President Obama’s Visit to Mexico: What the LAWG Hopes to See

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In just two days, President Obama will embark on his first official trip to Latin America as he travels to Mexico following a string of visits from high-level U.S. officials in recent weeks.  Comments made by visiting U.S. officials mark a shift in the U.S. stance towards Mexico’s challenges with drug cartels – a shift that indicates the Obama Administration’s willingness to recognize U.S. responsibility for spiraling violence in Mexico.  This sentiment was clearly expressed by Secretary of State Clinton when she said, “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade…Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.”

During his trip to Mexico, we hope that President Obama will follow up this positive rhetoric with a detailed outline for plans to dramatically expand and improve drug treatment and prevention programs in the U.S., take administrative action to curb the flow of arms from the U.S. into Mexico and fix our broken immigration system.

President Calderón has relied heavily on the military in his efforts to combat organized crime.  In the flurry of recent U.S. congressional hearings on concerns regarding violence in Mexico and the border region, several members of Congress focused their critiques and comments on the delayed arrival of U.S. pledged helicopters destined for Mexico’s military.  This focus misses the point.

LAWG and partners in the U.S. and Mexico have repeatedly cautioned against U.S. encouragement and support for an open-ended role for the Mexican military in domestic law enforcement.  The expansive role of the Mexican military in public security has already resulted in increased human rights violations against the civilian population, as evidenced by recent reports of soldiers abducting, torturing and killing civilians, as well as the shooting and killing of innocent men, women, children, and families at military checkpoints. Moreover, this focus on military assistance and technical gadgetry deflects attention from a discussion of strategies to strengthen rule of law.

During his conversations with President Calderón and other Mexican officials, we encourage President Obama to move the discussion of U.S. assistance to Mexico beyond the realm of helicopters and ion scanners, and towards strategies to professionalize civilian law enforcement and fully implement constitutional reforms aimed at updating Mexico’s antiquated judicial system, including instituting public and oral trials.

As Dr. John Ackerman, professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), recently put it, helicopters are a distraction as “(t)he real solution [to drug violence] lies in effective institution building. It does no good to capture drug king-pins if they don’t go to jail.”