Sunday, August 22, 2010

From the Americas View blog

The elephant in the room

Aug 22nd 2010, 17:59 by T.W. | MEXICO CITY

TO HELP Mexico battle the drug traffickers who smuggle cannabis, cocaine and other delights to American consumers, the United States sends its southern neighbour support in the form of equipment and training. Under the Mérida Initiative, signed into law in 2008, America's Congress has so far approved some $1.3 billion of anti-drugs aid for Mexico (though, as of March, only 9% of the funds had actually been spent).

Under Mérida’s rules, 15% of the money is to be withheld unless Mexico meets four human-rights requirements, related to improving police accountability; talking to civil society; investigating alleged abuses by the police and army; and enforcing the ban on torture. Congress decides whether the requirements are being met each year based on a report from the State Department.

It’s report time. The State Department is expected to publish its findings within the next week or so, and Mexico can expect a bumpy ride. An indication of the department’s thinking came in a preliminary report at the end of July, which contained criticisms that will be hard to reconcile with the four requirements.

Most damaging is criticism of the investigation of alleged military abuses. The third requirement states that Mexico must ensure that “civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities are investigating and prosecuting…members of the federal police and military forces who have been credibly alleged to have committed violations of human rights” (our emphasis). Yet the July report found otherwise: although “information on military prosecutions is difficult to obtain,” it noted that the “limited information on military prosecutions and complaints filed suggests that actual prosecutions are rare.”

There was more: even though “legal scholars agree in most instances that [the attorney general’s office] has the authority to receive and investigate violations against civilians regardless of whether they have been committed by military officials,” in practice “the military systematically claims jurisdiction over these cases…and civilian courts readily transfer them.” In other words, the army is still investigating complaints against itself.

Congress is unlikely to hold back funds, whatever the report says. Liberals and conservatives alike want to stop the flow of drugs to the United States, and taking away Mérida money—which now goes towards strengthening the Mexican legal system, among other things—would hardly help. Last year’s State Department report was not entirely flattering, but the cash flowed anyway.

But it is becoming more embarrassing to rubber-stamp the funds, as human-rights complaints multiply. Following an amendment, this year’s State Department report must not only provide evidence on Mexico’s progress, but reach a firm conclusion on whether the requirements are being met. “Based on the State Department’s own findings, there is no way they should conclude Mexico is meeting the requirements, and the funds should be withheld,” says Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch, a pressure group. At the same time, recommending the withdrawal of help is more or less unimaginable. Expect great feats of diplomatic draftsmanship when the report comes out in the next few days.

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