Mexico: Deepening Credibility Crisis

By Fulton Armstrong

Buitrago GIEI

Expert Angela Buitrago during the presentation of the initial GIEI report last October. Photo Credit: Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos / Flickr / Creative Commons

Last week’s report on the disappearance of 43 Mexican students from the tiny village of Ayotzinapa left many questions unanswered about events on the bloody night of September 26-27, 2014, but it left no doubts about the depth of the corruption at the local and national level swirling around the youths’ tragic deaths.  The Mexican government – recipient of more than $2 billion in U.S. security assistance in the last eight years – not only produced a bogus report last year, based on tortured and otherwise impugnable sources, to divert attention from the tragedy; it also actively impeded the work of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), operating under the aegis of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, that produced the new report.  GIEI members documented the witness-tampering, obstructionism, and overall lack of cooperation of the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.  As the public presentation of the report wrapped up, the massacre victims’ families and supporters – some holding signs demanding to know ¿Dónde están?” – made clear their fear that the government will again sweep the case under the carpet and chanted to the experts, ¡No se vayan!”

Many details of the kidnapping, torture, and execution of the 43 youths, who were studying to be teachers, probably will never be known because much of the evidence has been tainted or destroyed.  The GIEI, however, pieced together a largely verifiable explanation of events in which local police, Federal Police, and the Army went on a bloody rampage after the students commandeered buses, as they had on other occasions with the tolerance of their owners, to transport classmates to a protest the following day.  The authorities tracked the students’ movements, set up roadblocks, systematically terrorized them, and summarily executed those who escaped and tried to tell of the atrocities.  The cover-up started immediately, culminating four months later in a report by the Office of the Attorney General (PGR) – one of Washington’s closest partners in curbing narcotics-related crime and violence – falsely claiming the students were mixed up in struggles among narcotraffickers.  The GIEI demonstrates that there is no way a serious PGR investigation did not know otherwise.

  • International and domestic reaction to the report has been strong, but Peña Nieto’s reaction has been low-key. (He also made headlines last week in proposing the decriminalization of marijuana.)  In several Tweets, the President thanked the GIEI; promised that the PGR will “analyze the complete report to improve its investigation of the tragic events”; and pledged that the PGR “will continue working so that there is justice.”  The U.S. Department of State issued a statement saying that “we trust the Mexican authorities will carefully consider the report’s recommendations.”

Peña Nieto cannot escape personal responsibility for the scandalous cover-up and obstructionism – he promised a full accounting long ago – but the GIEI report indicts much more than the presidency.  From the rural police and Army officers on the scene to the highest levels of law enforcement and the military command in Mexico City, the violence against the students has been neither admitted, condemned, nor punished, reinforcing Mexico’s longstanding culture of impunity.  The PGR’s report was tainted by deliberate falsehoods as well as the vicious forms of torture employed to exact false testimony from “witnesses.”  (Other torture stories, including an incident in which the Minister of Defense apologized for Army and Police torture of a woman in prison, are increasing in frequency.)  The U.S. Department of State’s human rights report, released two weeks ago, criticizes Mexico for its “impunity for human rights abuses,” but Washington also needs to ask whether the $2.1 billion of “Mérida Initiative” assistance it has provided to “help Mexico train and equip its law enforcement agencies, promote a culture of lawfulness, [and] implement key justice reforms” has been a good investment.  The U.S. Senate has finally confirmed the new U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, one of the architects of State Department’s implementation of the Mérida Initiative, and it stands to reason that she will demand some accountability.

May 2, 2016

Will tensions over security spoil the Obama-Peña Nieto Summit?

By Tom Long

Military in D.F. Photo credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Military in D.F. Photo credit: ·júbilo·haku· / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

The meeting in December between recently re-elected President Barack Obama and President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto was marked by cordiality and a desire to talk about anything but the often grisly drug-related violence in Mexico during the previous six years.  Since then, Peña Nieto has continued the changed emphasis, aided by headlines pivoting to positive stories.  Mexico has been recently hailed for its economic growth, particularly in export-oriented manufacturing, and for a series of political compromises that The Washington Post favorably compared with the U.S. Congressional stalemate.  Despite optimistic claims from the government, Mexican media reports indicate that drug-related violence continues at nearly the same pace as last year.  (Click here for a summary and analysis by our colleagues at InSight Crime.)  Moreover, pressure is growing on questions of human rights violations committed in the name of the war on drugs.  When Presidents Peña Nieto and Obama meet again in early May, holding back a renewed focus on security is likely to be a challenge.

Peña Nieto’s political incentives do not point to the same, high-profile cooperation with the United States that occurred under President Felipe Calderón, who had already begun shifting priorities last year.  Despite the major turnaround signified by the PRI’s signing NAFTA almost 20 years ago, Peña Nieto’s PRI still contains elements more skeptical of U.S. “intervention” than Calderón’s PAN.  Materially, moreover, most of the U.S. aid planned under the Mérida Initiative has been disbursed, and Congress exhibits little appetite for major new appropriations.  (Even at its height, U.S. spending was a fraction of Mexico’s contribution to the drug war.)  That reduction, coupled with growing awareness that the Calderón strategy actually fueled violence, diminishes the enthusiasm in and outside of government for continuing his policies.   Frustration from the left in both countries regarding persisting human rights violations and the slow pace of judicial reform could also grow more serious.

While these problems may be causing tensions between U.S. and Mexican police and military at the operational level, they seem to be manageable so far – and both Presidents are likely to emphasize intelligence-sharing and similar bilateral cooperation that does not require resources.  Upper echelons of the Obama administration seem to understand that Peña Nieto’s push to de-emphasize security and promise to focus on violence reduction over drug interdiction is politically necessary.  But the moral argument has not changed:  Mexicans suffer the violent consequences spawned by U.S. drug use and counterdrug policies.  Weapons sold on the U.S. side of the border continue to flow into Mexico, an issue now atop the U.S. political agenda for entirely domestic reasons.  If the two countries can manage to keep security problems at a lower decibel, they will better cooperate on issues that are just as vital but could pay larger dividends — immigration, transboundary energy, educational exchange, and infrastructure.

Obama and Peña Nieto: Turning the same page?

By Tom Long
CLALS doctoral research fellow

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

On Saturday, Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto took office and the country’s oldest party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, returned to power. After six years dominated by an exhausting and bloody war against drug cartels, Mexico seems ready to turn the page on outgoing President Felipe Calderón. During the last few months, Peña Nieto has tried to steer the attention of the world—and the United States—away from a disproportionate focus on drug violence. In a recent article published in The Economist, the new president downplayed drug cartels, focusing instead on plans for the economy and to “recover our leadership in Latin America.” Security was just one of thirteen proposals in his inaugural speech. In part, Calderón has given Peña Nieto a head start as he begins his term, leaving behind strong economic growth and a dip in violence. Although Calderón himself started the switch to a violence-reduction strategy, his name is likely to remain closely associated with the frontal military assault on the cartels launched at the beginning of his administration and recalibrated only in his final year; Peña Nieto is positioned to gain credit for a return to normalcy.

This desire to turn the page also marked Peña Nieto’s s pre-inaugural meeting with President Barack Obama. Both leaders seemed to be playing the same tune.  Mexico has become the front line in the war on drugs, and the U.S. has spent billions on military, police, and other projects lumped under a “Merida Initiative” label. After their meeting, Obama and Peña Nieto promised to expand the bilateral agenda to include an expansion of trade, cooperation on energy, and discussions of immigration that go beyond border fences. Obama spoke effusively of Mexico’s importance as a partner, while Peña Nieto said the two had a “shared vision” of how to create jobs in both countries. On the stage with Obama as elsewhere, Peña Nieto reiterated calls for the United States and Canada to build on NAFTA and further regional integration to improve competitiveness.

It would be a healthy change if the two presidents could restore balance between economic and security aspects of U.S.-Mexico relations. Image matters – and the deterioration of Mexico’s brand has undermined both investment and tourism. The military approach to drug trafficking has inflicted enormous costs in economic and human terms with questionable payoffs, but Mexico cannot go back to old patterns of accommodation. Domestically, the new president needs to attack the culture of impunity by building a stronger and more independent judiciary in order to reduce the frightful percentages of crimes that are never investigated or prosecuted. Accountability remains weak, especially at state and local levels; improving it would require Peña Nieto to take on powers in his own party. Placing all these objectives under a “Merida plus” framework would counterproductively squeeze broad reforms into the drug-war box. If the two presidents are sincere about rebuilding a balanced partnership, they need to take action quickly on immigration and commerce. Otherwise, the gravitational pull of the war of drugs will again consume bilateral ties.