The Bush Administration Has Put Its Proposal to Militarize Mexico into the Upcoming Iraq Supplemental Bill

On Oct. 22, 2007 President Bush announced the $1.4 billion dollar "Merida Initiative," security aid package to Mexico and Central America. The initiative has fatal flaws in its strategy; instead of leading to a stable binational relationship and peaceful border communities, its military approach will escalate drug-related violence and human rights abuses.

Mexico and the United States face a joint challenge in decreasing transnational organized crime and they must cooperate to strengthen the rule of law and stop illegal drug and arms trafficking over the border. This misguided policy will result in an inability to achieve its own goals and will waste taxpayers’ money. It will also seriously undermine the U.S.-Mexico relationship and Mexican stability.

Soon the U.S. Congress will vote on the Initiative, popularly referred to as "Plan Mexico." The little-known appropriations request has been tagged on to the multi-billion dollar Iraq supplemental bill and has been presented as an unprecedented effort to fight burgeoning drug trafficking and violence related to organized crime in Mexico. But the "regional security cooperation initiative" goes far beyond cooperation in stopping the flow of illegal drugs. It would fundamentally restructure the U.S.-Mexico binational relationship, recast economic and social problems as security issues, and militarize Mexican society.

Over half of the packet would go to Mexican military and police forces accused of documented and yet legally unresolved human rights violations. At the same time, no money is allotted for drug treatment and harm reduction in either country, and the colossal "cooperation" package completely ignores the serious problems that exist within the United States, including the entry of illegal drugs, widespread sale and consumption, crossborder gun-running, and money laundering.

This aid packet would place the United States‘ binational relationship with one of its closet and most sensitive allies in the realm of vaguely defined security issues. While mandating a huge increase in aid to Mexico, it includes no funds to finally address the poverty gap and development needs of our southern neighbor.

To begin a public debate on the dangers inherent in Plan Mexico, first it is important to understand what it is.

What is Plan Mexico?

Plan Mexico, or the Merida Initiative, was presented after months of anticipation and hermetic negotiations as a three-year, $1.4 billion "Regional Security Cooperation Initiative." Members of the U.S. Congress immediately complained that the Bush administration provided no information to congressional committee members until the deal was done.

The request for fiscal year 2008 for $550 million has been attached to the Iraq Supplemental Appropriations Bill, to be voted on in Congress in the coming weeks. Fifty million dollars are earmarked for Central America, while the remaining half-billion goes to Mexico, primarily for military and police equipment and training.

Although the proposal has not been presented to the public in the United States or Mexico, leaked documents(1) reveal the military logic and nature of "Plan Mexico."

Under the rubric of "Counter Narcotics, Counter Terrorism, and Border Security" the initiative would allocate $205.5 million for the Mexican Armed Forces. Over 40% of the entire packet goes to defense companies for the purchase of eight Bell helicopters (at $13 million each, with training, maintenance, and special equipment) for the Mexican Army and two CASA 235 maritime patrol planes (at $50 million each, with maintenance) for the country’s Navy.

Most of the $132.5 million allocated to Mexican law enforcement agencies also lines the pockets of defense companies for purchase of surveillance, inspection, and security equipment, and training. The Mexican Federal Police Force receives most of this funding, with Customs, Immigration, and Communications receiving the remainder.

The rest of the 2008 appropriations request is comprised of $112 million in the "Rule of Law" category for the Mexican Attorney General’s Office and the criminal justice system. This money is earmarked for software and training in case-tracking and centralizing data. The initiative would also give $12.9 million to the infamous Mexican Intelligence Service (CISEN) for investigations, forensics equipment, counterterrorism work, and to other agencies including the Migration Institute for establishment of a database on immigrants. The U.S. government allots $37 million of the packet to itself for administrative costs.

The proposed 2009 budget of a reported $450 million to Mexico is much the same, with a larger share going to the police, assuming that by then the notorious corruption among those agencies will have been at least partially remedied—a dubious assumption at best ($120 million to the armed forces and $252 million to the police and other law enforcement agencies).

All of these programs are directed to the goals of supply interdiction, enforcement, and surveillance—including domestic spying—according to the "war on drugs" model developed in the United States in the early 70s under then-President Richard Nixon.2 This military model has proved historically ineffective in achieving the goals of eliminating the illegal drug trade and decreasing organized crime, and closely related to an increase in violence, instability, and authoritarian presidential powers.

The NAFTA Connection

The "Merida Initiative" received its name from a meeting between Presidents Bush and Calderon in Merida, on Mexico‘s Yucatan Peninsula, in March 2007. The official story is that President Calderon, already committed to a "war on drugs" that relies heavily on the use of the army in supply interdiction, requested U.S. assistance at the Merida meeting and, after negotiations on the details, the U.S. government acceded.

With the emphasis on counter-narcotics efforts, in the lead-up to the October announcement of the package, both governments marshaled studies and statistics to support the contradictory thesis that drug-trafficking and related violence in Mexico had reached a crisis point, and that Calderon’s offensive against the drug cartels was working.

This is not the real story of the Plan’s origins. The Bush administration’s concept of a joint security strategy for North America goes back at least as far as the creation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) as an extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).3 When the three North American leaders met in Waco, Texas in March of 2005, they put into motion a secretive process of negotiations between members of the executive branches and representatives of large corporations to facilitate cross-border business and create a shared security perimeter. Subsequent meetings including the April 2008 trilateral summit in New Orleans4 extended these goals amid mounting criticism.

Through the SPP, the Bush administration has sought to push its North American trade partners into a common front that would assume shared responsibility for protecting the United States from terrorist threats, promoting and protecting the free-trade economic model, and bolstering U.S. global control, especially in Latin America where the State Department sees a growing threat due to the election of center-left governments. While international cooperation to confront terrorism is a laudable and necessary aim, the Bush national security strategy5 entails serious violations of national sovereignty for its partner countries, increased risk of being targeted as U.S. military allies, and threats to civil liberties for citizens in all three countries. Moreover the counterterrorism model, exemplified by the invasion of Iraq, has by all accounts created a rise in instability and terrorist activity worldwide.

Extending the concept of North American economic integration into national security matters through the closed-door SPP process raises grave questions about how security is defined and who does the defining.

Thomas Shannon, sub-secretary of Western Hemisphere affairs for the State Department put it bluntly in a speech on April 8, saying that the SPP "understands North America as a shared economic space and that as a shared economic space we need to protect it, and that we need to understand that we don’t protect this economic space only at our frontiers, that it has to be protected more broadly throughout North America. And as we have worked through the Security and Prosperity Partnership to improve our commercial and trading relationship, we have also worked to improve our security cooperation. To a certain extent, we’re armoring NAFTA."6

The SPP effort seeks to lock in policies that do not have consensus and have not been debated among the public and within Congress. Citizen groups in all three countries have called for a halt to SPP talks due to the lack of representation of labor, environmental, and civilian representation, and transparency to the public. On the security front, the Bush administration’s concept of military-based rather than diplomacy- and social policy-based security is strongly questioned in the United States and outright rejected among the vast majority of Mexicans and Canadians.

In this context, instead of reviewing polices and opening them up to public debate, the Bush administration has launched its boldest advance yet within the SPP context—Plan Mexico. Speculation was that the Plan would be announced at the Montebello SPP meeting in August of 2007, but perhaps because of the presence of SPP protestors at that meeting President Bush delayed the official unveiling of the "Merida Initiative" several months. However, the last two SPP meetings have included discussions of Plan Mexico and the State Department has been clear about the link.

It is important to understand the roots of Plan Mexico in the Bush administration’s deep integration agenda. The Plan implies much more than a temporary aid program for fighting drug cartels. It structurally revamps the basis of the binational relationship in ways meant to permanently emphasize military aspects over much-needed development aid and modifications in trade and investment policy. The scope of the Regional Security Cooperation Initiative demonstrates that it goes far beyond a joint war on drugs and cements into place failed policies on immigration enforcement, militarization of the border, economic integration policies, counterterrorism attacks on civil liberties, and the intromission of security forces into social policy and international diplomacy. To do this, the outgoing Bush administration has relied on the support of two economically dependent allies to try to assure that its policies will be irreversible under a Democratic presidency in the United States.7

What’s Wrong with Plan Mexico?

Plan Mexico embodies a logic of confrontation that can be criticized on the following ten points:

  1. The "war on drugs" model doesn’t work.

Mexico has a serious problem with illegal drug trafficking and drug-related violence. But there is more than one way to go about solving it.

The Merida Initiative departs from the mistaken logic that interdiction, enforcement, and prosecution will eventually stem illegal crossborder drug-trafficking. Studies have shown that treatment and rehabilitation are 20 times more effective in decreasing the illegal drug trade.8 Yet the Merida Initiative contains not one penny9 for treatment or rehabilitation in either country. Contrary to the stated goal of decreasing the binational drug trade, the Bush administration recently cut back funds for domestic treatment and prevention programs. This approach moves in the wrong direction.

The supply-side model fails for one obvious reason: where there’s a buyer there will be a seller. And since it’s a black market, the seller must be a member of organized crime and stands to make an enormous, tax-free profit.

The experience of Plan Colombia reveals the pitfalls of the Plan Mexico now before Congress. Plan Colombia is a similar U.S. military aid package designed to fight the drug war. Since its inception in 2000, it has contributed to entrenched violence and corruption in that South American country while failing to reduce drug flows to the United States.

Over the past seven years of Plan Colombia the United States government has spent some $6 billion dollars supposedly to fight the war on drugs; 76% of that has gone to the Colombian military. The results are well known: Colombia remains the primary source of cocaine on the U.S. market, the price has gone down, and the purity has risen. Despite environmentally devastating fumigation campaigns, numerous studies show that the surface area planted in coca has increased or remained constant.

As a result of crackdowns, drug cartels have adopted more sophisticated equipment and forms of organization—and closer relations with Mexican cartels. In a balloon effect, a new route opens up when an old one is closed off and new drug lords rise up through the ranks when existing leaders are imprisoned or killed.

In addition to its failure to detain drug production, processing, and transit of cocaine, Plan Colombia has spread into aid for the Colombian rightwing government in its war against leftwing guerrilla insurgents. The U.S. government’s involvement in counter-insurgency efforts was authorized by Congress in 2003, when it agreed to formally broaden the scope of Plan Colombia to authorize the use of military aid beyond counternarcotics activities and lift previous restrictions. As a result, investigative journalist Frank Smyth wrote that by 2001 Colombia had surpassed El Salvador as the largest counterinsurgency effort of the United States since Vietnam.10

With the arrival of arms and money for the Colombian armed forces, the violation of human rights, the displacement of entire communities, and assassination of civilians has become so widespread as to be alarming even to proponents of Plan Colombia. In the recent authorization of new funds for the plan, the House of Representatives approved a version that cuts military aid, reduces fumigation, and conditions aid to more stringent human rights requirements. The total aid to Colombia’s government continues to be huge and largely military, but along with the likely rejection of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia due to human and labor rights concerns, it marks a minimal recognition in Congress that the drug war model in that nation is simply not working as intended.

The upshot today is that a drug user has equal if not greater access to cocaine on the streets of U.S. cities and it’s cheaper and more potent than ever.11 Colombia continues to be the number one source of cocaine to the U.S. market. Over 300,000 people have been displaced from their communities, paramilitary groups responsible for 80% of human rights violations run rampant, and Colombia is a militarized society trapped in internecine violence.

This experience should be carefully analyzed before replicating a failed model with heavy collateral damage to the social fabric of an allied nation. Although Mexico is a very different country—there is no civil war or widespread guerrilla activity—many of the lessons of Plan Colombia are worth taking into consideration on the eve of Plan Mexico. The failure of the drug war model in Colombia, and Afghanistan, would seem to warrant at the very least a cautious attitude toward applying it in other countries—especially one as geographically and economically close as Mexico.

  1. Providing equipment and resources to Mexican security forces in the current context of corruption and impunity will deepen the problems, reduce civil society’s role in reform, and inhibit construction of democratic institutions.

Unfortunately, Mexican security forces are presently often more part of the problem than the solution. The State Department 2007 report on human rights12 in Mexico notes, "Corruption continued to be a problem, as many police were involved in kidnapping, extortion, or providing protection for, or acting directly on behalf of organized crime and drug traffickers. Impunity was pervasive to an extent that victims often refused to file complaints."

Ranking members of Mexican security forces on local and national levels maintain close links to drug traffickers, working for them directly in many parts of the country. The army has traditionally been more independent of this dynamic, but its deployment within the country in the drug war is increasing its involvement and leading to human rights violations. Many armed forces deserters, that totaled 17,000 last year alone, receive counternarcotics training and then pass it along in service to high-paying drug cartels. The infamous Zetas (a drug trafficking network comprised of former law enforcement and military agents) illustrate the lethal capacity of military-trained groups that operate with drug cartels.

Military equipment also ends up in the hands of the cartels. The U.S. Office of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms reports that 90% of arms decommissioned from organized crime in Mexico came from the United States, many registered to the U.S. Army.13 Senator Alfonso Sanchez Anaya reported to the Mexican Congress that 15 million arms circulate illegally in Mexico.14 In Iraq an investigation revealed the existence of thousands of "missing" arms thought to be in the hands of insurgents and delinquents. The black market in arms is booming. Given this situation, the likelihood that U.S. military equipment ends up in the wrong hands is more like an inevitability.

By excluding community prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation programs, neighborhood watch initiatives, and other measures that create a more active role for civil society, the initiative tends to convert the citizenry into a protectorate of the armed forces. The redefinition of crime as a national security threat also removes it from the community realm.

The point is not to vilify the Mexican armed forces, police, and government. Many honest and brave individuals can be found among their ranks and some have given their lives fighting corruption. Extreme statements like that of Tom Tancredo on Nov. 8, 2007 who said, "The degree of corruption inside the government and the military is so great that it’s hard to see where the government ends and where the cartels begin," respond more to a Mexico-bashing mentality than a serious concern for the real challenges Mexico faces.

But this is the reality of the situation and the challenge for U.S. binational policy is to support effective measures to clean up the corruption and end the impunity while developing mechanisms of cooperation in combating transnational crime.

Giving arms, military equipment, spy and surveillance capacity, and training to security forces with a history of abuses that the justice system is unable or unwilling to check is like pouring gas on a fire. Ignoring root causes of criminal activity and market demand makes it very likely that military aid will empower delinquency and feed corruption.

  1. Plan Mexico promotes the militarization of Mexican society with few legal or social controls.

The model of confronting the trafficking, sale, and consumption of drugs with military means increases violence and weakens democratic institutions. In countries where these are already weak it can create serious obstacles to a transition to democracy.

Former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Louise Arbour warned of using the army in the streets on her last visit to Mexico. "I understand there are those who say that at times you have to turn to a more powerful force such as the army, but it seems to me that in the long term it is frankly dangerous," Arbour told television network Televisa. "The army should not be doing the job of the police."15

General José Francisco Gallardo, the major proponent of human rights guarantees within the Mexican Army and a constitutional scholar who was imprisoned for his efforts states, "Here what should be done is to form a national police force that carries out these functions and is not under the military … The presence of the Army in matters that are not under their jurisdiction displaces the constitutional faculties of the civil, federal, state, and municipal authority and goes against Art. 21 of the constitution."16

When asked if the Calderon strategy of militarizing the drug war could lead to a return to the "dirty war" of the 70s, Gallardo—as a young soldier, one of the few members of the armed forces to protest the torture and assassination that marked that period—told the author, "We are already experiencing a return to the dirty war."