Anti-Drug Aid Delayed as Leahy Blocks Positive Report on Mexico's Rights Record

By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 4 -- A key senator rejected a State Department plan to issue a report this week affirming that Mexico is respecting human rights in its war against drug traffickers, delaying the release of millions of dollars in U.S. anti-narcotics assistance, according to U.S. officials and congressional sources.

The State Department intended to send the favorable report on Mexico's human rights record to Congress in advance of President Obama's visit to Guadalajara for a summit of North American leaders this weekend, U.S. officials familiar with the report said.

That plan was scrapped after aides to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, told State Department officials that the findings contradicted reports of human rights violations in Mexico, including torture and forced disappearances, in connection with the drug war.

At stake is more than $100 million in U.S. aid under the Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.4 billion counternarcotics package begun by President George W. Bush in 2007. The law requires Congress to withhold 15 percent of most of the funds until the secretary of state reports that Mexico has made progress on human rights.

"Those requirements have not been met, so it is premature to send the report to Congress," Leahy said in a statement. "We had good faith discussions with Mexican and U.S. officials in reaching these requirements in the law, and I hope we can continue in that spirit."

Soaring Violence

The State Department's failure to push through the report is a setback for the U.S. and Mexican governments at a time when drug violence in Mexico continues to soar and President Felipe Calderón has come under growing pressure to revise his U.S.-backed anti-narcotics strategy, which relies heavily on the military to fight the cartels.

State Department officials said they are considering whether to rewrite the report before submitting it to Congress, probably after it reconvenes Sept. 7.

Mexico is likely to lose some of the money if it is not released by Sept. 30, U.S. officials said. U.S. aid under the Merida Initiative is used to buy helicopters and surveillance aircraft, train police, and improve intelligence-gathering in the fight against the drug cartels.

But congressional aides and human rights experts expressed doubt that the State Department would be able to make a compelling case that Mexico has made sufficient progress.

"In the area of prosecuting human rights abuses and ending the impunity, I don't believe we have seen any real progress," said Maureen Meyer, who oversees Mexico for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group that opposes release of the funds. "There is no sign that people are being held accountable. Every major human rights group has opposed releasing the money."

Push for Transparency

Mexican officials acknowledge that human rights violations have occurred in the fight against traffickers but say the cases are isolated.

The Mexican government is sensitive to U.S. criticism about rights violations because the military is a respected institution -- and many Mexican leaders say the U.S. government has not done enough to reduce consumption of illegal drugs in the United States or stem the flow of weapons and cash heading south.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company