U.S. to Free More Money for Mexico to Fight Drug Trafficking

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By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 17 -- The Obama administration has concluded that Mexico is working hard to protect human rights while its army and police battle the drug cartels, paving the way for the release of millions of dollars in additional federal aid.

The Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.4 billion assistance program passed by Congress to help Mexico fight drug trafficking, requires the State Department to state that the country is taking steps to protect human rights and to punish police officers and soldiers who violate civil guarantees. Congress may withhold 15 percent of the annual funds -- about $100 million so far -- until the Obama administration offers its seal of approval for Mexico's reform efforts.

The State Department had planned to send its positive report to Congress in advance of President Obama's visit to Mexico earlier this month. But aides to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, told State Department officials that they were not presenting a strong case that Mexico was improving its efforts to fight drug trafficking.

State Department officials withdrew and then announced that the often secretive Mexican military had provided additional information on cases that it had prosecuted against abuse.

While noting that the process of reforming the corrupt police and lax judiciary is ongoing, the report salutes Mexico for its progress.

The 16-page report was delivered to Congress without fanfare on Thursday, after lawmakers began their summer recess. A State Department spokesman mentioned it Monday in a briefing. The document, Philip J. Crowley said, focuses on Mexico's needs "and its efforts to professionalize security forces and the justice system in order to strengthen the rule of law in Mexico."

Leahy's office had no comment Monday on the report's release.

In recent weeks, after detailed allegations in the media of human rights abuses, the Mexican military said that it has received 1,508 complaints of human rights abuses in 2008 and 2009. It did not say how the cases were resolved, but said that the most serious cases involved forced disappearances, murder, rape, robbery, illegal searches and arbitrary arrests.

Human rights groups contend that only a few cases have been successfully prosecuted.

Upon learning of the State Department's judgment, Luis Arriaga, director of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, said: "In a context of escalating human rights violations by the Mexican military, all three branches of the Mexican government have missed the opportunity to rein in impunity."

Arriaga's group last week lost a Mexican Supreme Court case that it hoped would open up military tribunals to civilian oversight. Arriaga said he hopes Congress uses the report to continue to press the Mexican military for transparency and accountability.

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