November 19, 2007 – Jennifer Truskowski writes: The Bush administration is trying to get Congress to approve what it calls the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion aid package to Mexico in order to fight drug cartels. The plan is more commonly known as Plan Mexico because of its inevitable similarities with Plan Colombia, another U.S. aid package to fight drug cartels in Colombia. Even while the administration has refused to release details of the initiative since planning began in March, Congress is being pressured to pass it. The first $500 million of Plan Mexico is now attached to the appropriations bill for fiscal year 2008.
The Merida Initiative Joint Statement can be found on the State Department website. It reads that Mexico will “strengthen its operational capabilities to more effectively fight drug-traffickers and organized crime.” The U.S. and Mexico will do this with “enhanced transfer of equipment and technical resources, consistent with all appropriate standards in both countries of transparency and accountability of use.” The aid also includes helicopters, surveillance aircraft, “non-intrusive” inspection equipment, and canine units for the police and military use. The plan will offer “technologies to improve and secure communications systems” to collect information for law enforcement, along with technical advice and training.
The Joint Statement says nothing at all about human rights abuses. This is significant, because various national and international human rights groups have documented hundreds of unpunished abuses committed by the Mexican police and military. These abuses include rapes, illegal arrests, torture, beatings, and murders. The current Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, has been quick to send out military forces to violently crack down on public protests, greatly increasing the number of unpunished abuses. Last year in Oaxaca state federal police were sent to attack protesters who demanded that the governor step down from power. Police beat and tortured people, and people were arbitrarily arrested – including some who didn’t even associate with the protest movement. As a result, at least 18 people were murdered including U.S. journalist Brad Will, who was filming the conflict. To date, nobody has been brought to justice for these killings. Earlier this year in the state of Veracruz, Calderón himself was involved in a suspicious government cover-up of a case where a group of Mexican soldiers gang-raped a 72-year-old indigenous woman, Ernestina Ascencio.
On the State Department website along with the Joint Statement appears a quote from President Bush lavishing praise onto Calderón: “He has shown great leadership and great strength of character, which gives me good confidence that the plan we’ll develop will be effective.”
PLAN MEXICO VS. PLAN COLOMBIA
Mexican and U.S lawmakers insist that Plan Mexico is not like Plan Colombia, because Plan Mexico will not include U.S. troops on Mexican soil. However, there do seem to be some similarities between the two plans. The Latin America Working Group (LAWG) is an organization that investigates and denounces human rights abuses and advocates for justice in Latin American countries. It has heavily documented human rights violations and other conditions in Colombia. Like Mexico, Colombia’s military has committed hundreds of unpunished human rights violations, such as extra-judicial executions, disappearances, illegal arrests, and threats against human rights defenders who try to investigate such crimes. In both Colombia and Mexico the majority of these crimes go unpunished largely because military crimes are investigated by the military judicial system instead of the civilian judicial system. As a result, the same military that committed the crimes is responsible for preserving the evidence, clearing the crime scene, and investigating the crime.
In both Colombia and Mexico, the police and military also have a long history of corruption and ties to paramilitary groups and drug traffickers. In Colombia there are instances where the police and military collaborate with paramilitary death squads. Human Rights Watch documented one brutal massacre in a village in northern Colombia where 300 paramilitaries stabbed, tortured, decapitated, raped, and shot residents. While this was happening the Colombian navy’s First Brigade blocked roads to the village, preventing the International Red Cross from entering. A half hour after the paramilitaries left, the naval forces finally entered the village.
This case is very similar to what happened in the indigenous community of Acteal in southern Mexico in 1997. Paramilitaries murdered 45 members of a Catholic pacifist organization who were praying in a church. This included 21 women and 15 children. Mexican state Public Security officers stationed nearby didn’t intercept the massacre, which lasted six hours. The perpetrators still have not been brought to justice.
In both Mexico and Colombia these connections between paramilitaries and government law enforcement have resulted in U.S. training and equipment falling into the hands of paramilitary groups. Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, told the Drug War Chronicle, “An elite US-trained unit called the Zetas eventually switched sides and became enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. When you hear of machine gun and bazooka battles in Nuevo Laredo, that’s our Frankenstein coming back to haunt us. Now the Bush Administration — never one to learn from history — wants to repeat the calamity.”
Electoral fraud is also widespread in both countries. Journalist and author Garry Leech reports that this year in Colombia, vote buying, government intimidation, and illegal campaign financing were widespread. Similarly, in Mexico, vote buying, threats against voters, and fraud are very rampant according to various Mexican news sources. Mexican journalists, activists, and a large portion of the public also believe that President Calderón’s own election was a fraud. This does not bode well for the two Latin American countries that are friendliest toward U.S. foreign policy.
FORESHADOWING FROM COLOMBIA
It would be prudent to speculate on what the effects of Plan Mexico might be. Since specific details about Plan Mexico are not available, it may be helpful to look at the effects that Plan Colombia has had. The most notable effect may be the fact that Plan Colombia did not reduce the availability of drugs in the United States, which was its intended plan. Eliot Engel, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, testified in a hearing about Plan Mexico that when cartels in Colombia shut down the trafficking business simply moved to Mexico. He stated, “Even if we are successful in Mexico and Central America, experience tells us that this will not end drug production or trafficking. It will merely go elsewhere, and the logical place seems to be the Caribbean.”
Another remarkable result of Plan Colombia was that human rights abuses have actually gotten worse since it was implemented in 2000. Human rights conditions were written into the plan, but Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported that such conditions weren’t met. Congress still approved further appropriations to Colombia even after hearing such reports. According to a recent report from LAWG, extra-judicial executions have increased by 66% in the past five years compared to the period between 1997 and 2002. The military still handles the majority of these cases. Of the 955 cases that have been reported since 2002, only two have reached a sentencing phase. Lisa Haugaard, executive director of LAWG, stated that human rights conditions in Plan Colombia have been “impactful,” but admitted they were not “successful.”
Mexican human rights leaders are especially concerned with Plan Mexico. The majority of crimes committed by both the Colombian and Mexican governments target people involved in social movements. In Colombia the majority of the victims of extra-judicial executions were poor farmers, indigenous people, or community leaders. Similarly in Mexico, indigenous people and activists are usually the targets of government violence. According to author Garry Leech and Human Rights Watch, business leaders and the Colombian government have tried to link peaceful NGO’s and activists groups to leftist guerrillas. This further endangers their lives. In fact, this year in a public speech Colombian President Álvaro Uribe accused those who denounce extra-judicial executions of serving guerrilla groups.
Mexico seems to be following this trend, as increasingly the Mexican government is criminalizing public protest by sending police and the army to violently disrupt peaceful demonstrations. For example, the current movement to overthrow the governor of Oaxaca was galvanized when 700 police attacked a peaceful encampment of teachers striking for better wages.
In both Colombia and Mexico wealth is increasingly becoming concentrated in the hands of the few, and disparity is increasing as wages go down. This is largely due to U.S.-supported free trade policies that provide subsidies for large corporations while cutting subsidies for small farmers and businesses. Growing numbers of people in both countries are being displaced and living without electricity and potable water. Protesting is a democratic means for these peoples’ voices to be heard. Increasingly it seems to be endangering their lives.
Additionally, since transnational corporations are taking over the market for legal food crops, many poor farmers in both countries who can’t compete turn to cultivating drugs in order to survive. Such poverty has also pushed some people to join guerrilla or paramilitary groups as an alternative means to gain power and money. Many critics believe money would be better spent to support fair labor practices, fair trade policies, and better wages.
WHY PLAN MEXICO?
A logical question would be: if Plan Mexico isn’t expected to reduce drug availability in the United States, why is the administration pushing for it? Counterpunch journalist John Ross speculates that one reason may be the lucrative weapons contracts it would offer. He documents how Blackwater is aggressively pushing for a new military camp in the San Diego area close to the Mexican border. He believes Blackwater’s efforts are suspiciously timed in the wake of its scandal in Iraq and the anticipated passage of Plan Mexico. Indeed, before Plan Colombia was passed, major defense contractors who lobbied heavily for the plan later benefited with millions in military contracts.
Another benefit Plan Mexico might have is the security it would offer to corporations that are trying to capitalize on Mexico’s resources against the will of indigenous populations and other activists. In Colombia, Occidental Petroleum benefitted richly from Plan Colombia weapons and security guarding its oil pipelines while it was drilling on indigenous land against the will of the indigenous U’wa people. In fact, many of the human rights violations that happen in Colombia are linked to international corporations, such as Coca-Cola, Occidental, and Drummond Coal, all of whom have allegedly hired armed mercenaries to assassinate union leaders and other organizers at their Colombia locations. Recently Chiquita admitted to paying off paramilitary and guerrilla groups in Colombia.
Currently in Mexico, foreign companies are buying cheap land and water rights to build dams, wind farms, and run factories in resource-rich Oaxaca and Chiapas. These are the two states in Mexico with the strongest resistance among indigenous and social movements opposed to such projects. U.S.-subsidized military force would be useful to assure security for such foreign corporations.
These telling facts lead many to believe that Plan Mexico is not about drugs at all, but about maintaining power and profits for multi-national corporations and weapons contractors. If details were to be made public, the true intentions of this Plan could be made clearer. Meanwhile, opposition groups are mobilizing and suggesting alternatives.
OPPOSITION IS RUMBLING
Leading human rights organizations have issued press releases criticizing Plan Mexico. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) all highlight concern for the Mexican government’s unpunished abuses, and warn that unconditional law enforcement aid could lead to further abuses. They all demand that human rights conditions be included in the aid package.
WOLA’s report on drugs and violence in Mexico focuses heavily on Calderón’s deployment of military forces to help the police deal with civilian threats in various states of Mexico. WOLA points out that the military is trained for combat and not for dealing with civilian problems. This has led to bloodshed as soldiers have killed innocent civilians and have committed rape, illegal searches, and torture during counter-drug operations. As a result, WOLA demands that Plan Mexico focus on civilian law enforcement instead of the military.
Other grassroots groups have come out with even stronger statements. Friends of Brad Will (FoBW) is a group of friends, family, and activists who support justice for the U.S. journalist murdered in Oaxaca. They have been especially active with organizing protests and encouraging people to call their elected officials to simply say “no” to Plan Mexico. FoBW believes that simply demanding human rights conditions and focusing on civilian law enforcement is not enough. They point out that one of Brad Will’s alleged killers is a Mexican police chief, highlighting the fact that Mexican civilian law enforcement is just as brutal and notoriously corrupt as the military. They fear that as long as the aid is heavily focused on law enforcement equipment and training, any stipulations about human rights conditions will be just as ineffective as they were in Plan Colombia.
Additionally, they assert that training should not focus on expensive equipment and lethal weaponry, but on human rights education and reform. Robert Jereski, Congressional Representative of FoBW, stated that he can’t believe that $1.4 billion could possibly be spent on the sort of ethical reforms the organization would like to see in the law enforcement system. He said, “Why not just have a $10 million multi-year education effort?”
The Drug Policy Alliance agrees. This organization promotes new drug policies and seeks alternatives to the war on drugs. It issued a press release that urged Congress to vote down Plan Mexico and instead fund a comprehensive drug treatment program in the U.S. in order to “hit the drug cartels where it really hurts… and reducing their customer base.” A 1994 RAND Corporation study found that treatment for heavy cocaine users is far more effective at reducing consumption than interdiction and programs that attack cartels in other countries. Global Exchange, an organization that promotes human rights, local sustainable economies, and fair trade, is also supporting the effort to vote down Plan Mexico.
In a surprising twist last week the United Steelworkers (USW) issued a bold statement against Plan Mexico. The USW is the largest industrial union in North America. They say that Plan Mexico will undermine human and labor rights in Mexico. In a letter to U.S. government officials, USW International President Leo W. Gerard explains how the Mexican government has been systematically undermining international labor rights and repressing unions. These abuses include “deploying military and security forces against the union, resulting in the deaths of three union members,” refusing to punish company officials responsible for the deaths of 65 miners in a tragic mining accident, and “filing baseless criminal charges” against the General Secretary of the National Union.
He also demands that instead of passing Plan Mexico, lawmakers should “research methods for using the money to encourage economic development based on respect for human and labor rights in Mexico.” Otherwise the repression that Plan Mexico will invite “will likely lead even more Mexicans to conclude that their only future lies in migration to the U.S.”
Lastly, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) has similar human rights concerns, but has yet to release an official position on Plan Mexico. LAWG has advocated against the destructive Plan Colombia for years. In an interview LAWG’s executive director Lisa Haugaard said that a public statement would be released in the coming weeks. When asked if she thought LAWG would strongly oppose Plan Mexico, she said it wasn’t that simple. She shed light on the more diplomatic stances of Amnesty International, HRW and WOLA, explaining that there are some positive aspects of the plan, such as aid for drug interdiction and to improve the justice sector, and that’s why some human rights groups are reluctant to reject the whole plan. She said that they would like to put the whole plan in perspective, but expressed frustration that this is difficult to do when the administration won’t release the details.
WHERE’S THE BEEF?
Haugaard isn’t the only one frustrated about the lack of details. In a House Committee hearing regarding Plan Mexico last week, both Democratic and Republican Congressmen lashed out at the administration for excluding them from the plan’s development. Tom Lantos, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said, “As a matter of fact, we first learned of the initiative from the media… This cavalier disregard of congressional concern is deeply disturbing.” He also criticized the plan as “naive” for assuming that the “legendary corruption” of the Mexican police force will “somehow diminish or disappear as a result of this proposal.”
Members of FoBW also attended the hearing and regularly disrupted proceedings to bring attention to Mexico’s human rights abuses. During the hearing Thomas Shannon, the Assistant Secretary of State, tried to blame drug cartels for the murder of Brad Will. One of the FoBW activists interrupted him in order to point out that the suspects of Brad Will’s murder are actually Mexican government policemen and officials.
As pressure mounts from an impressive variety of organizations, congressmen, and individuals, the administration maintains its silence about the details of Plan Mexico. Some critics suspect that this is a strategy to avoid any serious scrutiny and criticism as Bush hastens Congress to pass the first $500 million installation of aid. In fact, during the hearing Mr. Shannon spoke as if Congressional approval were an extremely urgent matter: “Our allies in this region have already begun to act and have called on us to assist them as quickly as possible.” However, Chairman Lantos pointed out to Shannon, “In nine months of negotiations you didn’t have time to come and consult us?”
Although there is a wide range of perspectives among Plan Mexico’s critics, they seem to agree that the Plan should not be approved before details are made available and before all concerned parties have had time to study them. If the Plan is included in the upcoming appropriations bill, it is unlikely that this goal will be met. It’s not unreasonable to expect details to be made public before the first 500 million in tax dollars are approved for the $1.4 billion Plan. It’s only fair that no aid is approved at all until human rights organizations, Congress, and the public can closely scrutinize every single aspect of this plan.
After all, critics argue that if Bush is sure that Calderón has all the best intentions and the plan will indeed be a “new paradigm for security cooperation,” as the State Department says, then he should have no problem finally exposing it to the public.
If you are concerned with Plan Mexico, here are some recommended actions:
Contact the following officials and tell them:
1. Plan Mexico should be separate from the 2008 appropriations bill.
2. They should demand competent investigations into the murders and abuses committed by Mexican law enforcement, including the murder of Brad Will.
3. They should refuse to take any action on Plan Mexico until all details are made public and fully scrutinized.
Tom Lantos, Chair, Committee on Foreign Affairs
Eliot Engel, Chair, House Subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs
Nita Lowey, Chair, Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations
Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader
Hillary Clinton, Senator
For more information on what you can do to help: friendsofbradwill.org
Amnesty International public statement. 5 October 2007:
US Anti-drug Aid Package to Mexico must incorporate human rights protections (PDF)
Brayton, Colin. “The Ernestina Ascencio Case is Not Closed!” 28 May 2007.
Brayton, Colin. “Mexico: Defense Rewrites History in Ernestina Case.” 9 April 2007.
“Bush Reveals Plan Mexico, Proposes $1.4 Billion Anti-Drug Aid Package.” Drug War Chronicle. 26 October 2007.
“Bush Seeks $1.4 Billion for Mexico’s Drug War.” Drug Policy Alliance public statment. 23 October 2007.
Carlsen, Laura. “Plan Mexico Latest Front in Failed U.S. Drug War.” Alternet. 6 November 2007.
DPA. “Truenan congresistas contra gobierno de EU por plan Mexico.” La Jornada. 14 November 2007.
“Experts: Mexico-US drug plan won’t work unless police corruption eliminated” The Associated Press. 24 October 2007.
Gerard, Leo W, International President of the United Steelworkers. Letter to U.S. government officials on behalf of the United Steelworkers. 13 November 2007.
Haugaard, Lisa, executive director of the Latin America Working Group. Personal interview. 12 November, 2007.
Henríquez, Elio. “La matanza, para acabar con bases de apoyo del EZLN, afirma el ex párroco de Chenalhó.” La Jornada. 7 November 2007.
“Joint Statement on the Merida Initiative: A New Paradigm for Security Cooperation.” U.S. Department of State. 22 October 2007.
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Leech, Garry. “Colombia’s Elections Highlight Democratic Shortcomings.” Colombia Journal. 5 November 2007.
Leech, Garry. Killing Peace: Colombia’s Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention. Information Network of the Americas, New York. 2002.
“Letter to President of Mexico lays out the case of persecution of Los Mineros Leader.” United Steelworkers. 19 March 2007.
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“Mexico: Oaxaca – Clamor for Justice.” Amnesty International report. 31 July 2007.
In June 2006 widespread protests demanding the resignation of the State Governor erupted in Oaxaca State. This report focuses on some of the serious human rights violations reported during the crisis, such as excessive use of force (including lethal force), arbitrary and incommunicado detention, ill-treatment and torture, threats, harassment of human rights defenders and journalists, and violations in due process and the right to fair trial. The report concludes with recommendations to the Mexican government, Oaxaca state government and the federal judiciary regarding investigation into the events in Oaxaca in accordance with international human rights standards.
Meyer, Maureen and Roger Atwood. “Reforming the Ranks: Drug-Related Violence and the Need for Police Reform in Mexico.” WOLA publication. 29 June 2007.
Mondragón, Héctor. “Plan Colombia: Throwing Gasoline on a Fire.” Znet. 2000, translated by Jens Nielson and Justin Podur in August 2001.
“No $ To Mexico Until Accountability on Human Rights!” Friends of Brad Will press release. 25 October 2007.
“NO to Plan Mexico.” Global Exchange public statement. 30 October 2007.
“Preliminary Report of the International Observation Mission on Extrajudicial Executions and Impunity in Colombia.” LAWG Publcation. October 2007.
Ross, John. “From the Folks Who Brought You Plan Colombia: The Annexation of Mexico.” Counterpunch. 18 June 2007.
Ross, John. “Full Spectrum Mercenaries: Blackwater Goes To Mexico.” Counterpunch. 9 November 2007.
“Steelworkers Demand that Vicente Fox’s Government Restore Democratically Elected Mexican Mineworker Union Leader Napoleon Gomez to Office.” United Steelworkers. 17 March 2006.
Stokes, Doug. “Colombia Primer: Q & A on the conflict and US Role.” ZNet. 16 April 2002.
Testimony from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Hearing on Plan Mexico. 14 November 2007.
“U.S. Aid Should Include Human Rights Conditions.” Human Rights Watch public statement. 24 October 2007.
“U.S. Assistance Has Helped Mexican Counternarcotics Efforts, but the Flow of Illicit Drugs into the United States Remains High.” Testimony Before the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives. 25 October 2007.
“U.S. groups, alarmed by increase in extrajudicial executions in Colombia, urge stricter enforcement of U.S. human rights conditions.” LAWG Publication. 18 October 2007.
“USW Opposes $500 Million ‘Plan Mexico.’” United Steelworkers press release. 13 November 2007.
“Washington, DC Advocacy Trip a Success for Friends of Brad Will!” Friends of Brad Will. 8 November 2007.
“WOLA Expresses Doubts on Mexico, Central America.” WOLA public statement. 22 October 2007.