Mexico’s war on civil rights

Denise Dresser, a contributing writer to Opinion, is a columnist for the newspaper Reforma and a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

When President Obama goes to Guadalajara, Mexico, this weekend for the North American Leaders Summit, he will surely praise Mexican President Felipe Calderon for the courage he has displayed fighting the war on drugs. The applause is well deserved. Calderon has turned the crackdown on drug traffickers into the centerpiece of his administration and has pursued organized crime with undeniable zeal. But before Obama becomes too effusive and pats Calderon on the back for a job well done, it’s important that the U.S. president remember the cost and the consequences of his counterpart’s crusade.

In Mexico today, human rights violations committed by the military and the police in this effort are on the rise, yet punishment for the perpetrators remains elusive. So although Obama should recognize Calderon’s efforts, he should also insist that drug lawlessness cannot be combated by breaking the law and that the army must be subjected to the kind of scrutiny it has shunned so far.

Today, more than 45,000 soldiers police the roads of Mexico’s main cities and drug-producing areas as part of a strategy designed to confront drug traffickers and contain the violence they wreak. Many ring leaders have been captured, many drug shipments have been confiscated and many smugglers have been imprisoned.

But violence remains unabated, and the unintended consequences of Calderon’s efforts have become distressingly clear: The number of cases of human rights violations brought before the Mexican Human Rights Commission has risen by 600% over the last two years.


The war on drugs is turning into a war on the civilian population that can’t simply be dismissed as collateral damage. Mexico’s military is capturing “capos,” but it’s also raping, extracting confessions through torture and detaining people arbitrarily. Crime is begetting more crime.

In light of this, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was right this week to call “premature” the U.S. State Department’s draft report claiming that Mexico has fulfilled its human rights obligations under the so-called Merida Initiative. He is right to remind officials on both sides of the border that in return for Merida’s $1.4 billion in counter-narcotics aid from the United States, the Calderon government made promises it has not kept. Key among these are greater transparency and accountability, and the imperative that military officers be tried by civilian courts.

Time and again, Calderon has resisted these demands, adopting an increasingly contradictory stance. Calderon stands with his hand outstretched, asking the U.S. for more support and involvement in the war on drugs. But he also obstinately defends military exceptionalism regarding the justice system, decries U.S. intervention in Mexico’s internal affairs and rallies Mexico’s political class under the banner of a politically expedient anti-Americanism.

In other words, Calderon wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants the helicopters and the military assistance and the money that the Merida Initiative will disburse without having to abide by the human rights commitments it contains.


So unless the Obama administration insists that those requirements be met, the Merida Initiative will simply be financing impunity. It will heighten the climate of fear that deeper binational collaboration sought to eradicate. It will allow the Mexican military and police forces to do what they do now: arbitrarily detain people, kill innocent bystanders at army checkpoints, threaten and abuse alleged suspects, ignore due process while carrying out arrests and get away with it because Calderon believes they can and should. In his view, the ends justify the means. As he defiantly stated in a recent interview: “The worst human rights abuses are those committed by the drug traffickers.”

Unfortunately, Calderon’s stance will undermine the cause he so valiantly espouses. Military abuses that go unsanctioned are weakening public support for the war on drugs and making it difficult to construct the rule of law in a country where it functions intermittently.

Until Mexico makes real progress where human rights are concerned, the U.S. Congress should withhold future funding for the Merida Initiative. Unless Calderon agrees to place military officials who violate human rights under the jurisdiction of civilian courts, U.S. support will perpetuate the status quo.

Therefore, when Obama meets with Calderon, before putting his Mexican counterpart on a pedestal, he should remind him of the violations reported by human rights sources, such as the women raped by the military in Chihuahua and the family killed at a military checkpoint in 2007 in Sinaloa, and about the 30 people arrested without a warrant in a church in Michoacan last weekend. All of them victims of crimes gone unpunished.


So many Mexicans hope that when Obama arrives in Guadalajara for the summit, he treads firmly and carries a big stick.