Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called the fight a priority, and both Democrats and Republicans have proposed beefed-up security measures on the U.S. side of the border. Most recently, Obama announced plans to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border.
Congress has appropriated about $1.3 billion in anti-crime and drug funding for Mexico through the Merida Initiative, a multi-year program launched in 2007 that also targets criminal organizations in Central America and the Caribbean.
But the militarization of the fight against drug cartels on the Mexican side of the border, and U.S. support of the effort, has raised red flags in some quarters over escalating violence as well as human rights violations and corruption in the Mexican military and justice system.
At a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on drug enforcement and the rule of law May 18, Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, criticized the human rights record of the Mexican military and the lack of accountability for human rights violators. Calderon has relied heavily on the military in his effort to quell the drug cartels.
“Too often local leaders respond to public demands to get tough on crime by condoning abusive practices that not only undermine the rule of law by violating basic rights but also fail to curb crime,” Vivanco said.
In the three years since Calderon launched a military crackdown on drug cartels, about 22,700 people have been killed in drug-related violence.
Beyond the violence, Vivanco’s testimony pointed to alleged abuses by the military, including rape and killings, as well as at least 100 people who claimed to have been arbitrarily detained and then tortured to obtain false confessions since 2009.
Vivanco said that last year Congress should not have given Mexico the 15% of its funding under the Merida legislation that is conditional on fulfillment of human rights requirements. A State Department report to Congress highlighted some issues, including lack of transparency in the military justice system, but found that Mexico had met the four human rights conditions.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairmen of the subcommittee, was also the sole senator in attendance at the hearing, as his colleagues were occupied with debating Wall Street reform. Durbin called the fight against drug cartels a priority but said the United States has a responsibility to see that its aid does not fuel human rights abuses.
“The military in Mexico in many instances operates with virtual impunity, resulting in limited success in stemming drug violence and human rights abuses that rival and surpass often the corruption of the law enforcement system they were sent to replace,” he said.
Officials from the State Department and Department of Justice testified that Mexico has made significant reforms. The Calderon administration has taken steps to remove suspect law enforcement officials, customs officials and judges and to reform and modernize its judicial system, with U.S. assistance.
David T. Johnson, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, wrote in his testimony that institutional reforms in Mexico are a work in progress.
“The strategy that the U.S. Government is pursuing with the Government of Mexico is an effective, long-term program, not a temporary ‘quick fix’,” he wrote.
As the drug war continues in Mexico, it’s a debate that will likely be played out many times.