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Plan Mexico: Calderón's Endless War

Kristin Bricker
Date Published: 
October 01, 2008

Military convoys patrol the streets. Soldiers kick down doors to carry out warrantless house searches, terrorizing families in the name of "security." At military checkpoints, nervous, trigger-happy soldiers massacre families. Soldiers rape young girls with impunity. US-based private contractors teach police sadistic variations on waterboarding.

This is not occupied Iraq. This is Mexico. The "war" on organized crime is Mexico's "war on terror." President Felipe Calderón kicked this endless war into high gear when he deployed 25,000 federal soldiers into drug-cartel dominated states just days after he took office, thanks to widespread electoral fraud. He claims this exponential increase in the militarization of Mexican society is necessary to reclaim territory occupied and dominated by drug cartels. However, civil society organizations on both sides of the border see it as his attempt to bolster his weak presidency with a strong military alliance against an internal enemy - historically a popular strategy among dictators.

During his presidential campaign, Calderón said he would rule Mexico with a "firm hand." That firm hand has predictably turned into an iron fist. There are currently 40,000 federal soldiers deployed in 11 states. Since Calderón declared open war on organized crime a year and a half ago,

  • Over 4,152 people have died in drug-related deaths;
  • 87 unresolved formal complaints of crimes against journalists have accumulated in the Mexican Attorney General's office;
  • Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has documented 634 cases of military abuse;
  • The country's homicide rate has increased by 47 percent;
  • And there have been at least 223 disappearances during Calderón's term so far - 23-30 political disappearances and approximately 200 cartel-related disappearances.

To make matters worse, on July 1, 2008, videos surfaced showing US-based private contractors torturing police in León, Guanajuato, as part of a course aimed at preparing the cops for the war on organized crime. Mexican press and human rights organizations say the police were tortured so that they learn to torture. The courses were initiated, paid for, and defended by local officials from Calderón's National Action Party (PAN).


A failure

By any reasonable standards, Calderón's war on organized crime is a failure. Jorge Luis Sierra, a specialist in defense economics and politics at Washington's National Defense University, told Contralínea magazine that drug seizure levels in Mexico have remained constant at about ten percent of the estimated drug flow that passes through Mexico to the United States.

Calderón, however, is obviously not a reasonable man. He and George W. Bush have declared the war on organized crime an initial success. The increased homicides and drug-related deaths, they argue, is a sign that the drug cartels are getting desperate.

The two presidents' staunch defense of a tactic that, on the surface, appears to be a miserable failure, is better understood within their larger political strategy. Sierra points out, "What we're observing is an excessive use of the armed forces where the government perceives that there is a social situation that it can't control. This is primarily occurring in Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca. And yes, the Mexican Army is also combating guerrillas."

Sierra's argument explains why activists in Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca - states known for their militant social movements - have felt a sharp increase in government-perpetrated violence and repression during Calderón's administration.

In Chiapas, the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center (FrayBa) documented thirteen military and police incursions into indigenous communities in resistance over a seven-week period in April-June 2008. While the official pretext for the majority of these operations was drugs and illegal weapons, the government did not find or confiscate any contraband in these communities.

On February 5, 2008, soldiers kidnapped and tortured Chiapas-based professor Felipe Hernández Yuena, then released him without charge. The soldiers were seeking information about the Revolutionary Popular Army (EPR) and the Emiliano Zapata Peasant Organization (OCEZ).

On June 10, 2008, in Guerrero, 40 agents from Mexico's Federal Investigation Agency (AFI), the Secretary of Communication and Transportation's office, and the Ministerial Investigative Police attempted to shut down and seize the equipment of an indigenous community radio station, Radio Ñomndaa, but the community stopped them.

On July 25 or 26, 2008, professor Miguel Ángel Gutiérrez Ávila of the Autonomous University of Guerrero was beaten to death on his way back from visiting the Suljaa' y Cozoyoapan community. He was there filming a documentary and investigating the government aggression against Radio Ñomndaa. Gutiérrez Ávila's brutal murder is only the latest incident in the ongoing repression of activists in Guerrero, where the Montaña Tlachinollan Human Rights Center has documented 201 criminal proceedings against activists in the past year alone, including arrest warrants, formal investigations, and prosecutions.

In Oaxaca, government officials and their families lead paramilitary gangs that attack protesters and prominent social activists. This past June, the mayor of Zaachila hired a paramilitary gang to attack the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) during a protest in that town. During the attack, witnesses claim that the mayor's father, Natalio Pérez Tomás, fired a gun into a crowd of APPO supporters.

Just months earlier, on April 30 in Santo Domingo Ixcatlán, Oaxaca, former mayor Freddy Eucario Morales and an appointed official named Artemio Jiménez Martînez led a death squad of about 40-50 people who murdered three men over a land dispute, burning one of them alive in his car.


Plan Mexico

Within this deadly context, George W. Bush proposed the Mérida Initiative, dubbed "Plan Mexico" due to its striking similarity to Plan Colombia. Plan Mexico is a US aid package that will provide equipment, training, and resources to the Mexican police, army, and government to support Calderón's doomed war on drugs and organized crime. While it was originally valued at $1.4 billion over a period of three years, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Barack Obama have both stated that Bush's proposal falls short and that much more money over many more years will be necessary to fulfill Plan Mexico's mandate.

The Democrat-controlled US Congress has already approved $400 million for fiscal year 2008 and is in the process of approving $400-470 million for 2009. Of the $400 million approved so far, $116.5 million falls under the US's Foreign Military Financing Program to "strengthen the cooperation between the US and Mexican militaries." Five million will be used to deploy Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents to Mexico. At least $73.5 million is earmarked to "improve the rule of law and strengthen civilian institutions," which includes funding for judicial reforms and the Mexican police.

Plan Mexico won't give Mexico any cash, making it yet another gift to the US military industrial complex:  all Plan Mexico money will go to defense contractors, the US military, and US government agencies to provide equipment, training, and personnel to Mexico.

Various proposals for Plan Mexico have included eight helicopters and two airplanes for the Mexican military, training and equipment for surveillance of immigrants, riot gear for Mexican police, spy equipment such as wiretapping devices, the deployment of private contractors to Mexico, and training in the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) - known as the School of the Americas for police. The US Congress and the Bush Administration have both expressed a strong desire to use Plan Mexico to militarize Mexico's side of the US-Mexico border in conjunction with the ongoing militarization of the US side.

While the House of Representatives passed an authorization bill detailing how Plan Mexico money should be spent, a similar bill has not been introduced in the Senate, and analysts say it's unlikely that will ever happen. The only Plan Mexico legislation that passed both houses of Congress "makes funds available" to Bush to spend however he deems appropriate within the categories of Foreign Military Financing and International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, meaning that the Democrat-controlled Congress has given Bush a free hand in determining Mexican military and policing priorities.

The authorization bill that passed the House actually went above and beyond the $1.4 billion Bush requested and authorized up to $1.6 billion. The details of the authorization bill, which was written and overwhelmingly supported by Democrats, were not significantly different from Bush's proposal to Congress. So it's not likely that a Democratic Plan Mexico would look any different from a Bush one.


Human rights

In addition to not caring how Bush spends Plan Mexico money, Congress doesn't seem to be bothered by rampant unpunished human rights violations perpetrated by the same military and police it is arming and training. In addition to the Army's crimes in the name of combating organized crime, Mexican police commit horrendous abuses with impunity. In May 2006, police murdered two people and raped 26 more during protests in San Salvador Atenco. Only 21 police were ever charged for their behavior in Atenco - not for torture or murder, but for the minor crimes of "lewd acts" and "abuse of authority" - and 15 have already been exonerated, while the other 6 still face charges.

The US- and Mexican federal governments are also completely unconcerned about the Oaxaca state government's cover-up in the case of Brad Will, a US journalist murdered by local government officials (including police and a mayor) while covering the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca. Despite photographic evidence that clearly identifies his murderers, the US government has shown no interest in carrying out a serious investigation of Will's murder or demanding that the Mexican government do so. Instead, it rewards this behavior with a billion-dollar aid package that it promises will only get bigger.

The entire debate surrounding Plan Mexico's impact on human rights was a show carefully orchestrated by politicians and international human rights organizations to distract public opinion from their true aims.

Rather than opposing Plan Mexico outright because it supports a policy of utilizing the Mexican military for police purposes - resulting in a significant increase in documented human rights abuses and deaths - human rights NGOs like Amnesty International and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) lobbied for the inclusion of "human rights safeguards." One such "safeguard" was establishing a board to review citizen complaints against the military and police.

However, the safeguards attached to the 2008 funding contain no significant enforcement mechanism. Moreover, it is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who has to certify whether the Mexican government is taking steps towards complying with the safeguards. And if by some remote chance Rice determines the Mexican government is not complying with the safeguards, Congress will withhold a mere 15 percent of Plan Mexico funding.

Despite the fact that the safeguards the NGOs supported were cut in half and essentially converted into voluntary guidelines, WOLA and friends declared victory while expressing their belated "concern" about Plan Mexico's "shortcomings." Fortunately for them, this will likely provide them with justification for increased foundation funding in order to "monitor" Plan Mexico - funding they might not have received if they had defeated Plan Mexico in its entirety.

Mexican legislators also took advantage of the manufactured Plan Mexico human rights debate for their own political gains. Rather than opposing Plan Mexico based on a variety of legitimate concerns, the Mexican government rejected the US Congress' first version of Plan Mexico because it contained human rights conditions. The two congresses renegotiated the Plan during the US-Mexico Interparliamentary Group meeting in Monterrey, softening the already meaningless conditions even further. Before the renegotiated version hit the floor of the US Congress, Calderón declared victory, announcing that the "unacceptable and unjust" human rights conditions had been stripped from Plan Mexico.

Mexican politicians' initial rejection of Plan Mexico because of its human rights conditions baffled some US activists. Mexican activists, however, were not surprised. FrayBa's Michael Chamberlain points out, "Those [politicians] who oppose [human rights conditions] have something to gain from it. We don't believe that they're very far from being involved in the same business. For us this is a business matter. This is their way of raising the price to improve the drug market." Chamberlain may be right - while violence has significantly increased as a result of Calderón's war on organized crime, so have drug prices.


Kristin Bricker is a Mexico-based correspondent for Narco News. She is also a member of the Rebel Imports collective, which sells Zapatista textiles, crafts, and coffee and Palestinian olive oil at Rebel Imports. All of her articles and translations can be found at My Word Is My Weapon.