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New US-Mexico Agreement Under Biden Leaves Failed Drug War Policies Intact

U.S. and Mexican officials launched a bilateral agreement that perpetuates militarization and human rights abuses.

A Haitian father holds his daughter while pausing on a trek through the Darién Gap in route to the United States on October 7, 2021, near Acandi, Colombia.

Top U.S. and Mexican officials launched a new “United States-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities” in Mexico City on October 8, which laid the groundwork for further consultations along the same lines in Colombia and Ecuador (October 19-21). Configured at a summit intended to leave behind the failures of the Mérida Initiative — the longstanding vehicle for the U.S.-Mexico dimension of the regional “drug war” — the new framework ostensibly aims to redefine the landscape of the two countries’ still-evolving and potentially highly contested relations in several key dimensions. Key participants included Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard (a leading contender to succeed him), plus U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland, among others.

The summit’s joint statement and fact sheet prioritized issues related to trans-border crime and drug policy, such as an “evidence-based public health and public safety approach to reducing drug demand, overdoses, and saving lives, as well as a focus on ensuring racial equity, community based crime prevention, and the promotion of harm-reduction efforts.” All of this echoed the long discredited rhetoric of Plan Colombia, its key forerunner, while carefully avoiding any details as to the most critical dimensions of key unfolding issues at the U.S.-Mexico border and Mexico’s border with Guatemala, such as the de facto binational management of the recent Haitian migrant surge, which has complex regional implications. But the essence of the new framework, as with the Mérida Initiative, is U.S support for, and complicity with, the “strategic fallacy” of continuing militarization of public security throughout Mexico and the region as a whole. Meanwhile, concrete, urgent human rights issues in both countries were relegated to a ceremonial, decontextualized closing paragraph.

By the time the one-day summit was held, over 10,000 Haitian migrants had been expelled or deported throughout the Western Hemisphere within a three-week period: over 8,000 from the U.S. and several thousand more from Cuba, the Bahamas, Mexico, and the Turks and Caicos Islands, including hundreds intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. This has included complex, mostly hidden collaboration on the ground between U.S. and Mexican authorities regarding the logistics and execution of these expulsions at Mexico’s northern and southern borders, and the presence of U.S. immigration agents on the ground in the region.

Most of these were expulsions pursuant to emergency public health powers under Title 42 activated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, without any of the vestigial elements of due process theoretically associated with deportations, and without any assessment of individual and family needs for international protection, refuge or asylum, much less clear standards for differentiating between those who were expelled or those who were permitted to remain in the U.S. to press potential asylum claims.

All of these abuses together constitute serious human rights violations which may rise to the level of crimes against humanity, particularly where they lead to the indiscriminate return of migrants entitled to some form of international protection because of prevalent conditions in Haiti. They also reinforce deeply embedded elements of overall discrimination in the application of U.S. immigration policies against people of Haitian origin — and more broadly against immigrants of African descent — which have been characterized by recurrent patterns of abuse against Haitians since the 1980s. Recurrent violations against migrants of Haitian origin are further compounded by the extent to which the underlying conditions of structural injustice in Haiti are themselves the product of longstanding U.S. policies, including support for corrupt and repressive elites and their illegitimate régimes there, as elsewhere in Latin America.

Increasing outrage regarding these racist human rights crimes against Haitians has led to the successful mobilization of a National Day of Protest in over a dozen U.S. cities in solidarity with Haitians and other Black immigrants on October 14 and a National Week of Action between October 10-16, as well as related actions in defense of Cameroonian migrants subjected to restraints during deportation that were equivalent to torture.

This is the single largest mass expulsion undertaken by the U.S. since “Operation Wetback” in 1954, when hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were forcibly returned at the height of the convergence between deeply rooted traditions of anti-Mexican racist violence and the McCarthy era’s targeting of foreigners as national security threats, which helped lay the foundation for renewed xenophobia and virulent white nationalism post-9/11, especially during the Trump administration. But ironically, now it is under the ostensibly more progressive Biden administration and AMLO’s supposedly “leftist” leadership in Mexico that the two governments have colluded most deeply to undermine human rights on both sides of the border. This kind of complicity continues to be a guiding thread of the new “Bicentennial Framework.”

The U.S. has acquiesced in AMLO’s unprecedented deployment of the Mexican military and security agents to persecute migrants throughout Mexico, including the violent containment and repression of migrant caravans there and in Guatemala. It also has included for the first time measures by Mexican officials to restrict travel on public buses to passengers with proof of legal immigration status, in order to avoid the kind of crises which led to the images of Border Patrol agents using reins as whips against Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas. There has been widespread collusion by Mexican authorities, meanwhile, as the U.S., under both Trump and Biden, has implemented regressive measures such as the “Remain in Mexico” program and Title 42.

Persistent regional implications include Mexico’s increasingly direct role in containing and repressing migration flows throughout its territory in service to U.S. policy imperatives, at a high cost to its sovereignty and relations with neighboring countries of origin in the Mesoamerican region and the Caribbean (especially Haiti, Cuba and the Dominican Republic). Migration policy issues have also become much more central to hemispheric relations within the last few years in contexts such as Venezuela, Colombia and Panama, including Blinken’s leadership of a regional ministerial summit focused on migration issues during his trip to Bogotá.

The Mérida Initiative was launched in October 2007 with emphasis on Mexico’s role within the regional framework of the U.S. drug war and was further reinforced during Security of State Hilary Clinton’s tenure during the Obama administration. Its domestic counterparts in Mexico included hitherto unprecedented levels of militarization of public security during Felipe Calderón’s presidency between 2006 and 2012, which were further intensified by his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, between 2012 and 2018, including Mexico’s Southern Border Plan, which, for the first time, militarized Mexican immigration control in its southern border region with Guatemala.

The results of the Mérida Initiative, in addition to increases in drug trafficking and consumption in both countries, have included a surge in serious human rights violations by military and civilian authorities in collusion with drug lords. This includes unprecedented mass crimes such as the San Fernando migrant massacre and mass graves in 2010 and 2011, and the disappearance of 43 students from the Rural Teachers’ College at Ayotzinapa in 2014. These mass crimes occurred within a broader framework that now includes more than 100,000 forcibly disappeared dispersed among hundreds of mass graves throughout the country, and more than 200,000 civilians killed since 2006, likely exceeding those killed in Colombia during a much more extended period. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of migrants have disappeared who have not yet been accounted for within this overall human rights holocaust. Key human rights indicators have continued to worsen under AMLO, who has relied on the military to sustain his increasingly authoritarian rule, even more intensively than his predecessors did, with U.S. funding and support.

Closer U.S.-Mexico collaboration within the framework of the drug war has also coincided with spectacular cases of corruption at the highest levels in Mexico, including prosecutions of its successive public security and drug czars, Genaro García Luna (Calderón’s coordinator of public security between 2006 and 2012) and Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda (the country’s defense minister between 2012 and 2018), as well as several state governors in cartel-controlled regions such as Tamaulipas, Veracruz and Quintana Roo.

Despite the shifts in packaging and rhetoric between the previous versions of the Mérida Initiative and the new Bicentennial Framework, nothing fundamental is likely to change in the devastating patterns and consequences described above, until the structural failures of the drug war and its inherent tendencies towards militarization and corruption are finally abandoned. At the core of this are the deeply embedded inequities in U.S.-Mexico relations, and more broadly U.S.-Latin America relations, which are still trapped in the outmoded pretensions of regional hegemony which continue to shape U.S. policy. A renewed process of Latin American and Caribbean integration “from below” in resistance to U.S. hegemony, including the persistent impositions of the drug war and of “free” trade in contexts such as Mexico and Colombia, is the crucial next step as U.S. domination begins to wane regionally and globally.

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