State Dept. approves $36M in anti-drug funds for Mexico despite human-rights record

Stashing cash in spare tires, engine transmissions and truckloads of baby diapers, couriers for Mexican drug cartels are moving tens of billions of dollars south across the border each year. U.S. border and customs agents at crossings such as this one in Laredo, Tex., inspect vehicles for drug money in an effort to catch the bulk cash before it makes it into Mexico.
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010; 9:09 PM

The State Department has determined that Mexico can receive millions in anti-drug money that was contingent on its human-rights performance, but officials said Friday that they are withholding additional funds in hopes of seeing more progress.

The money comes by way of the 2008 Merida Initiative, which has provided more than $1 billion for Mexico's narcotics fight. U.S. law requires 15 percent of certain accounts to be frozen until the State Department affirms Mexico is meeting human-rights standards.

The report on Mexico's performance, sent to Congress on Thursday, will allow Mexico to receive $36 million, officials said.

"The funds . . . are really critical to moving ahead on certain things with the Mexican government, [such as] equipment and training," said one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the report is not public.

But, the official said, millions from the 2010 supplemental appropriation bill will remain frozen.

"We did want to underscore we're going to be remaining engaged on human rights issues," the official said.

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, he has deployed 50,000 troops to combat drug-related violence. That has led to a sharp increase in allegations of military abuses, including torture.

Human-rights organizations have been especially critical of the Mexican military's legal system, which releases little information about its investigations of alleged abuses by soldiers.

It is not clear how much money from the supplemental bill is being held up, but the decision to do so will have little practical effect, because U.S. and Mexican officials have barely begun planning how to spend it.

Even so, Maureen Meyer of the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America said that the move was symbolically important.

"The U.S. is sending the message that you cannot fight crime with crime and you cannot fight drugs while tolerating abuses by your security forces," she said.

Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch said the freeze on some funds was positive. "Nothing should have been released, because Mexico is simply not meeting the human-rights requirements," Steinberg said. "There are widespread and systematic abuses by the military, for which they have total impunity." Correspondent Bill Booth in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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