Mexico will lose a portion of its U.S. security funding after the State Department concluded that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration hasn’t made enough progress in confronting human rights violations.
In a rare instance of the Obama administration's public dissatisfaction with Mexico's human rights record, the State Department has recommended that Congress withhold 15 percent of this year's security funding under the security package known as the Merida Initiative. The State Department made its decision public just days before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is scheduled to hold a slate of hearings on Mexican human rights issues.
“This is going to be a tough week for Mexico on human rights,” said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official who now edits the website El Daily Post. “The operational impact is not going to be very big. But in terms of the international image of the country, it’s going to have an impact.”
Human rights groups have long criticized Mexican security forces' widespread use of torture and extrajudicial killings, as well as the legal system's failure to punish human rights abusers. Some 100,000 people have died in drug war-related violence since former Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched an assault on the country's cartels in 2006.
But the criticism is particularly intense this year because of the way Mexican authorities have handled the investigation into the disappearance of 43 students on Sept. 26, 2014 in the southern city of Iguala. The episode, reportedly carried out by Mexican police forces colluding with a drug cartel, catalyzed a national protest movement and drew international attention.
Journalists and activists say the government’s investigation into the disappearance of the students, who were from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College, has been marred by baseless statements and the torture of several key witnesses. In at least one case, the Mexican attorney general’s office acknowledged that one of the people who supposedly confessed to abducting and killing the students was tortured and his testimony was still certified, according to documents made public under transparency laws.
On Monday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) praised the State Department’s decision, which The Washington Post first reported on Sunday. The senator authored the amendments known as the “Leahy Laws,” which allow Congress to restrict security funds to foreign governments that commit gross human rights violations.
“The United States and Mexico have a common interest in justice for victims of crimes, including holding accountable Mexico’s military and police for violations of human rights,” Leahy said in an emailed statement. “Our law is clear, and the State Department has done the right thing, but ultimately it is Mexico’s responsibility to act not only concerning the 43 missing students, but also on the many other cases in which its own forces are implicated.”
Despite Mexico’s current human rights crisis, U.S. officials rarely criticize their Mexican counterparts. Mexico is a key ally, and the two countries work closely on national security issues -- particularly border enforcement and fighting drug cartels. Since 2007, Congress has appropriated $2.3 billion in security assistance for Mexico under the Merida Initiative to confront organized crime and drug trafficking.
Fifteen percent of that funding depends on a periodic review of the Mexican government’s progress toward improving its human rights record. To disburse the funds, the State Department must issue a report to Congress detailing the Mexican government's human rights efforts.
Mexico had made progress in its efforts to rein in organized crime, a spokesman for the State Department said. But the agency was "unable to confirm that Mexico fully met all of the criteria in the FY 2014 appropriation legislation, and thus did not submit the report."
The money has been held up in the past, either because the State Department or members of Congress expressed concerns -- but declining to issue a report on Mexico’s human rights progress, and thus blocking the funding, is unusual.
“The U.S. hasn’t made this a point of public diplomacy,” said Christopher Sabatini, the director of the think tank Global Americans. “This signals that they’ve had concerns all along and they’re taking them to a new level.”
Mexican government agencies did not immediately answer phone calls or an email seeking comment. Human rights criteria for Merida Initiative funding is "imposed by the U.S. Congress" and "is not an obligation Mexico has to meet," an unnamed spokesperson for the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs told The Washington Post.
While human rights groups have applauded the State Department’s decision, some say it may not go far enough.
“It’s an unprecedented move,” said Marselha Margerin, Amnesty International USA’s advocacy director for the Americas. “And it’s an important first step ... However, survivors of torture and victims of disappearance suffer with this slow diplomatic machine every day.”
The Mexican government’s mishandling of the 43 students' disappearance made the country's longstanding human rights problems impossible to ignore, said Arturo Viscarra, advocacy director with the School of the Americas Watch, which has campaigned to cut off U.S. security assistance to Mexico.
“It’s become impossible for [the U.S.] not to take some kind of action,” Vizcarra said. “It’s important to note that it’s not just about Ayotzinapa. One way or the other, there has to be continued pressure on the systematic human rights violations in Mexico.”
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