The Obama administration is withholding $26 million in aid to Mexico, recommending that the government give more power to its human rights commission and crack down on abusive soldiers.
In a report released Friday, the State Department said the Mexican government, which is mired in a violent battle with powerful drug cartels, has met human rights requirements to receive $36 million in previously withheld funds that are part of a $1.4 billion Merida Initiative.
But the U.S. was going to withhold 15 percent of newly authorized funds until the Mexican government meets several requirements: enhancing authority of the National Human Rights Commission, limiting authority of military courts in cases involving abuse of civilians, and improving communication with human rights organizations in Mexico.
"We believe there has been progress, very significant progress, on human rights in Mexico, but as a policy decision – not a legal decision – we are going to wait on a portion of new funding because we think additional progress can be made," said Roberta Jacobson, a deputy assistant secretary for Mexico and Canada at the State Department.
The Mexican government said it is working to improve human rights and urged Washington to speed up implementation of the Merida Initiative.
"The State Department report establishes that the government of Mexico is carrying out actions to strengthen the observance of human rights," the Foreign Relations Department said in a statement. "Cooperation with the United States against transnational organized crime through the framework of the Merida Initiative is based on shared responsibility, mutual trust and respect for the jurisdiction of each country, not on unilateral plans for evaluating and conditions unacceptable to the government of Mexico."
Maureen Meyer, a Mexico expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes human rights and democracy in the region, said withholding funds sends the message "that you cannot fight crime with crime and you cannot fight drugs while tolerating abuses by your security forces."
The Merida Initiative was a 2008 commitment from the U.S. to help Mexico combat drug cartels. Under the rules, the State Department must certify that Mexico is banning torture, prosecuting law enforcement agents and soldiers who abuse civil rights before allocating all of the funds.
A State Department report sent to the Senate this week commends the Mexican government for cracking down on torture, improving transparency and listening to human rights groups' allegations that about military abuses.
But the report, which has not been publicly released, said the government needs to be more public and aggressive when investigating and prosecuting allegations of abuse by security forces.
Mexico has faced repeated criticism for alleged military abuses. This year, human rights officials accused soldiers of shooting two children and altering the crime scene to try to blame the deaths on drug cartel gunmen.
The army denies the allegations, and says the boys, ages 5 and 9, were killed in April when their family's vehicle was caught in the crossfire of a shootout between soldiers and gunmen in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
The scandal has renewed demands from human rights activists that civilian authorities, not the army, investigate human rights cases involving Mexico's military.
Because Merida spending lags more than a year behind allocations, Friday's decision will have minimal financial impact.
But Andrew Selee, director of the Washington D.C.-based Mexico Institute, said it does underscore concerns, both in Mexico and the U.S., about the lack of progress in fairly prosecuting public officials accused of committing human rights abuses.
"This has raised particular concern in the U.S. Congress, where there remains considerable support for Mexico's efforts against organized crime, but also some worries about the lack of progress in ensuring transparent investigations of alleged human rights abuses," said Selee.
Associated Press writer Alexandra Olson in Mexico City and Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.