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POLICY ANALYSIS: New Phase of the Mérida Initiative Brings the Same Violence

May 25th, 2010

On March 13 in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, gunmen killed a U.S. Consulate employee and her husband while driving in their car, leaving their crying five-month-old baby alive in the backseat. Later that day a Mexican citizen connected to the consulate was also killed.

“The costs of this…war against drug trafficking have been very high,” says Miguel Ángel Vásquez de la Rosa of the Mexican community organization EDUCA, “not only in the loss of human life, but also in human rights violations against civilians.”   

And the violence isn’t just in the big city.  Last June, Mexican soldiers established a military checkpoint in Huamuxtitlan, a small town in Guerrero.  Soon after, they called a northbound passenger bus to a halt, searched it for drugs and weapons, and detained a passenger named Fausto Valera.  Suspecting that Valera was an insurgent, the soldiers demanded to know where he got his military style boots. When his answers failed to satisfy them, they placed him under arrest.

Moments after the coach pulled away the bus driver heard the sharp sound of rounds being fired, but couldn't imagine that the soldiers were targeting the bus.

But shouting from the back confirmed that the soldiers were indeed shooting at the bus.

"Stop, driver!"

"Go faster, driver!"

Although the soldiers later claimed they were firing into the air, several rounds hit the bus.  Nava Bonfilio Rubio, who was travelling north with the hope of migrating to the United States, was killed instantly.

The consulate killings along with stories like Bonfilio’s are the predictable but tragic outcome of the Mérida Initiative, Mexico’s U.S.-backed drug war strategy.  

The War on Drugs in Mexico

There have been approximately 22,700 drug-related killings since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, numbers comparable to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In particular, Ciudad Juárez has become Mexico’s Baghdad.  In early 2008, the first year of the Mérida Initiative, Calderón sent thousands of troops to Ciudad Juárez in attempt to beat back the city’s cartels.

However, Ciudad Juárez has become a tragic testimony to the failure of Mexico’s U.S.-backed drug war. The violence continues to spiral out of control. Homicides in the city have jumped from 300 in 2007 to 2,600 in 2009, explicitly correlating with the increased military presence. Now Ciudad Juárez is not only the murder capital of Mexico - there is no place in the world that has more homicides per capita.

In a recent interview with USA Today, Victor Renault, the head of U.S. Northern Command, explained that the lessons from fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being incorporated into the drug war in Mexico.

“We've learned and grown a great deal as we've conducted operations against networks of terrorists and insurgent fighters,” he told the paper. “Many of the skills that you use to go after a network like those apply ... to drug-trafficking organizations.”

Every year approximately 20 teams of Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans travel to Mexico to provide combat training.

The New Face of Mérida


On March 24 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met in Mexico to revise the Mérida Initiative, a $1.4 billion U.S. aid program that began in 2008. The initiative has focused on targeting the elusive and powerful drug cartels with military force, but has done little to stop the flow of drugs into the United States, the most voracious market for illicit drugs in the world.

President Obama has allotted $310 million for the Mérida Initiative in the 2011 budget, a 30% reduction in overall funding and direct military aid, specifically.  However, the new phase is still based on the same military-based drug war strategy that many fear will bring the same violent results.

The meeting unveiled what some are calling Mérida Initiative Two, based on four fundamental “pillars”:

•    disrupting organized criminal groups;
•    institutionalizing reform to sustain the rule of law and respect human rights;
•    the creation of a “21st-century border” between the U.S. and Mexico;
•    building stronger and resilient communities.

At the meeting Clinton argued that security “is paramount” but that the initiative “is also about institution building. It ‘s about reaching out to…communities and civil society, and working together to spur social and economic development.”

She also pledged to curb demand for drugs in the United States.

But any policy that prioritizes military aid as the solution to drug cultivation and trafficking will be unable to quiet the violence in places like Guerrero and Ciudad Juarez.  Many critics see Clinton’s remarks as a thinly veiled disguise for what is the continuation of a failed policy. 

Where Does It End?

Washington originally envisioned the initiative, which represented a 10-fold increase in “security cooperation” between the two countries, to last for three years and end in 2010. However, General Renault recently claimed that “this is an eight- to-ten-year problem.”

In the meantime, human rights abuses committed by the U.S.-backed military have risen 600%.  The people of Guerrero have suffered everything from rape,  and murder to the destruction of land and crops and arbitrary detentions.

Cases of military abuse are almost exclusively tried in military courts. The resulting impunity creates a climate where soldiers don't fear shooting directly at a bus of civilians, like the one in which Nava Bonfilio Rubio was traveling.

Bonfilio was simply seeking a solution to his economic despair.  After his murder, the government offered Bonfilio’s family financial compensation for their loss.   As his father sat in the office of Monitor Civil in Tlapa, his eyes watered.  His tone was scathing as he leaned forward and said, "We don't want money. We want justice."

But as long as the Mérida Initiative feeds the war on drugs, the violence in Mexico will continue.  Here in the United States, we have the responsibility to end that cycle.    

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