The Obama administration wants to restore financial aid to Mexico that it cut last year to protest the country's human rights record, even though abuses have continued, officials said Thursday.
Last year, the State Department cut about $5 million in aid to Mexico, part of a broader package allocated under the so-called Merida Initiative that was generally aimed at fighting a drug war.
The money was withheld because U.S. officials said Mexico had not lived up to its commitments to investigate egregious atrocities, including the kidnapping and apparent killing of 43 college students by local authorities in September 2014.
The Obama administration's action sent a strong political message of rebuke to Mexico, a close ally of Washington.
But the State Department has notified Congress that it plans to restore the aid, even though, by most accounts, the abuses are as bad or worse.
The disappearance and suspected killing of the students, for example, remains unsolved and international investigators have accused the Mexican government of deliberately obstructing justice in the case.
"If you ask yourself, what has changed since last year, not very much," said Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental research and advocacy group. Some cases, she added, suggest abuses are "even more concerning."
Congress can still block restoration of the aid and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) might try to do so.
Leahy drafted the provision in U.S. law that requires portions of aid to be suspended when there are unimpeded human rights abuses, and it is named for him.
"We cannot ignore the failure of the Mexican government to take consistent and effective steps to end the impunity that has characterized a broken justice system," he said in a statement.
Mexico "has allowed its own police and military officers to avoid punishment for committing and covering up heinous crimes," he added.
In an assessment sent to Congress last month, the State Department acknowledged "serious, ongoing challenges" in Mexico, including rampant killings and kidnappings, torture, impunity and violence against journalists and human rights defenders.
Those abuses raised alarm under then-President Felipe Calderon, who launched the drug war, and in many cases have worsened under his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, who assumed office in December 2012.
Despite the problems, the State Department assessment concluded that Mexico's government "has taken important steps over the last 10 years to enhance the protection of human rights."
Asked what went into the assessment, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday that Mexico has "launched an ambitious effort to modernize and reform its law enforcement and justice system."
That, he said, is key to improving human rights. He did not say what, if anything, had changed since last year.
Overall, the Merida Initiative has provided more than $2 billion in aid to Mexico since 2008. The money has been used to acquire military equipment, train police forces and overhaul the judiciary, which remains a work in progress.
So do efforts to curtail government abuses.
Mexican police last year killed 22 people, many unarmed, in the state of Michoacan, and then planted guns to justify the massacre, human rights groups said.
In 2014, the army killed 22 gunmen, most of whom had already surrendered or were wounded when they were shot dead, near a town called Tlatlaya, according to human rights investigators.
An international panel of investigators under the auspices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights said it was thwarted by the government when it tried earlier this year to investigate the disappearance of the 43 students.
The government has sought to blame the disappearance on local officials and prevent investigation of authorities higher up the chain of command. Only one victim's remains have been recovered and identified.
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