The US Must Address Its Role in Mexico’s Human Rights Crisis

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The militarized approach to crime and violence pursued by Mexico and other countries in Latin America with US support has not only failed to achieve its stated objectives, but in many cases, has contributed to the very problems it proposes to solve. Instead of “wiping out” organized crime, this decades-long warlike framework has paradoxically ensured that only the most adaptable, innovative and ruthless groups survive.

Since it was ramped up in the mid-2000s under the nearly $2 billion, US-funded “Merida Initiative,” the drug war has left an estimated 100,000 dead and millions more displaced in Mexico alone. A large number of high-level cartel leaders have been arrested by Mexican authorities in recent years, but this so-called “kingpin” strategy often causes further violence by destabilizing already volatile black markets. Additionally, this heavy-handed “whack-a-mole” approach can fragment criminal groups and disperse their influence over wider areas, simply pushing violence around rather than addressing its root causes.

Criminals of various sorts are undoubtedly responsible for many horrific acts of violence in Mexico, but they depend on the protection offered by the country’s weak and often-corrupted police and judicial institutions to operate with widespread impunity. In many cases, the distinction between organized crime and “the state” is one without a difference, as criminal groups have become increasingly intertwined with official politics.

For example, last September, a group of students in Guerrero state was attacked by local and federal security forces allegedly working for a cartel-connected local mayor. The Mexican government’s handling of the case of the three murders and 43 forced disappearances that resulted has been marred by accusations of a cover-up. Another apparent massacre of 22 civilians was carried out by the army soldiers in Tlatlaya, State of Mexico, in June 2014. That case followed a similar trajectory, with the National Human Rights Commission concluding that state authorities had attempted to improperly influence the investigation.

Over the weekend of April 18, the news website Aristegui Noticias published a report that would be incredible if it did not so closely mirror other accounts of recent events in Mexico. Journalist Laura Castellanos obtained the testimony of dozens of witnesses who claimed that Mexican federal police attacked and murdered a group of disarmed civilians in Apatzingán, Michoacán, in January. As the civilians surrendered, some of the police reportedly shouted, “Kill them like dogs!”

Sixteen people (all civilians) died and dozens more were injured. Some of those killed were members of a semi-official civilian police force known as the “rural guard.” Security Commissioner Alfredo Castillo, who was serving as President Enrique Peña Nieto’s personally-chosen envoy in Michoacán at the time, attributed the killings to “friendly fire” between the police and the local group. However, Castellanos writes that the rural guard members were participating in an unarmed protest of Castillo’s decision to disband the self-defense group without pay when the federal police attacked them.

The Mexican government has promised to investigate the allegations against the federal police. Shortly after publishing the piece, the Aristegui Noticias website was hit with a “distributed denial-of-service” – or DDoS attack – that took the site offline for a few hours. In response, Aristegui allowed press freedom organization Article 19 to republish the piece on their website. As of Sunday, [April 19], the Aristegui Noticias website seems to be functioning normally, with the story, “Fueron los Federales” (“It was the Feds”), running prominently on the homepage.

The attack was one of many experienced by Aristegui in recent years. The website’s namesake, Carmen Aristegui, was one of Mexico’s most popular and trusted broadcast news personalities – somewhat akin to Rachel Maddow in the United States – until her show was abruptly canceled last month. After breaking a series of corruption scandals implicating President Peña Nieto and his family, her team decided to partner up with a new investigative journalism initiative akin to Wikileaks, called “MexicoLeaks.”

Aristegui has claimed the president’s office was behind her show’s cancellation. While there is no conclusive evidence backing Arestigui’s assertion, it would not necessarily be shocking if it were true. Mexico’s National Electoral Institute just ordered ads criticizing Peña Nieto to be taken off the air. Elisabeth Malkin at The New York Times recently wrote that, “[m]any journalists contend that Ms. Aristegui’s case is part of a broader attempt by the government to check aggressive news coverage.”

Moreover, journalists and human rights defenders have been documenting far more egregious abuses of freedom of speech in Mexico for years. The watchdog organization Freedom House has rated Mexico “Not Free” in its annual “Freedom of the Press Report” since 2011, “primarily because of ongoing violence against journalists carried out with impunity.” Even the US State Department’s most recent human rights report on Mexico admits that, “[d]espite federal laws supporting freedom of the press, many journalists were the victims of threats, harassment and violence emanating, in large part, from organized crime.”

The State Department report also mentions that, “[r]eporters covering organized crime, including its links to corrupt public officials, acknowledged practicing self-censorship, recognizing the danger investigative journalism posed to them and their families.” While this is disheartening, it is not necessarily surprising. Journalists in Mexico, especially those reporting on crime and corruption, are frequently threatened and assassinated with impunity, sometimes by state authorities.

According to the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders:

“Mexico continues to be one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. More than 80 have been killed in the past decade, and 17 have disappeared. Media are often the target of threats and armed attacks, especially in the north. These acts of intimidation are the work of drug cartels seeking to silence reporters and bloggers who cover organized crime and related violence.”

The organization points out that, “[f]ederal and state authorities also intimidate journalists,” often because they are involved in or complicit with criminal activities under investigation by reporters. Last year, Article 19 reported that 2013 was most dangerous year for journalists in the country since 2007, as attacks against press workers skyrocketed by 59 percent compared to 2012. Just two days before Article 19 released the report cited above, unidentified suspects broke into the Mexico City home of Dario Ramirez, one of the group’s regional directors, and stole documents and computers.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has already confirmed the killing of one Mexican journalist in 2015: José Moisés Sánchez Cerezo, who was murdered days before the apparent massacre at Apatzingán. Sánchez’ killer, a former police officer, confessed that he was acting on the wishes of a local mayor “who wanted the journalist to be ‘disappeared’ because he was angered by Sánchez’ coverage of local crime.” The second week of April, the director of a community radio station in Oaxaca was gunned down for unknown reasons.

According to Article 19, public officials accounted for 60 percent of the 330 acts of aggression against journalists and media outlets documented in 2013 – an average of nearly one per day. Unfortunately, impunity for such crimes is the norm. In the eight years since its inception, despite an annual budget of more than 30 million pesos ($8.2 million), the government’s “Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression” has only prosecuted a single case.

Given the profound and disturbing indifference with which the United States has viewed Mexico’s human rights crises, it seems grotesquely fitting that President Peña Nieto was visiting Washington at the same time as the apparent massacre at Apatzingán unfolded. Rather than calling attention to the issues of abuses by security forces, official corruption and intimidation of the press in Mexico, President Obama used the occasion of Peña Nieto’s visit to reiterate his administration’s “commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and the drug cartels that are responsible for so much tragedy inside of Mexico.”

But when Mexican citizens took to the streets en masse following the disappearance of the 43 students last September, they were not protesting against drug cartels. They chanted “Fue el Estado.” (“It was the state.”) Families and friends of the disappeared even traveled all the way to Washington DC last month in order to raise awareness about the crime and to voice their opposition to the United States’ support for Mexico’s notoriously abusive “security” forces.

While the United States government continues to prop up Mexico’s failed drug war by training, funding and supplying its military and police to the tune of nearly $100 million per year, both countries’ populations seem to be growing ever more dissatisfied with the results of this investment. Even Mexico’s business community appears to be fed up with the corruption and insecurity that continue to plague the country.

The United States and Mexico habitually disregard international law and routinely fail to live up to their international obligations to respect and protect human rights, including press freedom, but there is a strong case for halting US military aid to Mexico under the United States’ own law. The US Foreign Assistance Act, Section 620M, bars the US from providing assistance “to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”

Only certain kinds of assistance are barred under the so-called Leahy Law, named after its sponsor, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, and even then only under specific conditions, but it’s one of the few tools available to human rights activists who have been pushing the US to stop supporting corrupt and abusive security forces around the world, including Mexico’s police and military.

According to the research organizations Security Assistance Monitor and the Latin America Working Group, which put together a guide on the Leahy Law,” In countries such as Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras, nongovernmental organizations based in the United States and in Latin America have already used the law to stop assistance to abusive military and police units, and to encourage armed forces to improve their practices with respect to human rights.”

Given the deluge of credible reports about the involvement of Mexican forces in numerous massacres and mass disappearances in recent months and years – and even more disturbing, the efforts of government officials to impede proper investigations and critical, investigative journalism – the United States should keep its international obligations in mind, and perhaps more importantly, it should follow its own laws and demand Mexico take serious measures to prevent and prosecute such abuses before it receives further US assistance.