The January 6 meeting between the presidents of the United States and Mexico comes at a particularly difficult moment for the Mexican government. President Peña Nieto entered office in December 2012 with promises to improve citizen security; he aimed to shift the focus to economic issues, education, and his ambitious reform agenda. But after a number of scandals in recent months, the triumphalist tone of his first year in office has faded. Peña Nieto is in the midst of the worst crisis of his presidency, and his popularity among Mexicans has dropped to a mere 39 percent.
The much-vaunted “Mexican moment” began to unravel on June 30, when Mexican soldiers killed 22 people in an abandoned warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya (near Mexico City). In relation to this case, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) concluded that at least 12 people were extra-judicially executed, pointing to ongoing abuses by Mexico’s military. The military’s original cover-up of the incident and the federal government’s three-month delay in investigating the case also raised serious questions about authorities’ willingness to investigate and prosecute soldiers implicated in human rights violations.
Then, on September 26, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college disappeared at the hands of the municipal police in Iguala, Guerrero. It quickly became evident that the mayor of Iguala was behind the disappearance; after requesting a leave of absence, he left the state unimpeded and went into hiding (he was later found and arrested in Mexico City). The state’s governor resigned. The federal government’s handling of the case has only exacerbated the problem: the response was slow, authorities have shown a lack of sensitivity toward the victims’ families, and serious doubts have been raised about the authorities’ version of the facts, as well as their ability to conduct an effective and impartial investigation into the whereabouts of the 42 students who remain disappeared (the remains of one of the students, Alexander Mora Venancio, were identified on December 6).
Furthermore, the Peña Nieto administration’s efforts to cast corruption as a local problem were severely undercut by a conflict-of-interest scandal; in November, news outlets reported that the president’s wife possessed a house that was owned by Grupo Higa, a government contractor with close ties to Peña Nieto.
Tlatlaya, Ayotzinapa, and Peña Nieto’s conflict-of-interest scandal have sparked massive street protests in Mexico against corruption and human rights violations. There have also been protests in cities across the globe. To say that there is a lot of anger and distrust among the population and frustration with the state of affairs in Mexico is an understatement.
Given the level of outrage in Mexico and worldwide, President Obama cannot ignore these tragedies in his meeting with President Peña Nieto. During the meeting, President Obama should echo this sentiment (a sentiment that he recently expressed in an interview about Ayotzinapa, which he termed an “outrageous tragedy”). He should ask President Peña Nieto for details on his plans to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these atrocities, to prevent their repetition, and to tackle the overarching human rights crisis in Mexico. President Obama should also use this meeting to redefine priorities, and to put combatting human rights violations and corruption at the center of the bilateral agenda, which has been overly focused on counter-narcotics cooperation and, more recently, border security.
In the long term, simply providing Mexican security forces with more training and equipment without addressing widespread concerns about corruption and abuse will do little to improve security in Mexico, and is likely to continue to worsen the human rights situation. In recent years, the United States has begun to shift the focus of cooperation with Mexico through additional support for reforming Mexico’s criminal justice and law enforcement institutions. Now is the moment to deepen this shift in cooperation. The United States should allocate funding to the greatest extent possible toward police reform, particularly establishing and strengthening accountability mechanisms; additional support for Mexico’s full transition to its new justice system; strengthening the rule of law; and Mexico’s anti-corruption efforts.
In recent months, President Obama has shown tremendous leadership and courage, taking bold action on both immigration policy and U.S.-Cuba relations. He should approach his meeting with President Peña Nieto in the same spirit and take a stand against some of the most horrible human rights violations in Mexico in decades.