US Deepens Involvement in Mexican Drug War

By Kent Paterson

On the Mexican side of the Stanton Street Bridge that connects Ciudad Juarez to neighboring El Paso, Texas, a smartly-dressed young woman passes out a tourist guide. Sponsored by the Chihuahua state government, the cartoon-format book features an excited couple talking about the border city’s cool restaurants and neat hotels.

For a visitor wishing to probe further, Ciudad Juarez could offer a few surprises. Visitors might quickly notice the troop trucks hauling soldiers down main boulevards or the frequent, shrill cry of ambulances likely responding to the latest killing. As of late June, the city had racked up at least 854 murders this year so far, according to reports compiled by New Mexico State University researcher Molly Molloy.

Since January 2008, when violence between rival drug gangs escalated, about 2,500 people have been murdered in Ciudad Juarez. Despite the deployment of almost 10,000 soldiers and Federal Police, the slaughter continues.

“The violence has done away with the small business sector in Ciudad Juarez,” said a man who preferred only to be identified as Alex. Like many other Juarenses, Alex said he had personally witnessed carnage, recently bumping into the execution of a victim at a heavily-transited intersection in broad daylight. Now, the violence is even victimizing people with no known link to organized crime. Thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest the murder of university Professor Manuel Arroyo, gunned down last May.

A socially committed researcher and instructor, Arroyo’s unsolved murder was a “huge loss” to the city, said Felix Perez, co-founder of the Rio Bravo Environmentalist Alliance and a former student of Arroyo’s.

In response to the violence in Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Mexico, the administration of President Felipe Calderon is pursuing a militarization strategy.

In Ciudad Juarez, Mexican soldiers search visitors arriving and departing the city, set up random checkpoints in the streets, conduct house searches, and accompany members of the transit police on routine traffic stops. Calderon’s supporters argue that the notorious corruption of Mexican police leaves no alternative to the army at the moment.

The strategy enjoys Washington’s support. Complementing the campaign in Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security is staffing new checkpoints of its own on the border aimed at travelers headed into Mexico. According to the US government, the purpose of the stops is to control the flow of weapons and illicitly-earned cash.

Simultaneously, the US government is increasing its support of the Mexican armed forces and Federal Police through the Merida Initiative, a cross-border program started under the Bush administration. In June, the Democrat-controlled US Congress voted to increase supplemental assistance to the Mexican government by $420 million. New money will be available to allow the Mexican government to purchase helicopters and aircraft.

Criticism of Merida is growing in both Mexico and the United States. Besides its ineffectiveness at ending drug production and consumption, critics chide the policy for institutionalizing the anti-constitutional nature of the Mexican army’s deployment, as well as giving more power to an institution accused of widespread human rights violations. In Ciudad Juarez alone, the official Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission is reportedly investigating 2,500 cases of human rights abuses committed by soldiers and police assigned to the anti-drug war. The alleged abuses include robbery, illegal searches, torture, and even murder.

In deference to human rights, US Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) has introduced legislation to create a Merida monitor. Friends of Brad Will, a US-based group active on Mexico policy issues, said in a statement that it was “encouraged by such reforms” but doubted any real impact given the “worthless” nature of earlier Congressional human rights conditions attached to Merida funding.

“A year after the Merida Initiative, the Mexican government has done nothing in the name of human rights, yet continues to receive funds from the US that will merely add to its ability to violate them,” charged Angelina Garneva, spokesperson for Friends of Brad Will. The group was founded to seek justice in the 2006 murder of independent US videographer Brad Will, who was documenting a popular uprising in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

In certain regions of Mexico, the dividing line between the drug war and other conflicts is increasingly murky.

In the state of Guerrero, for instance, narco paramilitary groups, the Mexican army and the left-wing Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) are locked in a complex struggle that encompasses decades of logging and other economic disputes, family feuds, drug trafficking rivalries, and government repression. At an international forum in the state of Chiapas last month, supporters of another rebel group, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), were quoted condemning US support of the Merida Initiative for providing a cover to harass and repress “people that organize in defense of their rights.”

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2009

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