January 24, 2013

José Miguel Vivanco is director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch.

On first read, it might have been a hoax. On International Human Rights Day last month, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Anthony Wayne, “celebrated” Mexico’s human rights achievements. “The United States recognizes the Mexican government, including officials and institutions,” he wrote in the newspaper El Universal, “for its efforts to promote the defense of human rights in Mexico.”

It is hard to imagine a less appropriate time for such undeserved praise.

Wayne’s compliments came less than two weeks after the revelation that a staggering number of Mexicans, about 25,000, had disappeared in drug-related violence in the preceding six years. The number, from a list compiled by the Mexican attorney general’s office, was leaked to The Washington Post by a government analyst who feared that neither the outgoing administration of President Felipe Calderón nor the incoming administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office Dec. 1, would want to admit that so many people could simply vanish, let alone investigate what happened to them.

Disappearances are part of the horrid legacy of Mexico’s “war on drugs,” initiated under Calderón. During his tenure, soldiers and police officers systematically tortured civilians to extract confessions in the fight against cartels, and they committed widespread executions. Almost none of these abusive soldiers and police has been punished. Of the roughly 5,000 investigations that military prosecutors opened into alleged abuses from the start of the Calderón presidency, in December 2006, through April 2012, only 38 soldiers have been sentenced.

For most of his term, Calderón claimed that he was not aware of a single human rights violation by security forces. When I met with him at the end of 2011, he conceded that many abuses had occurred. Unfortunately, the few steps he subsequently took were too little, too late.

While Peña Nieto has at least acknowledged that the Calderón administration’s policy failed, word doesn’t seem to have reached Washington. In fact, the ambassador’s recent praise is in step with the Obama administration’s repeated celebration of Calderón’s efforts to confront cartels, such as when President Obama lauded Calderón’s “great courage” in news conferences in March 2011 and April 2012. Obama has not publicly expressed concern about the grisly abuses committed by Mexican security forces.

And the Obama administration has put its money where its mouth is. Since 2007, the United States has given about $2 billion to Mexico to combat organized crime, a September Congressional Research Service report noted, with some of that for worthy programs such as training prosecutors. A portion of the aid directed to security forces is supposed to be pegged annually to an assessment of whether Mexico is meeting a set of human rights conditions. Although those conditions have never been met, Washington has repeatedly released the funds.

The Obama administration’s most candid assessment of the situation came from Wayne’s predecessor, Carlos Pascual, who sent several cables to Washington raising concerns about the corruption, incompetence and abusive nature of Mexico’s security forces. When WikiLeaks made the memos public, Calderón demanded Pascual’s resignation. Rather than stand by the ambassador — or address the concerns he raised — the administration accepted his resignation, and Obama appointed Wayne in late 2011.

Peña Nieto has expressed a desire to break with Calderón’s failed “war on drugs” and focus on reducing violence. But he hasn’t said how he will do it — or how he will rein in the abuses that have fed the problem. Instead, he has seemed more focused on shifting the discussion away from security and toward the economy. So far, the Obama administration seems happy to follow his lead.

That would be a mistake. Instead, Obama should make a robust, public case for addressing the abusive practices of Mexico’s security forces — not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it would help to build public trust in the security forces, which is essential to effectively tackling organized crime. The Obama administration should enforce the human rights conditions that Congress has placed on U.S. aid to Mexico. And Obama should urge Peña Nieto to develop a concrete plan to prosecute past abuses and prevent them going forward.

More celebration of failed policies will do nothing to help Mexico break out of this cycle of violence and lawlessness, which has already taken too many lives.