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Human Rights Are Not a U.S. Priority in Mexico's Drug War

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Citing human rights concerns, the United States State Department has recommended that a small portion of the Merida Initiative, its drug war aid package to Mexico, be temporarily withheld.

In a report sent to Congress last week, the State Department recommended that $26 million of the Merida Initiative be withheld until Mexico improves human rights. However, in the same report, State recommends that Congress release $36 million in funds that were previously withheld due to human rights concerns.

Fifteen percent of each tranche of Merida Initiative funds are conditioned on the Mexican government eliminating the use of testimony obtained through torture in court, improving transparency in police forces, trying soldiers accused of crimes against civilians in civilian courts, and consulting with civil society regarding how the Merida Initiative is implemented. The $26 million that State wishes to withhold constitute 15% of the latest tranche, for fiscal year 2010. The $36 million that will be released had been withheld from previous tranches.

The AP notes that, "Because Merida spending lags more than a year behind allocations, Friday's decision will have minimal financial impact." Thus far human rights conditions haven't held up Merida Initiative money for much longer than standard bureaucratic red tape has held up the other 85% of unconditioned funds.

Human rights organizations were not particularly impressed by State's decision to withhold the $26 million, which constitutes just 1.7% of the $1.5 billion that Mexico will receive through the Merida Initiative. Human Rights Watch's Nik Steinberg told the Washington Post, "Nothing should have been released, because Mexico is simply not meeting the human rights requirements. There are widespread and systematic abuses by the military, for which they have total impunity."

The Mexican government also seems unimpressed by the State Department's decision to withhold a portion of the funds. It refuses to comply with the condition that soldiers accused of crimes against civilians be prosecuted in civilian courts. Under the current system, the military investigates and tries all soldiers accused of crimes committed in the line of duty, regardless of whether the crime is a violation of military regulations or civilian law.

The military rarely chooses to prosecute its personnel. A 2009 State Department report found that of the over 2,000 human rights complaints filed against the Mexican military since December 2006, only two resulted in civilian prosecution. The Mexican military reports that since 1996, it has convicted only eight soldiers of human rights crimes.

A State Department official, on condition of anonymity, told Mexico's Reforma that the US government had decided to temporarily withhold the $26 million in Merida Initiative funds "until Mexico has demonstrated progress on issues such as civilian oversight of accusations against security forces for human rights violations, as well as legislation that would strengthen the National Human Rights Commission," the Mexican government's office that investigates human rights abuses. Specifically, said a source on Capitol Hill, the United States was holding the funds as it waited to see if the Mexican government would uphold an Inter-American Human Rights Court (CIDH) ruling that would require civilian investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses committed by the military.

The CIDH ruling in question regards the 1974 disappearance of Rosendo Radilla in the state of Guerrero. Witnesses saw soldiers detain Radilla at a military checkpoint and transport him to a military base. From there, he disappeared and his body was never recovered. After winning their case in the CIDH, Radilla's family petitioned Mexico's Supreme Court to carry out the CIDH's sentence, which ordered the Mexican government to pay damages to Radilla's family, publish a book about his disappearance, officially acknowledge its role in the disappearance, continue excavations until it found Radilla's body, and change Mexican law so that soldiers accused of human rights abuses would be tried in civilian courts.

Clearly unfazed by the State Department's decision to delay a small portion of the Merida Initiative funds, on September 7 the Supreme Court voted 8-3 against even hearing the Radilla case.

Despite the Obama administration's rhetoric regarding respect for human rights in Mexico's drug war, its actions have provided little incentive for Mexico to improve its record. In releasing conditioned funds that had been previously withheld, it sends the message that its real priority is providing Mexico with the equipment and training it needs to continue to fight its increasingly violent drug war. To make matters worse, immediately after the State Department sent its Merida Initiative human rights report to Congress, White House officials told the Los Angeles Times that the Obama administration is "considering a substantial spending increase on the Mexican drug war" because it is "a top administration priority."

Human rights appear to be a secondary concern.