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Activists Protest US Role in Mexico’s Drug War Violence, While Candidates Remain Quiet

US presidential candidates have been mostly silent on how they would address drug war-related human rights abuses in Mexico.

Members of School of the Americas Watch and Voces Contra El Olvido at the Centro Cultural Centroamericano in Los Angeles. (Credit: Olmeca)

Part of the Series

As the US presidential front-runners consolidate their leads and inch toward nominations, the reality of what their foreign policies would look like in practice unnerves thousands of voters and activists. In particular, what would a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton win mean for foreign policy with the United States’ closest neighbor to the south? Whether the next president pursues a dystopian vision of a militarized border or an extension of the current track record of promoting militarization in countries like Mexico and Honduras, the 2016 presidential election will have a significant impact on US policy toward Latin America.

Today, as voters in Arizona, Idaho and Utah go to the polls, it remains to be seen whether the leading presidential candidates can maintain their momentum and large margins strengthened over the last seven weeks. In the recent primaries on March 15, 2016, Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton piled up delegates by the hundreds, further solidifying their front-runner status. Trump’s wins in Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and the Northern Mariana Islands brought his delegate count up to 673. Meanwhile Marco Rubio dropped out of the presidential race after losing to Trump in his home state of Florida, and Ted Cruz trails the GOP front-runner by 263 delegates.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Over in the Democratic camp, Clinton won in Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida, extending her lead in the pledged delegate count over Bernie Sanders by 314. Although these standings won’t mean much until the country chimes in and a victor is declared on November 8, 2016, it’s important to look closely at the main agendas.

When it comes to foreign policy, more of the same — if not much worse — is promised by a Trump or Clinton win. The leading candidates aren’t offering solutions to mitigate the human suffering and violence caused by the US-sponsored war on drugs in Mexico. While Trump has proposed to seal off the US-Mexico border all together, Clinton is promoting President Obama’s previous bilateral policies with Mexico, supporting the Merida Initiative and hyping up the war against heroin production in Mexico.

Also known as Plan Mexico, the Merida Initiative is a security package that has funded Mexican security forces directly responsible for human rights abuses like the globally recognized disappearance of students from the Normal Rural School Isidro Burgos of Ayotzinapa on September 26, 2014. This is a big concern for US activists and Mexicans directly affected by the violence still gripping the country.

Protests During Election Season

Beginning in February of this year, Los Angeles-based activist Nansi Cisneros has teamed up with the transnational activist organization School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) to organize protests and public awareness campaigns about the negative effects of the drug war. SOAW is a US grassroots movement that seeks to close the military training school, now officially called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Founded in 1990, SOAW allies with people in Latin America and the Caribbean to demilitarize US foreign policy. In past years it has called to end the Merida Initiative.

Cisneros is the founder of Voces Contral el Olvido (Voices Against Forgetting), an organization of family members of those disappeared in Mexico. She began the organization after the disappearance of her brother, Francisco Javier Cisneros Torres, from a small city in the central Mexican state of Jalisco in 2013.

Like many family members of the more than 26,000 disappeared people in Mexico, Cisneros took it upon herself to find her brother. The Mexican government is notorious for its inaction to solve disappearance cases. This neglect has prompted thousands of family members to learn to investigate and denounce these crimes in Mexico by themselves.

As a Los Angeles-born activist, Cisneros travels regularly between Mexico and the United States to meet fellow activists. She has taught herself how to conduct forensic testing, versed herself in human right laws and built relationships with families, activists and civil society organizations that also seek justice for disappeared people.

When it comes to foreign policy, more of the same — if not much worse — is promised by a Trump or Clinton win.

Her determination to find her missing brother has helped her build cross-border networks that she is currently trying to bolster to raise awareness among constituents and communities in the United States about the harm US security aid has done to human rights in Mexico. With the help of SOAW, Cisneros organized public education workshops and roundtables in several Californian universities and community centers between February 15 and March 3, 2016. They hosted events at the University of California, Berkley; San Francisco State University; University of California, Los Angeles; California State University, Northridge; and Los Angeles’ Centro Cultural Centroamericano.

With the support of SOAW’s advocacy coordinator Arturo J. Viscarra, Cisneros led discussions on key human rights issues like enforced disappearances caused by the drug war. The events, which drew more than 300 participants, also focused more intently on California-specific legislative campaigns and direct action training, and participation in the first SOAW mobilization to Nogales, Arizona, and Mexico this coming October 7 to 10, 2016.

The collaboration is a long time coming. The organizers first met in the #USTired2 protests on December 4, 2014, in support of the families of the missing students of Ayotzinapa. Thousands of people came out to 54 US cities under the hashtag #USTired2, which was based on the slogan used by Mexican protesters, #YaMeCansé (I’m tired of it).

A fundamental goal of the #USTired2 protests, which emerged as a critique of President Obama’s stance on Ayotzinapa, was to build momentum against the Merida Initiative. The movement acted to pressure Obama to end security funding to Mexico — to change the legacy of violence that has cost the lives of over 100,000 Mexicans.

Ending the Merida Initiative

When the former presidents George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón announced the strengthening of the US-Mexico partnership to combat organized crime in 2007, the heads of state emphasized a fraternal commitment to uphold democracy, transparency and rule of law. The initiative, which supposedly supplied Mexico with the operational capabilities to fight drug traffickers and organized crime, resulted in heavy domestic militarization, with President Calderón deploying tens of thousands of federal troops all over Mexico.

The strategy was a hard-line approach against the network of drug cartels. However, instead of stopping violence, the heightened military presence made the number of homicides, disappearances and displaced people skyrocket.

And under President Obama, the United States has remained committed to the Merida Initiative and to Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, the current president now under international scrutiny for corruption and the mishandling of the high-profile disappearance case of Ayotzinapa.

In fact, nine years have passed since the Merida Initiative was first announced, but the US government has done little to reverse the violence that has deeply harmed Mexico.

“We need to push people to recognize their connection and responsibility to stop this violence.”

There are US laws that restrict providing aid to countries that commit human rights abuses. The Leahy Law prohibits the United States from providing military aid to foreign individuals and military units that violate human rights with impunity. However, apart from withholding a few million dollars of conditional funding because the US State Department didn’t write the required human rights assessment, temporarily in 2009 and again in 2015, the US has sent security aid to Mexico consistently since 2008 — despite knowledge of the human rights crisis in the country.

In a recent piece for Foreign Policy in Focus, Jesse Franzblau outlined the United States’ dark drug war legacy in Mexico under former US secretary of state and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. During her time in the State Department, Clinton pushed to extend the Merida Initiative beyond the originally proposed three-year stint, despite knowledge of human rights abuses and government corruption, in order to push forward a lucrative flow of contracts moving to US security firms working in Mexico. According to files released by WikiLeaks, Clinton’s State Department received information regarding widespread corruption in Mexico, but this intelligence didn’t mitigate the flow of equipment and security assistance to Mexico.

Furthermore, international authorities have released damning assessments of human rights in Mexico. On March 2, 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released its report on human rights in Mexico. The report, based on observations made during an on-site visit from September 28 to October 2, 2015, weighed in on citizen security, disappearances, torture and victims’ access to legal resources and judicial protection of human rights in Mexico. In its report, the commission confirmed that the disappearances of people in the country have reached critical levels and access to justice is extremely low: 98 percent of crimes in Mexico fail to result in convictions.

The biggest barrier, according to the report, to accessing justice is the systemic and structural impunity that affects the country. Crimes are underreported in Mexico and there is a general lack of trust in government and military authorities. Testimonies gathered last year show that victims of crime think that the administration of justice in Mexico is a “simulation” — either because alleged perpetrators are falsely accused or because the authorities do not act with due diligence and their actions do not produce results. The majority of cases of disappearances go unresolved.

The Future of US Security Aid to Mexico

Back in September 2015, in an interview, presidential candidate Clinton said she would be willing to fight heroin production flowing from Mexican poppy fields by “going to the source” of production. By this she meant using US military power in Mexico to halt the northward flow of heroine. This strategy of increased militarization of drug production sites is particularly polemic, as heroin production is most lucrative in states like Guerrero where drug cartels govern production.

Social conflict over heroin production is also on the rise in Guerrero, rising 30 percent between 2014 and 2015. A militarized approach to a layered, already violent context is likely to tip the scales in the favor of more violence — a trend that characterized the beginning of the drug war under Mexico’s former president, Felipe Calderón.

In his recent piece for Foreign Policy, Mexico City-based policy analyst John Ackerman wrote, “Those who seek to replace Obama at the White House would be well advised … to reach out to and listen to Mexico’s powerful and dynamic civil society, which is increasingly losing patience with the country’s simulated democracy and defective public institutions.”

According to Ackerman, Hillary Clinton represents the overall US responsibility for Mexico’s ongoing violence, one “grounded in a vicious cycle of complicities between economic and political elites on both sides of the border.”

And despite protests that date back to 2014 over Ayotzinapa and US-sponsored violence in Mexico, it seems that no presidential candidate or government official is willing to listen.

Nevertheless, activists Cisneros and Viscarra continue to struggle to convey their message.

“We believe that it’s important to discuss the situation on the ground in order to impress upon people that this is an urgent situation, for Mexicans, Central Americans, and all communities harmed by US foreign policy, by policies paid for by US taxpayers,” Viscarra said.

“How do we drive home the US’s responsibility in all of this? We need to push people to recognize their connection and responsibility to stop this violence because our government and our tax money is fueling the inferno that people are living through in Mexico,” he added.

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