Millions of dollars in aid to fight Mexican drug trafficking could be delayed as a result of a disagreement between a key lawmaker and the State Department regarding the status of Mexico's human rights prosecutions.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, released a statement Wednesday suggesting that it was "premature" to declare that Mexico had met the requirements needed to earn conditional U.S. funding to bolster its military-led drug war.
Leahy in 2007 supported a $1.4-billion counternarcotics effort known as the Merida Initiative, under which 15% of funding each year must be withheld until the secretary of State submits a report to Congress affirming that the Mexican government is meeting four key human rights requirements, including one that Mexico's military and police officers who violate human rights are prosecuted in accordance with Mexican and international law.
"The Congress provides 85% of the aid without conditions, but there needs to be evidence that the military is accountable to the rule of law," Leahy said in a statement. "Those requirements have not been met, so it's premature to send the report to Congress."
The three-year Merida program seeks to curb drug flow and confront criminal organizations through partnerships with the Mexican, Central American, Haitian and Dominican Republic governments -- though the majority of funding goes to Mexico, which shares a 2,000-mile border with the U.S.
Aides to Leahy recently met with State Department officials for a briefing on the report's status and said they were not convinced that the law's four requirements had been met.
But Leahy's and others' objections may have limited effect. Because the law simply states that the report must be submitted to Congress, the State Department could still spend the conditional funds even if the final report raised continued objections from lawmakers.
On Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Sara Mangiaracina said the report was still in its draft stages but that it would be submitted to Congress shortly.
Since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon took office and put the military in charge of the drug war, about 45,000 troops have been deployed in Mexico and along the border, and thousands of people have been killed in drug violence.
In 2008, Congress approved $400 million for Mexico and $65 million for the other countries aided by the initiative. And in 2009, Congress approved millions more for Mexico, though the funds haven't yet been appropriated.
The forthcoming report would release about $56 million of the 2008 funding, the amount subject to withholding under the law's provisions.
According to the State Department, this conditional funding would go toward "programs and hardware," including transport helicopters, non-intrusive inspection equipment such as scanners, equipment intended to facilitate judicial record-keeping, and canine training.
But some see human rights as the most powerful antidote to the drug war.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, who regularly travels to Mexico as director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, said it's "definitely" premature for the State Department to send the report to Congress.
"This is the first report, this is the most important one, and it's critical that everybody here understand that the human rights conditions are essential to ensure the success of the whole Merida Initiative," Vivanco said.
Vivanco said he is most concerned about the "dysfunctional" military justice system's inadequate investigation of killings, rapes and other human rights abuses.
"If the State Department rushes into producing a report without justification, it will have been a loss of opportunity," Vivanco said.