Obama's Choice: Human Rights First or Plan Mexico

The Mexican government's increasing crackdown on social movements underscores the urgency for the Obama administration to move away from a failed drug war model. The military aid Washington is sending across the border is facilitating a militarization of Mexican society that will likely cause greater suppression of political dissent.

June 1, 2009

Activists in Mexico’s southern city of Oaxaca accuse local police of kidnapping and torturing union leader Marcelino Coache last March. Coache's abduction underscores the urgency for the Obama administration to move away from a failed drug war model. The military aid Washington is sending across the border is facilitating a militarization of Mexican society that will likely cause greater suppression of political dissent.

The new military assistance comes as part of the Mérida Initiative, a three-year plan signed into law in June 2008 by former President Bush. Critics charge that the newly enacted program follows a model similar to the widely discredited Plan Colombia, which has resulted in increased violence and human rights abuses, while doing little to stop the flow of illegal drugs.

The Mérida Initiative, also referred to as Plan Mexico, authorizes nearly $1.6 billion in security training and equipment to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean to combat drug trafficking and terrorism and support border security. Many rights activists and indigenous groups campaigned hard against the program fearing that it would increase human rights abuses in their respective countries. They argued government authorities would likely be tempted to use the security aid to crackdown on rights activists and social movements.

Oaxaca provides an emblematic case of security forces' abuses against peaceful social movements. The state of Oaxaca – and its eponymous capital city – was ground zero for the 2006 political protests against government corruption and the brutal repression that followed. It should serve as a stark warning for the Obama administration to ensure that any Mexican use of U.S. security aid will strictly comply with human rights standards. Unfortunately, Obama's first foreign appropriations budget proposes to delete language in the bill that conditions parts of Plan Mexico funding on basic human rights protections.

Oaxaca's uprising in the spring of 2006 began as a call for an increase in teachers’ salaries and improved educational infrastructure. But it quickly snowballed into a broad-based social movement demanding fundamental economic and political reforms, including the resignation of the state's corrupt governor. The new movement coalesced into the Popular Assembly of the People's of Oaxaca (APPO). The government responded brutally.

By December 2006, at least 20 people had been killed with many more disappeared and around 200 hundred individuals detained including those with no ties to the APPO. Members of civil society and the local clergy received death threats for seeking to defend the rights of those caught up in the violence. With most of the APPO leadership either in hiding or detained outside of the state, the protests came to an end and Oaxaca returned to a tense calm.

Marcelino Coache was one of the APPO leaders arrested in December 2006. He wallowed in prison for six months before being acquitted of the charges of sedition, arson, and resisting arrest. His experiences since his release are a strong reminder of the state government’s commitment to intimidate the Oaxacan people into silence.

Shortly after his release in mid-2007, a police officer hit Coache in the face and pinned him to the ground while warning him to stop being a rebel. He has also been stabbed in the abdomen while stepping out of a car and has received threats on his life. Finally, about three months ago, on March 4, Coache was kidnapped and tortured by men who had presented him with a badge and stated that he was under arrest. He was released early the following day after being repeatedly punched and burned with cigarettes.

When Coache publicly called for an investigation into his attack, he received more threats on his life for his troubles. Human rights lawyers and other advocates for his case have also received threats. The thick atmosphere of impunity in the state continues to abet brazen attacks like those committed against Coache and his supporters.

These efforts to suppress political dissent are part of a growing trend of increased governmental aggression towards activists and social movements occurring across Latin America. Accompanying this repression are huge increases in military spending authorized by the Bush administration to combat drug trafficking and "terrorism" in Latin America via programs like Plan Colombia and now the Merida Initiative.

The Obama administration has a chance to walk U.S. anti-drug policy back from this long favored militarization stance. But recent actions taken by the new administration are disappointing for those seeking a dramatic change in U.S. policy in the region. For example, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security succeeded in quietly adding a $350 million initiative to a supplemental budget request sent to Congress in April. The initiative would fund a contingency plan to send more National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border as an emergency measure to respond to drug-related violence.

The proposed plan has led to concerns over the Pentagon’s expanded role in U.S. counter-narcotics efforts with limited restrictions over the use of the new funding. And during his April 17 meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Obama focused primarily on military options for U.S. anti-drug policy in Mexico. Left out of the discussion were any assurances from Calderón that the military aid will not be used to suppress political dissent and that past human rights abuses – like those against Coache – will be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted.

During the presidential campaign, Obama stated that he supported a pragmatic foreign policy that engaged in soft power like diplomacy and economic development. Let’s hope he remembers those promises and moves away from the militarized drug war polices of the past. Obama should urge foreign leaders to respect human rights and promote the rule of law, while encouraging them to tackle the underlying roots of drug-trafficking, including poverty, corruption, and political exclusion.

Kristina Aiello is a NACLA Research Associate and a human rights advocate .

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