Senate report says Mexico must focus on cops and courts, not army

A report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be released Thursday concludes that Mexico’s deployment of its military to fight organized crime has been ineffective and may have increased sensational killings by fragmenting crime mafias into warring bands.

The report was written to help guide the U.S. Congress in its strategic partnership with Mexico’s president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, who has suggested that his administration will focus more on reducing the violence that has left 60,000 dead, rather than capturing or killing crime lords and seizing the cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana headed to the United States, the most voracious drug consumer in the world.

The report acknowledges the efforts of departing President Felipe Calderon and sees progress in the maturing relationship between the U.S. and Mexican governments, even as it questions Calderon’s core strategies.

Overall, the report offers a somber assessment of the drug war raging south of the U.S. border and concludes that it will take years, and perhaps a generation, to reform Mexico’s undertrained, ineffective, often-corrupt police and courts.

“Mexico's presidential transition provides a new window to discuss and debate the best security strategies to deal with the serious violence plaguing Mexico,” Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “As the political landscape continues to change in both countries, this report underscores the importance of continuity in two critical areas — judicial and police reform.”

The report was compiled by the committee’s majority staff at Kerry’s request and was based on visits to Mexico and interviews with Mexican and U.S. officials, independent analysts, and human rights activists in both countries. The report urges that Congress spend $250 million annually over the next four years to continue the $1.9 billion Merida Initiative. But it pushes for a change in strategy, toward providing Mexico with U.S. trainers in police academies rather than Black Hawk helicopters and other military hardware.

“Heavy reliance upon the military to quell lawlessness and directly confront the narcotics syndicates appears to have been largely ineffective — and in some instances to have exacerbated the violence suffered by civilians,” the authors write.

Human Rights Watch recently documented more than 230 cases of killings, disappearances and torture committed by soldiers and police during Calderon’s tenure. In not one of those cases has an official been held accountable.

The congressional report questions whether Calderon’s focus on taking down top cartel leadership was effective, noting that the strategy “has been widely criticized for de-emphasizing the daily security needs of average Mexicans.”

In an interview last week, Peña Nieto said that he wants to expand his country's drug war partnership with the United States but that he would not support the presence of armed U.S. agents in Mexico. He also said he planned to pivot away from disrupting narcotics smuggling to concentrate more on fighting the crimes that most impact Mexicans. Peña Nieto said he would be judged by his ability to reduce the number of homicides, not the kilos of cocaine or marijuana seized.

The report says that Peña Nieto’s approach makes sense — that Mexicans will demand an end to the fight against narcotics trafficking to the United States if they don’t see a reduction in violence.

The Senate report states that the U.S. government should focus most of its billion-dollar aid package on helping to teach and vet the 350,000 poorly trained state and municipal police, who often are outgunned by crime groups -- some city cops share a single gun -- or corrupted by them.

The authors note that six years into the drug war here, federal and state prosecutors “still do not know who should be investigating the lion’s share of drug trafficking related crime, especially homicides.”

Two percent of reported crimes in Mexico lead to convictions.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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