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Call to Congress: Demilitarize the Merida Initiative

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In October 2007, President Bush unveiled the “Merida Initiative," an aid package intended to provide a total of $1.4 billion in U.S. assistance over a three-year period to Mexico and Central America for counternarcotics, counterterrorism and border security efforts in those countries. The Bush Administration tied the first segment of funding as part of this package, $500 million for Mexico and $50 million for Central America, to the controversial Iraq supplemental budget request. Congress will likely consider this supplemental bill in the coming weeks. Earlier this year, the President requested the second year of funding, an additional $450 million for Mexico and $100 million for Central America, as part of his 2009 budget request.

The Merida Initiative has been billed by the Bush Administration as a response to a crisis of drug-related violence in Mexico. Due to the extremely troubling precedent set by past U.S. counternarcotics programs, especially Plan Colombia, the Merida Initiative as currently envisioned raises similar red flags for human rights advocates. While this was described as a three-year plan, given our experience with Plan Colombia, we can expect that whatever passes this year could continue for many years to come. As none of this aid has yet been approved, now is a key time for grassroots advocates to express concerns to policymakers and encourage them to dramatically reshape the Bush Administration’s package from the start to ensure that any assistance addresses the roots of the problem and protects human rights.

What is in the Merida Initiative? The aid package itself is a jumble of over 30 different programs, ranging from helicopters for the Mexican military to inspection equipment for the customs agency to computer software for immigration institute to human rights training for the police. LAWG and other advocates are particularly troubled that this package would dramatically increase U.S. assistance to the Mexican military, a force that has been linked to serious and ongoing human rights abuses. This aid in the form off helicopters and other equipment should be eliminated from the package as it perpetuates the military’s inappropriate role in domestic counternarcotics and law enforcement activities. Soldiers are not trained for domestic law enforcement and should not take over policing roles, even in cases where police are tainted by corruption. Instead, such problems with the police underscore the critical need for substantial police reform and increased accountability.

Instead, U.S. aid should focus on long-term strategies to effectively address drug-related violence while promoting the human rights of Mexicans and Central Americans. There are several positive elements already included in the funding package aimed at strengthening the justice system, building stronger civilian institutions in Mexico, and programs to help prevent youth from joining gangs in Central America. However, these smaller-dollar, reform-oriented programs are dwarfed by the more than $240 million requested for planes, helicopters and inspection equipment.

What’s not in the aid package? As not a penny of the Merida Initiative will provide aid to reduce poverty, it further skews aid to Latin America in the direction of security assistance rather than aid for public health, poverty reduction, and disaster assistance. The Merida Initiative also does nothing to solve the problems on our side of the border that increase violence in Mexico and Central America: the United States’ demand for illegal drugs and the flow of U.S. firearms into the region.

Congress needs to proceed with caution as to not approve another billion dollars for a program with little chance of success in stopping the scourge of illegal drugs and that may, in fact, have a negative impact on human rights. Right now, the U.S. Congress has a historic opportunity to refocus U.S. counternarcotics assistance to a more humane and effective approach. For these reasons, we encourage grassroots activists to contact their members of Congress and urge them to:

    * “De-militarize” the Merida Initiative: The Mexican military has been linked to serious human rights abuses. U.S. aid should not support or appear to support the use of the Mexican Army in counternarcotics and other domestic law enforcement efforts. The $104 million for helicopters for the army, as well as counternarcotics aid for the Mexican army that may be included in the defense bill, should be directed towards drug treatment and prevention.

    * Support efforts to strengthen judicial institutions and reform the police. This is necessary to reduce corruption and bring perpetrators of crime to justice, and the proposed aid includes some positive programs. However, any efforts to strengthen police forces must be accompanied by reform to ensure greater accountability for the police.

    * Support rural and alternative development aid. With approximately 25% of Latin Americans trying to survive on less than $2 a day, it is little wonder that organized crime and drug traffickers find easy prey amongst Latin America’s poor. Congress should add assistance for rural development.

    * Refocus on drug treatment and prevention programs in the United States. During the Bush Administration, we’ve seen a shift of federal funding away from drug treatment and prevention. Underfunding valuable prevention and treatment programs in the United States is short-sighted and undermines the most cost-effective means of weakening the lifeline of drug traffickers – demand.

    * Tie human rights conditions to any assistance for the police or military. The U.S. Congress should include measures to ensure that human rights violations committed by Mexican security forces are being investigated, prosecuted and sentenced by Mexican judicial authorities.

    * Improve efforts to reduce the flow of firearms into Mexico from the United States. Many of the weapons used in drug trafficking related violence have been purchased and illegally smuggled from the United States into Mexico.