All Eyes on Conference Committee to Resolve $404 Million Difference Between Senate and House Versions of New Plan Mexico Funding
The Senate Appropriations Committee has released the proposed 2009 Supplemental for Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Pandemic Flu, which includes more funding for the Merida Initiative, also known as Plan Mexico, in 2009. The proposed new funding would be in addition to the $410 million in fiscal year 2009 funding that Congress approved for the Merida Initiative in February as part of the Omnibus spending bill. The additional funding comes at the request of President Barack Obama, who included three Black Hawk helicopters at a total value of $66 million in his 2009 supplemental funding request (PDF file).
There are several significant differences between the version of new funding for Mexico's drug war passed in the House on Thursday and the version that the Senate will consider this week. The House version appropriates $470 million in additional funding for Mexico's drug war, which is $404 million above the request President Obama submitted to Congress. At least 80% of the House funds are for aircraft that can be armed, such as Black Hawk helicopters and CASA 235 planes. The House version also includes "non-intrusive inspection equipment" such as wiretapping equipment. The version the Senate will consider only includes $66 million for the three Black Hawks President Obama requested.
Another significant difference between the House and Senate versions of the bill are the human rights conditions that up until now have been attached to less than 15% of Plan Mexico funds. The House version explicitly strikes the human rights conditions in order to expedite delivery of the aircraft. It also slashes reporting requirements. In the Senate version, the human rights conditions laid out in the February 2009 Omnibus bill apply to the newly proposed funds.
Regarding the human rights conditions, the Senate writes in the report the Appropriations Committee submitted with the proposed bill, "The Committee notes that the Government of Mexico has not yet met the requirements for obligation of 15 percent of the assistance previously appropriated for Mexico under the Merida Initiative for fiscal years 2008 and 2009, relating to transparency, accountability and human rights." Non-compliance with human rights conditions notwithstanding, the Senate rubber-stamped Obama's request for three Black Hawks, which are quite deadly when armed.
The lack of human rights conditions in the House version of the bill is not significant in terms of their impact on on Merida Initiative funding or human rights in Mexico. On the contrary, the human rights conditions were designed to be easily ignored. The conditions state that the Mexican government investigate and try soldiers accused of human rights abuses in civilian courts (currently the military is in charge of investigating and punishing itself for human rights abuses), set up a commission to review citizen complaints against police, enforce the prohibition of the use of testimony obtained through torture, and hold consultations with civil society regarding the implementation of the Merida Initiative. These four conditions are apply to less than 15% of overall Merida Initiative funds, and some of them, such as the prohibition on torture, are already laws on the books in Mexico--they're just not enforced.
When Congress first considered the Merida Initiative, the Mexican government fiercely opposed the human rights conditions. The original conditions were cut in half, and a deal was struck between the US and Mexican governments. Because the conditions only apply to less than 15% of the overall funding, and because Congress set a precedent with the February Omnibus bill to further fund Plan Mexico despite non-compliance with the previous year's human rights conditions, funding gaps left by the missing 15% are easily filled with the next year's funding.
Therefore, the House's removal of the human rights conditions in its bill isn't likely to lead to more human rights abuses as opposed to previous funding tranches that included conditions. However, the House version of the bill makes it very clear that the House has no regard for human rights in Mexico and never has. By taking away the flimsy conditions on a bill that is at least 80% military hardware, the House is rewarding the Mexican government for its flagrant disregard for human rights. For example, the Mexican defense department has made clear its refusal to allow soldiers accused of human rights abuses to be investigated and tried in civilian courts. Despite an outcry from Mexican NGOs, the US government has not commented on the matter.
The Senate proposal does mandate that the Secretary of State deliver a report to the Appropriations Committees "detailing actions taken by the Government of Mexico since June 30, 2008, to investigate and prosecute violations of internationally recognized human rights by members of the Mexican Federal police and military forces, and to support a thorough, independent, and credible investigation of the murder of American citizen Bradley Roland Will." Previous reports on the Will murder investigation mandated under the Merida Initiative have done little or nothing to resolve the case. On the contrary, the Mexican government's human rights ombudsman, the head of the National Human Rights Commission, stated that Plan Mexico was the driving force behind the government's issuing of arrest warrants for witnesses in the Will murder case who claim that government officials murdered the US Indymedia journalist.
However, the Senate's request for information on "actions taken by the Government of Mexico since June 30, 2008, [the day the first tranche of Plan Mexico funding was signed into law] to investigate and prosecute violations of internationally recognized human rights by members of the Mexican Federal police and military forces" could result in an interesting report. According to a letter to the US Congress from Mexican human rights organizations, despite over 2,000 human rights complaints filed against the military during the Calderon administration thus far, not a single soldier has been convicted of a human rights crime.
Stopping Plan Mexico
The Senate Appropriations Committee's report that accompanies its version of the Plan Mexico supplemental funding states, "The Committee remains concerned that the Merida Initiative represents a one-dimensional approach to drug-trafficking and gang violence in Mexico and Central America, and that a more comprehensive strategy is needed that also addresses the underlying causes." The Committee does not elaborate on what "a more comprehensive strategy" would look like, and the bill it is sending to the whole Senate does not reflect these concerns--the bill would pay for Black Hawk helicopters and nothing else.
However, this statement reflects an evolving understanding of the drug war, at the very least within the Senate Appropriations Committee. In future fiscal years, the Senate will have an opportunity to act on its concern and craft legislation that could better respond to drug trafficking-related violence. The very nature of a supplemental funding bill limits Congress' ability to craft informed legislation. David Glaudemans from the Henry L. Stimson Center writes, "Because supplemental appropriations are requested and funded outside the normal budget process, Congress is less able to conduct rigorous oversight and evaluation of the request. The normal budget process is a continuum of hearings, negotiations, and deliberative debate in Congress. Yet supplementals are often whisked through Committee without the extensive ‘scrubbing’ process that is Congress’ prerogative."
That was the case with the House version of the supplemental. When the House Appropriations Committee released its proposal for the supplemental funding bill, the US-based organization Witness for Peace issued an Action Alert calling for US voters to e-mail their Representatives in Congress, urging them to introduce an amendment to extract Merida Initiative funds from the supplemental. Representatives were never given the chance to do so; the House Rules Committee sent the proposed supplemental to the full House with a one-hour time limit on debate and a ban on amendments. Because the text of the proposed supplemental wasn't made available to the public until it had already left the Appropriations Committee, US voters were never given an opportunity to comment on or effectively influence the legislation.
Due to the nature of supplementals and the vast difference between the Senate and House versions, it will be the Conference Committee that decides the fate of 2009's supplemental Plan Mexico funds. Unlike other congressional committees, the Conference Committee is an ad-hoc committee. The Conference Committee for the 2009 Supplemental is likely to include the Chair and Ranking Member of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee from both the Senate and the House. They are: Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH).
Witness for Peace has issued an Action Alert urging concerned voters to e-mail the Conference Committee through their website, requesting that the Conference Committee extract Merida Initiative funding from the 2009 supplemental.
May 31 update: The Senate passed the bill as expected a week ago. It's in conference committee.