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POLICY ANALYSIS: U.S. Military Aid to Mexico

May 12th, 2009

On August 5, 2008 a group of 120 residents of Santiago Lachivia, a Zapotec town in Oaxaca, Mexico, was preparing land for a community garden when 20 soldiers, firing automatic weapons in the air burst on the scene and yelled “Stop what you are doing! We are the Mexican Army!” The community, panicked from the sudden appearance of armed uniformed men and the sound of bullets, ran for cover.  The soldiers fired into the running crowd and killed Cecilio Vasquez Miguel and Venancio Olivera Avila.  When neither arms nor drugs turned up in the search, the anti-narcotics military unit moved on, leaving a stunned and traumatized community. 

This is the war on drugs in Mexico--a “war” that abuses the civilian population, dramatically increases violence, and arguably has very little effect on the flow of illegal drugs to the largest market in the world, the U.S. 

The residents of Santiago Lachivia, living in the second poorest state in Mexico, have previously relied on out-migration for survival. The international financial crisis, resulting in the reduction of remittances and fewer options to migrate, threatens to push an already very poor community into complete economic desperation.  The image of soldiers firing on people in desperate poverty is emblematic of Mexico’s current plight.  The Mexican people need an economic solution, but instead they suffer the consequences of a military solution with U.S. support.

The Wrong Approach
Since 2006 Mexican President Felipe Calderon has engineered an offensive to take on the increasingly powerful drug cartels with direct military and police force. During this time violence related to the illicit drug trade has dramatically increased – close to 7,000 killings in Mexico since January 2008, tower over the 3,000 killings during the entire Fox administration (2000-2006). Though much of the drug trafficking and related violence has been in the north, approximately 40,000 soldiers have been deployed throughout Mexico, even in the southern state of Oaxaca, more known for mass nonviolent protest  than for drug trafficking.

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Military abuses against the civilian population have also skyrocketed. Jumping from 182 complaints registered in 2006, Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights in 2008 received 1,230 complaints against the military which include accusations of torture, arbitrary detention, illegal house searches, and assassinations.  Few have been prosecuted for their alleged crimes, including those who killed Cecilio and Venancio in Santiago Lachivia.

Nevertheless the U.S. has consistently praised, endorsed, and last year began to finance Calderon’s efforts to combat organized crime. Last year $400 million dollars were approved for the Merida Initiative - a $1.4 billion military, police and technical aid package from the U.S. to Mexico which represents a ten-fold increase in “security cooperation” between the two countries. Recent reports from the Pentagon and the CIA identifying Mexico as at risk of becoming a “failed state” and as a serious external threat to U.S. national security have only added fuel to the fire, justifying the approval of $300 million more Merida Initiative funds for 2009, almost without question.

An Economic Problem
Despite the media’s attention to drug related violence, there are deeper reasons for U.S. policy makers’ concerns about Mexico. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon testified in March that further military aid to Mexico was extremely urgent because of the “current financial and economic crisis. With public sector budgets at risk, remittances declining, and job loss throughout the region, the attraction that organized crime and cartels present is obvious.” Shannon’s testimony alludes to the real issue: Mexico’s economy, ravaged now for 25 years of free market and free trade policies, is at risk of imploding under the weight of the international financial crisis.

As anyone in Santiago Lachivia, Oaxaca can testify, the economic crisis in Mexico began years ago and has been exacerbated by NAFTA. Before NAFTA small farmers had access to subsidies and credit and could sell their products to a guaranteed market. Now these farmers are in blunt competition with powerful multinational corporations that dominate Mexico’s markets. Unable to compete, small farmers are forced to leave their farms.  According to state government statistics,150,000 Oaxacans migrate per year to  northern Mexico or to the U.S. In many cases cash crops have been replaced by remittances, which for many small communities have become a life-line. In 2008 remittances dropped for the first time in years. Decreased remittances, slashed social spending and a suffering job market leave a desperate population with few options. Such desperation breeds a level of insecurity that goes much deeper and is more complicated than the drug war. 

On her recent trip to Mexico Secretary of State Hillary Clinton correctly named two causes of Mexico’s drug-related violence: the “insatiable demand for drugs” in the U.S. and the illegal flow of guns to Mexico (an estimated 90% of cartel arms are manufactured in the U.S.). But then, the only concrete measure she could offer was the Merida Initiative – a military response that continues the failed supply side military strategy of combating drugs, but allocates no money to U.S.-side drug treatment programs.

Will military aid to Mexico end the drug war?  After $6.2 billion in mostly military assistance from the U.S. to Colombia and eight years of military training, more drugs are flowing out of Colombia than before. Violence against civilians by the military in that war-torn country is on the rise as well.  These statistics reflect the basic logic of supply and demand: as long as drugs are being consumed in the U.S., the drug trade will not be curbed.     

The Long-Term Solution
The long term solution, however, may be found in one of President Obama’s campaign promises: a renegotiation of NAFTA.

“Right now we are in a historic moment,” Alfredo Montoya from the Mexican Center for Strategic International Studies said while advocating for a renegotiation of NAFTA, “Mexico is completely subordinate to the United States - in every single aspect – economically, socially, culturally, in terms of labor, energy, military matters, and now this economic crisis. The Mexican President has been reduced to the role of a Sheriff for the U.S. in its drug war, from a drug problem that originated in and is constantly reproduced in the U.S..”

The historic challenge in Mexico is also an historic opportunity for U.S. citizens to push for a change of policy with our southern neighbor, in terms of drug and economic policy. A healthy economic situation in Mexico and a reduced demand for drugs in the U.S.  would drastically weaken the appeal of drug cartels and organized crime.  Military aid packages like the Merida Initiative would not be urgent. They probably would not be needed at all.

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