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Presidents Calderon and Obama: Frank Words and Actions Needed to Stem Violence in Mexico

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Today, Mexico's President Calderón will sit down with President Obama in the Oval Office. At the top of the agenda is action to address the devastating organized crime-related violence plaguing Mexico. President Calderón has made no secret of his frustration with the United States' failure to take steps to halt the flow of firearms and bulk cash that contribute to the bloodshed that has cost 35,000 lives in Mexico. He's right.

To tackle the flow of guns and money, President Obama and our Congress need to exert some political will. In December, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) requested an emergency tool to crack down on gun-runners who supply firearms to organized crime in Mexico. Under this proposed rule, 8,500 gun dealers in the four states bordering Mexico would be required to alert authorities when they sell two or more semiautomatic rifles -- such as AK-47s -- with detachable magazines to the same person within five days. Yet the House just voted to block the use of federal funds to implement this tool. In light of recent revelations that the firearms used to attack two ICE agents in San Luis Potosí were purchased by a weapons trafficking ring in the Dallas area, this vote is particularly disconcerting.

Members of Congress complain mightily about the slow delivery of U.S. assistance to Mexico and demand quick action from the White House, yet they fail to garner the political courage necessary to pass even this common-sense measure.

Still, there's more that President Calderón can do, too, and we hope that President Obama is as refreshingly frank on this topic as Mexico's leader is expected to be. Reports of human rights abuses committed by security forces have increased dramatically since President Calderón initiated his hard-line militarized strategy against drug cartel-related violence with the deployment of 50,000 troops around the country. Mexico's own National Human Rights Commission has received upwards of 4,000 complaints of human rights violations committed by soldiers since President Calderón took office. These abuses have undermined the effectiveness of Mexico's public security efforts by weakening the trust between the Mexican people and the government that is essential to gather information needed to take on organized crime. When security forces commit grave rights violations and are not held accountable, they lose that trust, and leave civilians vulnerable. What's more, the strategy of bringing the army into policing roles for which they are ill-suited leads to abuses and corruption.

To ensure that security forces are held accountable, President Calderón must make meaningful reforms to Mexico's military justice code. Late last year, mounting pressure from rights groups in Mexico and a ticking clock on orders by the Inter-American Court spurred Calderón to unveil a long-anticipated proposal to reform Mexico's military justice code. But while reform is desperately needed to end the historic impunity for Mexican soldiers that have committed abuses, Mexican and international human rights groups, and some members of the U.S. Congress have made it clear that President Calderón's proposal doesn't do nearly enough.

President Calderón's proposal would shift only three of the many human rights crimes committed by soldiers against civilians--forced disappearance, rape, and torture--to be tried in civilian courts. Soldiers who commit any other human rights abuses, like murder or arbitrary detention, could continue to get a free pass in military courts, which virtually never punish such abusers.

Last spring, a convoy of soldiers shot at the car of a family driving to Easter celebrations, killing 9-year-old Martín and 5-year-old Bryan Almanza Salazar. According to eyewitness accounts, the soldiers fired unprovoked into the family's vehicle. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission investigation found that soldiers had dramatically altered the scene of the crime, planting cars and weapons to bolster their fabricated story that they were shooting in response to gunfire from drug traffickers instead of at a family with children. If President Calderón's military justice code reform proposal were approved, similar cases in which soldiers open fire on innocent civilians or alter crime scenes would still languish in military courts, thwarting justice for murders like those of Martín and Bryan.

Curbing organized crime-related violence involves complex, thorny issues that will not be resolved overnight. On the Mexico side, this includes strengthening the justice system, removing the army from police responsibilities and ensuring police forces are effective and accountable. For the United States, it means honestly tackling drug treatment and prevention, and halting the flow of guns and cash. The solutions will require exercising real political will. Starting with today's meeting at the White House, now is the time for President Obama and President Calderón to make the difficult decisions needed to achieve meaningful change.

The Latin America Working Group's Jennifer Johnson was lead author on this blog.