Jun 30, 2008

Plan Mexico: Uphill battle will continue against failed model

On June 26, after months of intense manoeuvering in Washington, the U.S. Senate passed the final version of the “Merida Initiative” and the President subsequently signed it into law.

The date will be remembered as a turning point in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, not just because it increases U.S. aid to Mexico ten-fold but because it militarizes the bilateral relationship just when sensitive issues had a chance to be worked out through political and diplomatic channels. Given the security paradigm of Plan Mexico—to the exclusion of other aspects of the bilateral relationship--, the State Department will take a backseat following presentation of a report that attests to Mexico’s efforts to obey its own laws, and the Pentagon will take the reins.

The human rights conditions that were first added by Congress and then mostly withdrawn when the Mexican government rejected them, sent up a smokescreen that prevented real analysis and debate on what is popularly known as Plan Mexico. That ultimately futile discussion also sidelined the voices of organizations that urged Congress to oppose the measure: the ten-million strong AFL-CIO and its 1.7 million-person Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, non-governmental organizations including CIP Americas Policy Program and Global Exchange, religious organizations including Witness for Peace, Tikkun and the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, and grassroots activist organizations including the Latin American Solidarity Coalition, Alliance for Democracy, CISPES and Friends of Brad Will.

Much has been made of the $73.5 million appropriated for institutional reform of the justice and penal systems. This compares to $112 million allocated for 2008 under the original Bush proposal. But as I stated in the Primer on Plan Mexico, even this section raises serious questions of efficacy and appropriateness. Mexico doesn’t need U.S. training to increase “rule of law” so much as it needs political will and pressure from Mexican civil society. If Mexican grassroots leaders who have traditionally exercised this pressure feel threatened by repercussions from empowered security forces, instead of progress we will see regression.

Mexican legislators and jurists have a point in noting that the U.S. government has few credentials to establish it as the sole arbitrator of reform in Mexico. Laws are different and the United States faces serious problems with its own justice and penal systems, especially in the area of drug enforcement where racial discrimination and police extortion and brutality continue to be common. If the Plan had included an extension of sharing “best practices” between police forces based on actual experiences, this section might make sense. As it is, it imposes U.S. equipment and notions with no proven track record.

Part of the strategy for approving Plan Mexico was to portray it as merely a bilateral counter-narcotics plan. This was never the case. The Plan betrays its much more ambitious aims. Note the words of John Negroponte to the OAS General Assembly: “With full funding, the Merida Initiative will provide substantial support over several years to train and equip Mexican and Central American law enforcement. We are committed to this initiative because no country in the hemisphere can be safe from organized crime, gangs, and narco-terrorism unless we are all safe.”

The use of the phrase “narco-terrorism” is not surprising but it constitutes a bad omen for Mexico. When drug trafficking is considered synonymous with terrorism, it opens the door to suspension of civil liberties, pulls the country into the Bush counterterrorism strategy, and obscures the real nature and roots of the problem. Negroponte’s remarks also reflect the removal of the security locus from the national to the regional realm, where the United States calls the shots. In this context, fears of violation of national sovereignty are not exaggerated.

While accusing the opposition of being insensitive to drug-related violence, proponents of Plan Mexico paved the way for an aid package that will likely increase violence and bring it closer to home as the drug war extends to opposition targets like it did under Plan Colombia. It will also fail, just as other applications of the drug war model have failed.

I would like to be wrong on this, but the signs are already there—human rights violations have increased precipitously since President Calderon launched the militarization of Mexican society in response to the violence of the drug cartels. The Merida Initiative applauds this strategy and explicitly aims to reinforce and broaden security measures. It adds U.S. espionage equipment and firepower while providing no significant funding or role for civil society measures or protection of civil liberties. Violence fought with violence has led to nearly double the drug-related deaths this year alone and multiple attacks on grassroots leaders, unarmed civilians, Zapatista communities and women by security forces.

The media focused all of its attention on the counter-narcotics “shared responsibility” aspect of the plan. Most reporters apparently never bothered to read the entire plan and eagerly accepted the spoon-fed connection between the violence on the border they had been covering and the ostensibly benevolent response of the U.S. government embodied in Plan Mexico.

Since its passage, they have reacted with mixed messages and contradictions. The New York Times titled its May 28 article “U.S. Includes Rights Language in Mexico Anti-Drug Aid” as if the final military/police aid package were a major advance for human rights. The Washington Post noted just the opposite, sub-titling its article “U.S. Lawmakers responded to Counterparts’ Objections” and stating that “The U.S. Senate approved the aid--known as the Merida Initiative--late Thursday after stripping conditions that Mexican officials said would have infringed on their sovereignty, particularly on the issue of human rights.” The Mexican press nearly unanimously agreed that Mexico had “won” the conditions battle, with headlines like “Mexico Beats Back U.S. Congress” (El Universal, the largest daily). The El Universal article went on to quote Mexico’s ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhan stating, “There is no type of explicit restriction or limitation on the transference of resources and military equipment.” (We’ll talk more about the controversial conditions in this blog tomorrow).

The task we have before is to monitor impact and stop the plan in the next appropriations round. Not condition it, not tweak it, but end it. There are many constructive ways in which an aid package to Mexico could be designed that would increase security and long-term development and human security. Many people were working on drafting legislation that responds to these needs from a civilian point of view until the process was so tragically detoured by Plan Mexico.

It will be an uphill battle to defeat later stages of Plan Mexico. The plan has no clear benchmarks for evaluation. In the case of Plan Colombia, even though studies demonstrate its failure in decreasing the production and flow of illegal drugs it continues to be funded. In both Mexico and Colombia, support has to do with creating a strong U.S. military presence in these countries—a misguided strategy for increasing U.S. influence in the context of Latin America’s widespread rejection of the Bush national security strategy and free trade agreements. Also, defense companies and information technology companies that benefit handsomely from the allocations will lobby heavily.

Moreover, at the recent meeting of Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP)—supposedly a “development and integration project”--President Calderon praised the Merida Initiative and announced he will work to “build mechanisms that broaden the aid to Central American and Caribbean nations…” Backed up by Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, Calderon’s inclusion of Plan Mexico and the security agenda as the first point in his statement on the renewed PPP made it clear that the rightwing governments in the hemisphere have every intention of “securitizing” the hemispheric agenda, applying military models to public security problems with the generous help of U.S. taxpayer dollars. This path follows the evolution of NAFTA into a “White House-led” regional security plan under the Security and Prosperity Partnership. In its wake, the root problems facing Mexico—increased drug use, poverty, the fall of real wages, loss of rural livelihoods and emigration, corruption and erosion of the rule of law—have been pushed aside.

For more information:
Resource Page on Plan Mexico: http://americas.irc-online.org/am/5118


  1. Thanks for writing this. I live in Canada. Stephen Harper is proceeding to militarize our foreign policy as well. I live near a border crossing in Ontario. Some kind of border "upgrading" is going on right now and there are trucks and signs for electronic firms on the Canadian side. Quite distressing. Do you feel that the election in the US will have an effect on this situation?

  2. So why do human rights groups not oppose this outright? Just can't comprehend it...