by Kristin Bricker
A cabinet-level US delegation to Mexico that included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several military, security, and intelligence officials has lead to unprecedented debate and criticism of the Merida Initiative in Mexican media. The US officials were in Mexico to discuss phase two of the Merida Initiative, a US military and police aid package that is set to expire in 2011.
Clinton and her Mexican counterpart, Exterior Minister Patricia Espinosa, held a joint press conference where they 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, a reporter asked if US and Mexican officials discussed 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 Calderon deployed the military to combat drug cartels. Clinton's response: "No."
In its coverage of the meeting, US press claimed 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 Initative's next phase. Moreover, President 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 largely critical, namely because Janet Napolitano gave a controversial interview to NPR in which she stated that "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 (Mexican President Felipe) Calderon 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. And it is only one part of our overall efforts with Mexico, which are primarily civilian in nature."
That statement set off a scandal in the Mexican press. Proceso, one of Mexico's most respected political magazines, reported that Napolitano "revealed that President Felipe Calderon requested that the Obama administration send soldiers to carry out anti-drug operations together with the Mexican military...Calderon administration officials have denied time and time again that the doors to Mexican territory have been opened to US troops."
That's not true--Napolitano never said that Calderon requested that US soldiers participate in Mexican anti-drug operations, and Mexican authorities never said that the US military wouldn't set foot on Mexican soil. However, the article and the outrage it provoked throughout the country demonstrates Mexicans' near-consensus that the US military is not welcome in Mexico under any circumstances. It also demonstrates the Mexican media's collective amnesia regarding the US military’s presence in Mexico.
The United States military has had a relatively small but constant presence in Mexico since at least 1999, the earliest year for which data on the number of active-duty US military personnel stationed in Mexico is available. In 1999, there were 33 US soldiers stationed in Mexico; there are now approximately 26. The US Department of Defense has sent military personnel to Mexico to train the Mexican military every year since at least 2001, the first year the Pentagon began to break down foreign military training by location. The US 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.
The presence of US military trainers in Mexico isn't secret: the Defense Department publishes the information online. In 2007, Mexico's daily newspaper La Jornada stumbled upon documents that outlined US military training in Mexican territory in 2006. La Jornada's article barely touched the tip of the iceberg, but it contained enough information that the Mexican media should be aware that US military trainers are already in Mexico and have been for quite some time.
Merida Initiative-funded US military trainers are already operating in Mexico. USA Today reports:
About 20 teams, ranging in size from one to five people, travel to Mexico each year for short visits to assist in training, Renuart said. Most are veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq. Northern Command started sending advisory teams there about two years ago.
Mexican officers have also traveled to the U.S. to observe operations or receive training.Both US and Mexican media dismiss Mexicans' strong negative reactions to Napolitano's comments as "neuralgic" responses that stem from an event that some might consider ancient history: the 1846-1848 US-Mexican war, during which the US military invaded Mexico. However, much more recent history suggests that Mexicans' concerns about close US-Mexican military relations are entirely rational.
It seems as though whenever the Mexican government is on its worst behavior, the US military is there to lend a helping hand. Two of the most infamous examples are the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre in which paramilitaries beat 25 students to death and injured dozens more, and the bloody crackdown that followed the Zapatista Army of National Liberation's 1994 uprising.
According to Mexican military documents and photographs a US military plane loaded with explosives entered a Mexican military hangar in 1969. US military officials then used those explosives to train members of the Mexican Presidential Guard as part of an "urban terrorism" course. According to Mexico's Secretary of Defense at the time, Gen. Marcelino García Barragán, the soldiers who received the training then placed bombs in a federal government building and three newspaper offices. The operation, according to Mexican investigator Carlos Montemayor, was part of a dirty war campaign of terror that culminated in the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre.
More recently, US military training for Mexican soldiers skyrocketed following the 1994 Zapatista uprising. According to the Center for Public Integrity,
From 1984 to 1992, a total of 512 Mexican troops were trained by the United States, an average of 57 students per year. Since 1996, the United States has trained more than 4,000 Mexican military personnel, an average exceeding 800 a year, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman said. Some of the courses took place in Mexico, in the states of Guerrero, Chiapas, Veracruz and Mexico City. The increased cooperation made Mexico the top recipient in Latin America of International Military Education and Training program funds in 1996 through 1999 and second after Colombia in 2000.... And Mexico ranked number one among nations in the number of soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in 1997 and 1998.This training occurred despite the fact that a Mexican military unit lead by a School of the Americas graduate massacred summarily executed five tied-up people in a Chiapas market during the 1994 uprising. The training continued even when the Pentagon had reliable intelligence that the Mexican military was organizing paramilitary groups to attack Zapatista support bases, even after the Zapatistas declared a ceasefire.
Close Military-to Military Relations
While on the surface it may seem as though Obama's new Merida Initiative places less emphasis on the military's role in the drug war, the absence of new aircraft does not mean that the Mexican military's role in the drug war will diminish. Rather, the new Merida Initiative aims to prepare the Mexican military for a long, drawn-out war.
Obama's 2011 budget proposal includes $8 million in 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 US military officials say that the Merida Initiative will focus on preparing Mexico's military for a war much like the ones the US 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," according to 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 High-Level Merida Initiative Consultation Group meetings in Mexico.
Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, commander of Northern Command, concurs with his colleague. "We've learned and grown a great deal as we've conducted operations against networks of terrorists and insurgent fighters," Renuart told USA Today. "Many of the skills that you use to go after a network like those apply ... to drug-trafficking organizations."
According to USA Today, the US military is helping its Mexican counterpart 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,” anybody can be mistaken for the enemy. In Mexico, the line between civilians and “the enemy” is becoming increasingly blurry. This point was illustrated this past Easter, when soldiers opened fire on a truck full of beach-bound children at a military checkpoint. Two young children died. The government immediately issued a press release claiming that two “offenders” died in the shooting, and 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 “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 military has repeatedly used the pretext of “looking for marijuana” to raid Zapatista strongholds, even though it has never found any drugs in Zapatista 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 show of drug war militarization , federal police fired 44,000 unionized electrical workers at gunpoint,Calderon ordered the police to raid the government-owned Luz y Fuerza del Centro power company; only after the raid did he both to issue a legal degree dissolving the company and, in effect, the union. The Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME), which is still fighting for its members’ jobs, is one of the oldest and most radical unions in the nation. The Federal Police who carried out the order to fire the workers 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.