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POLICY ANALYSIS: How the Merida Initiative Jeopardizes Human Rights

March 17th, 2009

The historic campaign and election of President Barack Obama spurred much talk of hope and change in the U.S.  Our southern neighbors in Mexico have watched the U.S. political landscape with both hope and apprehension, wondering whether President Obama will promote positive change for them.  Mexicans understand that -  for better or worse - their country’s economic health is closely linked to our own.  They are concerned about their country’s security as they face the devastating effects of the current economic crisis in addition to increasing narco violence.

The statistics are chilling: last year 6,000 Mexicans were murdered--some decapitated--in drug-related violence, more than double the year before.   Many Mexicans fear that powerful drug cartels are taking over their cities, towns and communities, with cartel representatives infiltrating the police and army.

U.S. government officials are concerned with this increasing violence, knowing that an unstable Mexico with a population of 100 million is a threat to the security of the U.S.  In fact last year alone there were 370 drug-related kidnappings in Phoenix, Arizona.   But it is not only drug-related violence that should concern policy makers in the U.S.  Rising poverty and unemployment rates in Mexico result in more Mexicans turning to drug trafficking and an increasing number crossing the border to look for work in the U.S. 

The U.S. Congress responded to these security concerns by passing the Merida Initiative in June 2008 with the support of then Senator Obama.  With the Initiative’s inherent focus on a military approach to public security many worry that the protection of human rights will be ignored.

The Merida Initiative is a 3- year aid package totaling $1.4 billion designed to combat organized crime and drug trafficking. The 2008 portion of the package, signed into law by President Bush last year, totals $400 million.  While it is unclear how all the approved funds are being allocated, at least $116.5 million were originally earmarked as foreign military funding. The Mexican military’s dubious human rights record raises serious concerns for human rights activists in Mexico and the U.S.

Thanks in large part to the pressure of Mexican human rights organizations, a small portion (15 percent) of the Merida Initiative funds can be distributed only after the Mexican government shows improvement in the following areas: transparency, accountability of police forces, civilian and judicial prosecution of human rights abuses by the military, and the establishment of a relationship with civil society to monitor the Initiative. The U.S. Congress has not yet verified improvement in human rights.  The U.S. Congressional Report that accompanied the Merida Initiative expressed concern over a variety of recent human rights abuses in Mexico, and specifically urged for a transparent and accurate investigation of the murder of U.S. journalist Brad Will in October 2006 during the social unrest in Oaxaca.  While at the close of 2008, Juan Manuel Martinez Moreno was arrested for this murder, the head of the National Human Rights Commission, a federal institution that conducted an in-depth investigation and presented a full report to the Mexican Attorney General, stated that - against their advice - the Mexican government had arrested an innocent man.

The Mexican government’s blatant disregard of the findings of its own human rights institution demonstrates a failure to emphasize human rights as a core concept of public security.  Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa, from the Oaxacan NGO, EDUCA or Services for an Alternative Education, explained that the Initiative’s approach to creating public security actually increases the potential for human rights violations on multiple levels. For him it is clear that with increased militarization, those who suffer will not be the most powerful criminals, but instead the most vulnerable members of society. “The results of this policy will not be to bring regional security, like it was sold to us, but…will most affect civil society, the streams of human migration, and the social movements that demand justice in our country,” Vasquez de la Rosa says.  His concern is justified by the reports of abuses committed by Mexican security forces in Oaxaca and Atenco in 2006, and a number of more recent human rights abuses - including the murder of two campesinos by federal military during an “anti-drug” operation in a small community in Oaxaca in August 2007, and the killing of three migrants in Chiapas by state police this year.

Vasquez de la Rosa says that instead of addressing security exclusively through military aid, the Initiative needs to address security on a human level.  “How do you create conditions that guarantee people’s security so that they do not have to migrate, so that they can find work in [their home] country?”  Making the link between poverty and the need to migrate or join the endless drug cartel employee base, would truly address the level of insecurity felt by most Mexicans.

Integrating a human rights approach into the Merida Initiative would mean addressing the root causes of violence and poverty, and evaluating how public policies contribute. For Vasquez de la Rosa these include the renegotiation of NAFTA, U.S. domestic immigration reform and transparency in negotiations and promotion of the Initiative.  Since two-thirds of Mexico’s foreign investment originates from the U.S., Vasquez de la Rosa points out that “the issue of security is not only to help Mexico, but to guarantee that all of the investments that U.S. corporations have [in Mexico] which are many, can be realized in a peaceful context”. 

While it is likely that portions of the total package will be allocated this year and next, the Obama administration has the opportunity to reconsider the effectiveness of the Initiative.  In addition, President Obama should consider policy alternatives that address violence and poverty. With the support of the Latin American Working Group, members of Congress will present a petition to President Obama to reinstate the ban on imported assault weapons, many of which end up in the hands of drug traffickers.  Also recently, more than 1,200 U.S. organizations representing different sectors presented a petition calling for drastic immigration policy reform, in which they also urged the renegotiation of NAFTA.  With a clear campaign promise from Obama to address the NAFTA question, there is some hope that U.S. policy might shift toward an approach that prioritizes human rights.  However, until policy makers understand the link between the negative effects of NAFTA and the increase in poverty, migration, and violence, the Merida Initiative will continue being the wrong policy to bring true security to people of our countries.

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