WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
3 Mar 2011 | Commentary | News

Presidents Obama and Calderon sit down in a context of increasing tensions between the United States and Mexico

Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s visit to Washington, which began yesterday evening with a dinner with U.S. business leaders, comes at a time of increasing tensions between the two countries due to several recent developments.  While U.S.-Mexico relations have never been easy; they have been marked by a past of mistrust by officials on both sides of the border. Nonetheless, a historic level of cooperation began when President Calderon assumed the presidency of Mexico in December 2006 and both governments agreed to increased cooperation on security issues. This cooperation has primarily occurred under the framework of the Merida Initiative, a U.S. security assistance package which has allocated $1.5 billion in assistance to Mexico since June 2008.

In spite of this new level of cooperation, developments in recent months and comments from officials on both sides of the border have again put the relationship on fragile ground.  While on her January 24, 2011 visit to Mexico, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton mentioned several times in the press conference Calderon’s “courageous leadership” and the United States’ commitment to its relationship with Mexico, the information included in some of the U.S. cables published by Wikileaks suggests that privately, U.S. administration officials have a different take on the situation in Mexico.

Several cables point to increasing U.S. frustration at the Mexican government’s lack of progress in tackling the country’s security crisis, they critique the effectiveness of the Mexican government’s counter-drug strategy, lament the inability or slowness of Mexico’s law enforcement agencies and the military to act on information, point out the lack of coordination amongst Mexican security agencies, and express ongoing concerns about corruption and human rights violations by the Mexican military.  Just last week, Calderon commented that the cables had damaged the bi-lateral relationship and once again slammed the U.S. government for not doing enough to reduce its internal demand for drugs or crack down on arms trafficking into Mexico.

The meeting between the two presidents is also marked by the February 15 death of Jaime Zapata, an ICE agent who was murdered by drug traffickers when he was traveling between San Luis Potosí and Mexico City with another agent, Victor Avila, who was injured in the attack.  While all of the details of the incident are still not clear, U.S. officials have stated that the gunmen who attacked the two agents knew that the men were U.S. law enforcement officials. Zapata’s murder marked the first time since the 1985 murder of U.S. DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena that a U.S. agent on active duty has been killed in Mexico.  While the Mexican government has detained several individuals from the Zetas drug trafficking organization that are allegedly responsible for this crime, the brazen attack sounded alarm bells in Washington and pointed to the widespread impunity with which criminal groups are able to operate in Mexico.[1]

It is expected that Calderon will continue with the same talking points he expressed in his May visit to Washington on the need for the United States to do more to address drug consumption and arms trafficking. On the latter, it is noteworthy that according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the weapon that was used to kill ICE agent Jaime Zapata was purchased in Texas.  This comes at the same the Obama Administration has continued to delay the ATF’s request to approve a proposal to impose an emergency regulation requiring U.S. gun dealers along the southwestern border to report multiple sales of semi-automatic rifles and other long guns.

On the U.S. side it is hoped that President Obama and other officials will do more to encourage Mexico to implement the structural reforms it needs to combat corruption, effectively withdraw the military from public security tasks, create police forces citizens can trust, and implement reforms to the judicial system to ensure that those responsible for crimes are effectively investigated, prosecuted and put behind bars. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, recently commented in a New York Times article: “The vast majority of the violence we’ve seen over the past decade in Mexico is not because it has arisen as a result of taking on organized crime…It’s that you’ve had impunity within the country because there has never been a legacy of investing in state and local police and in a judicial system that was able to crack down and contain it.”

One issue that is unlikely to be on the top of the agenda is the Mexican government’s ongoing failure to hold soldiers and police responsible for the human rights violations they commit against the civilian population, many in the context of counter-drug operations.  Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has received more than 4,800 human rights complaints of abuses committed by members of the military since President Calderon took office in December 2006. According to the CNDH, reports of violations by Mexican soldiers have increased by roughly 800% during the last four years, rising from 182 complaints received by the Commission in 2006 to 1,415 in 2010. To date, Mexican government data points to only one soldier convicted of a human rights violation committed during the Calderon administration.

For its part, the revamped Federal Police force ranked number three in terms of complaints in 2010, receiving 595, an alarming uptick from the 141 complaints against this body in 2009 and putting into doubt this new force’s commitment to promote transparency and accountability in its ranks.

Ensuring that human rights violations are investigated and prosecuted is an important step to regain the public’s trust in Mexico’s judicial institutions and public security efforts – trust that is needed to promote citizen participation in crime prevention and in criminal investigations. It is also a priority for several members of the U.S. Congress. Just yesterday, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Congressman Raul Grijalva along with 22 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives issued a letter to Secretary Clinton urging the Administration to give priority to the human rights requirements of the Merida Initiative in its relationship with Mexico and to express to the Mexican government their concern regarding its system of military jurisdiction. The letter makes specific mention of President Calderon’s proposal to reform Mexico’s Military Code of Justice which would only exclude three human rights violations – torture, rape, and forced disappearance – from military jurisdiction, concluding that “such a reform would not bring Mexico into compliance with either the Merida requirements or the sentences of the Inter-American Court.” The letter is a strong statement from members of the U.S. Congress that the 15% of military and police aid conditioned through the Merida Initiative should be withheld until Mexico meets the human rights requirements set out in the law,an affirmation shared by WOLA and numerous other U.S., Mexican and international human rights organizations. It is to both countries’ benefit to work to curb the systematic human rights violations committed by Mexico’s security forces and this issue should be an essential element of any dialogue between the two nations.

[1] It is worth noting that one of the men linked to killing Jaime Zapata, the Zeta Julian Zapata Espinoza, aka el Piolin had been detained in December 2009 and then released by a judge because the crimes he was accused of weren’t too serious.