A cabinet-level U.S. delegation to Mexico that included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several military, security, and intelligence officials has led to unprecedented debate and criticism of the Merida Initiative in Mexico. In March the high-level officials were in Mexico to discuss phase two of the Merida Initiative, a U.S. aid package that provides financial and logistical support to the Mexican military and police. The first phase of the Merida Initiative is set to expire in 2011.
Clinton and her Mexican counterpart, Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, held a joint press conference and released a vaguely worded statement in which both countries renewed their pledge to arrest drug traffickers and combat illegal arms flows, corruption, and money laundering. During the press conference, Clinton ruled out decriminalization as a possible alternative to the drug war, which has claimed almost 23,000 lives in Mexico since the end of 2006 when President Felipe Calderón began deploying the military to combat drug cartels.
U.S. media has reported that the Obama administration is changing the Merida Initiative's priorities. The Clinton-Espinosa statement mentions “building strong and resilient communities” as a priority for the Merida Initiative’s next phase. Moreover, Obama's 2011 budget request for Mexico's drug war says that "support will shift from providing aircraft, equipment, and other high-cost items to institutional development, training, and technical assistance."
However, the Americas Program's Laura Carlsen questions the Obama administration's Merida Initiative rhetoric: “The meeting was attended by high-level security and defense officials, without the presence of a single USAID official or of drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who presumably would be charged with carrying out U.S. commitments to reduce demand for illegal drugs. There is no mention of serious, funded efforts to reduce corruption and trafficking in the United States, and statements on reducing demand and increasing aid to anti-poverty programs in Mexico remains vague and unsubstantiated.”
In Mexico, the reaction to Obama's version of the Merida Initiative was generally critical, in large part because Janet Napolitano gave a controversial interview to NPR in which she said, “There are discussions about the proper role for our military . . . at the request of and with the consultation and cooperation [of] the Mexicans.”
"Are you saying that Calderón has expressed an openness toward a uniformed, U.S. military presence within Mexico?" asked NPR's Robert Siegel.
Napolitano responded, “Yes. Let me be very, very clear [because] this is a very delicate subject.... Our military in certain limited ways has been working with the Mexican military in their efforts against the drug cartels. But, it is at the request of the Mexican government, in consultation with the Mexican government.”
The outrage Napolitano’s statement provoked throughout the country demonstrates the Mexican near-consensus that the U.S. military is not welcome in Mexico under any circumstances. What the Mexican press isn’t reporting, however, is that the U.S. military has been working in Mexico for years.
The U.S. military has had a small but constant presence in Mexico since at least 1999, the earliest year for which data on the number of active-duty military personnel stationed in Mexico is available. The U.S. Department of Defense has sent personnel to train the Mexican military every year since at least 2001, the first year the Pentagon began to report foreign military training by location. The United States has trained Mexican soldiers in security, intelligence gathering and analysis, counter-terrorism, English, special operations, interdiction planning, civilian-military relations, tactical law enforcement, anti-smuggling, and aviation—all on Mexican soil.
Merida Initiative-funded U.S. military trainers are already operating in Mexico. USA Today reports:"About 20 teams [of U.S. military trainers], ranging in size from one to five people, travel to Mexico each year for short visits to assist in training . . . Most are veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq. Northern Command started sending advisory teams there about two years ago."
Obama's 2011 budget proposal includes $8 million for foreign military financing in order to "further cooperation between the United States and Mexican militaries." This cooperation will come in the form of more military-to-military training.
Senior U.S. military officials say that the Merida Initiative will focus on preparing Mexico's military for a war much like the ones Washington is waging in Afghanistan and Iraq. "They need intelligence support, capabilities and tactics that have evolved for us in our fight against networks in the terrorist world," says Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. “There are an awful lot of similarities.” Mullen traveled with Clinton to participate in the Merida Initiative’s High-Level Consultative Group meetings in Mexico.
General Gene Renuart, commander of Northern Command, told USA Today, “We've learned and grown a great deal as we've conducted operations against networks of terrorists and insurgent fighters . . . Many of the skills that you use to go after a network like those apply . . . to drug-trafficking organizations.” The newspaper continues to write that the U.S. military is helping its Mexican counterparts acquire the “skills needed to help transform Mexico's army from a conventional force designed to counter external threats to a military waging an irregular war where the enemy lives among civilians.”
The problem, as Iraqis and Afghans have discovered, is that in a war where “the enemy lives among civilians,” every civilian is a potential enemy. This point was illustrated on April 3 when Mexican soldiers opened fire on a truck full of beach-bound children at a military checkpoint. Two young boys died. The government immediately issued a press release claiming that two “offenders” died in the shooting, and that it seized an impressive arsenal of weapons and armored vehicles during the firefight. The government later revised its story to say that the children were caught in the “crossfire” between soldiers and drug traffickers. The parents, speaking to press from their hospital room, say that only soldiers were present at the scene and that they aimed their weapons directly at the family.
The Easter shooting appears to have been a horrible error. However, social movements have also been caught in the drug war’s crossfire, and that collateral damage appears to be intentional. The Mexican government is taking advantage of increased resources for its military and federal police to crack down on dissidents. The military, for example, has repeatedly used the pretext of “looking for marijuana” to raid Zapatista strongholds in Chiapas, even though it has never found any drugs in rebel territory.
The Zapatistas aren’t the only ones feeling the drug war repression. In 2009, federal and state police kidnapped three peasant leaders from the Chiapas-based Emiliano Zapata Peasant Organization (OCEZ). The government told the press that the OCEZ was a front for drug traffickers.The smear campaign justified increased militarization of the region, where Zapatista supporters also live. After two months in prison and hours of torture, the OCEZ leaders were released without being charged. Nonetheless, the region remains militarized.
Last October, in perhaps the most frightening display of drug war militarization, Federal Police fired 44,000 unionized electrical workers at gunpoint without prior warning. The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), which is still fighting for its members’ jobs, is one of the oldest and most militant unions in the nation. The Federal Police who prevented the workers from returning to their jobs receive military training, ostensibly to provide them with the skills they need to fight the war on drugs. They are among the main beneficiaries of the Merida Initiative.
Kristin Bricker is a NACLA Research Associate. She reports from Mexico about social movements, militarization, and the war on drugs on her blog, My Word Is My Weapon.