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Mexico: Drug related violence spirals near border
NewsNotes, May-June 2009

Recent violence in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, fueled by brutal battles for turf control between drug cartels, have made international headlines. Gang-related slayings more than doubled in 2008 from the previous year, to over 1,600, with eight police officers and numerous government officials killed. In the wake of the organized criminal activity, a wave of copy-cat extortion threats in December fomented a generalized sense of panic in the populace.

In response, the Mexican government has sent more than 10,000 soldiers and federal agents to patrol Juárez’s streets. Dressed in camouflage, often wearing masks, and carrying automatic weapons, they stage raids, detain suspects and search travelers at the airport and border crossings, assuming unprecedented law enforcement duties.

Maryknoll lay missioners who live in Juárez report the now-common sight of military convoys driving up and down the streets, six or seven soldiers standing in the back with machine guns pointed out. Recently four or five squads of soldiers posted themselves within the short distance of the missioners’ block, each squad using a high-technology sensing system to detect drugs. Other soldiers stand guard with machine guns. Unfortunately, these ongoing efforts are mostly for show and have brought an increase in claims of human rights abuses including detention and torture at the hands of these troops.

The economic costs have been high as well. In March, Mayor José Reyes Ferriz announced the suspension of all development projects due to the cost of housing the soldiers and the federal police assigned to Juárez. Although the federal government pays the soldiers’ salaries, the local government has been required to pay for their food and lodging. With 50 percent of youth in Juárez between 13 and 19 years old neither studying nor working, the cuts to social development are a travesty.

Sadly, most U.S. news coverage has focused on the grisly nature of the killings and has served as a platform for those who would like to militarize the border. Story after story highlights a threat of spillover violence. Some even raise the idea of a U.S. military presence inside Mexico. A document entitled “Joint Operating Environment 2008” by the Virginia-based U.S. Joint Forces Command raised concern for a potential failed state of Mexico. The study states, “Two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico. The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels.”

At the request of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, the U.S. has responded with the three-year Merida Initiative, or the “Regional Security Cooperation Initiative,” which was signed into law by President Bush in June 2008. As much as $116.5 million has been allocated for the Mexican Armed Forces—about 30 percent of the total, including the purchase of Bell helicopters for the Mexican army (at $13 million each, with training, maintenance, and special equipment), and CASA 235 maritime patrol planes (at $50 million each, with maintenance) for the Mexican navy. In the category of “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement” $48 million is designated to Mexico. To strengthen the “Rule of Law,” $112 million is allocated to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office and the criminal justice system. This money is earmarked for software and training in case-tracking and centralizing data. The U.S. government allots $37 million of the packet to itself for administrative costs.

It is important to recognize how this initiative alters the U.S.-Mexico relationship. In viewing economic and social development as a security issue, it results in the militarization of Mexican society. Despite the Merida Initiative’s stated objective of strengthening the Mexican court system, many cases of military abuses are being investigated and tried in the military jurisdiction. The unwillingness to expose military personnel to oversight by civilian courts undermines trust and accountability at a societal level. As the cases of human rights abuses mount, many people question the underlying strategy of the Merida Initiative which calls for a traditional battle approach rather than an improvement in civilian security agencies. Many question the use of the military to provide internal security. The most violent of the cartels’ henchmen are former soldiers, some trained by the U.S. military. A sign at the Human Rights Center Paso del Norte reads, “It is much easier to militarize the civil than to civilize the military.”

See information from the Latin America Working Group on its campaign, Promote justice for Mexico and the borderlands

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