinet-Level Mérida Meeting in Mexico

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) will follow the discussions of the Mérida US-Mexico High Level Consultative Group meeting in Mexico City on March 23, 2010 and will be available to provide analysis of the meeting.

This gathering of top US and Mexican officials, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, comes at a time of growing criticism in Mexico and abroad about the effectiveness of President Calderon's decision to deploy the military in counter-drug operations in the country.

In light of the increasingly alarming violence in Mexico there has been much speculation that US security assistance may be stepped up. "Addressing security in Mexico is not just a question of the dollar amount.  The long-term impact of US cooperation will depend on how much of the money is spent to strengthen Mexico's institutions, prevent violence and combat corruption," affirms Maureen Meyer, WOLA Associate for Mexico and Central America.

WOLA maintains its concern with Mexico's deployment of the military in counter-drug operations which has not been able to effectively address the security crisis in the country.  According to Meyer, "while heightened security operations were needed, the reliance on the Mexican military has taken resources and attention away from strengthening civilian law enforcement and justice institutions and has resulted in a significant increase in human rights abuses."

As the United States and Mexican governments discuss the future directions of their security cooperation, WOLA believes the following points should be taken into consideration.

The evolving nature of organized crime in Mexico

For many years, US-Mexico security cooperation has been addressed within the framework of combating drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. Nonetheless, organized crime experts assert that drug-trafficking in Mexico may account for less than half of the organizations' income, with illicit activities such as human trafficking, pirated goods, arms trafficking, and kidnapping accounting for the rest. (1)

For example, several "Casas de Migrante" and shelters along the migration route have reported not only an increase in the kidnapping of Central American migrants as they travel through Mexico but also that organized criminal groups, particularly the Zetas, have become involved in this business. (2)   A report from the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), states that from September 2008 until February 2009 there were 9,758 migrants who were victims of kidnapping in Mexico; of these, 9,194 were perpetrated by organized gangs. (3)

The expansion of drug trafficking organizations into multiple illicit activities underscores the need for a more comprehensive security strategy that goes beyond interdictions and arrests to focus on addressing the weaknesses of Mexico's institutions.

In the State Department's FY2011 budget request there was a marked shift in assistance to Mexico away from military hardware and equipment and towards institutional development, including assistance to the criminal justice sector.  "This shift is a welcome sign of a change in US cooperation, particularly if a significant part of the funds are designated for judicial reform, institution building, anti-corruption and rule of law activities," Meyer commented.  Attention and resources for long-term reforms in the police and justice sector, as well as mechanisms to address the corruption that permeates Mexican institutions, are needed to effectively deal  with the inter-related problems of illicit drugs, crime and violence.

Human rights in the context of counter-drug operations

Since President Calderon launched the counter-drug operations in December 2006, human rights complaints against the Mexican military have increased close to six fold, up from 182 in 2006 to 1,791 in 2009 according to Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH). (4) "These numbers speak for themselves and are rather startling," said Meyer. "Respect for human rights and accountability should be considered essential components of any comprehensive security plan, not an obstacle for ensuring security."

When the United States Congress provided funds to Mexico under the Mérida Initiative it recognized the need to make progress in regards to respect for human rights in Mexico, specifying that 15% of the funds could not be released until the State Department reported on the Mexican government's fulfillment of a set of human rights requirements. The 2009 State Department Human Rights Report on Mexico describes several cases of human rights abuses by the Mexican military in which the perpetrators have not been sanctioned. The report further states that "During the year the CNDH made 30 recommendations to SEDENA, of which SEDENA accepted 19; in the majority of the 30 recommendations the CNDH cited arbitrary detention and torture. In at least three cases, the CNDH verified that army doctors or other members of the military falsified evidence to cover up abuses." (5)  Previously, in August 2009, the State Department issued a  report to Congress on the human rights requirements in the Mérida Initiative, triggering the release of the withheld funds, despite calls from Mexican and international human rights organizations stating that the Mexican government had failed to meaningfully advance the investigation, prosecution or sanction of human rights violations, particularly abuses committed by members of the Mexican military against civilians. (6)

"This year it will be very difficult for the State Department to justify before the US Congress that progress is being made on the Mérida human rights requirements," affirms Meyer.  "There are numerous reports, including State Department's own human rights country report, that show that human rights abuses continue at alarming rates, and tend to remain in impunity."

Attacks against reporters

Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, including cases where reporters have been targeted due to their coverage of organized crime and corrupt officials.  According to the register of the Mexican organizations Article 19 and the Centro Nacional de Comunicación Social (Cencos), there were 244 attacks against journalists in Mexico in 2009, including 11 murders; 70% of these attacks were directly related to their media work. (7)  In the context of US-Mexico security cooperation, the United States should increase its collaboration to promote freedom of the press and protection for journalists at risk.

"The press is caught in the cross-fire of this violence," said Kristel Mucino, WOLA's Communications Coordinator. "The Mexican government should do more to ensure reporters' security, they are a key element of any functional democracy." At a minimum, the Mexican government should strengthen the special prosecutors' offices in charge of handling crimes against journalists.

Shared responsibility

There are many measures that must be implemented internally in Mexico to combat organized criminal groups, but one of the most important things that the United States can do to help Mexico cope with drug-related violence is reduce US demand for drugs, especially through proven strategies such as treatment for heavy users.  The FY2011 budget request from the Office of National Drug Control Policy includes a 13 percent increase for prevention and a nearly 4 percent increase for treatment. (8)

"While increased US efforts to reduce the demand for drugs are important, substantial reductions in the size of the illicit drug market should not be expected any time soon," said Meyer. "The key to a more effective policy is to realize that drug-related problems cannot be eliminated, but they can certainly be managed better." Both countries should adopt a harm reduction approach, which seeks to minimize the harms associated with illicit drug production, distribution, and abuse, and the harms generated by policies meant to control drugs.

In terms of arms trafficking, a June 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on US efforts to combat arms trafficking to Mexico found that "while it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally smuggled into Mexico in a given year, about 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last 5 years originated in the United States." (9)  The Obama Administration's FY 2011 budget requests for the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security include funding for more enforcement measures and research that could help to assess the effectiveness of current strategies to reduce gun trafficking from the US into Mexico. However, lax laws and regulations in the United States continue to govern the firearms industry at the local, state, and federal levels and the weak or ineffective enforcement of these laws facilitate gun trafficking into Mexico.


Maureen Meyer
Associate for Mexico and Central America
[email protected]

Kristel Muciño
Communications Coordinator
[email protected]

202-7972171 (office)
617-584-1713 (cell) 


(1) Buscaglia, Edgardo, "Mexico pierde la Guerra," Esquire, March 2010.
(2) http://www.mexicomigrante.com/?p=8554
(3) http://www.cndh.org.mx/INFORMES/Especiales/infEspSecMigra.pdf
(4) http://www.cndh.org.mx/lacndh/informes/anuales/Informe2009/Informe_2009.pdf
(5) http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/wha/136119.htm
(6) WOLA, LAWG, Centro Prodh, Fundar, Tlachinollan, "Mexican and U.S. Human Rights Organizations Call on the U.S. Government to Withhold Merida Initiative Funding for Mexico," July 16, 2009, http://www.wola.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=viewp&id=951&Itemid=2
(7) http://www.libertad-expresion.org.mx/noticias/resumen-ejecutivo-entre-la-violencia-y-la-indiferenciainforme-de-agresiones-contra-la-libertad-de-expresion-en-mexico-2009/
(8) http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/policy/11budget/fy11factsheet.pdf
(9) "US Efforts to Combat Arms Trafficking to Mexico Face Planning and Coordination Challenges," US Government Accountability Office, GAO-09-709, June 2009.