Mexicans Fear Abuses as New Law Empowers Military — but U.S. Security Aid Keeps Coming

With its support for Mexico’s war on drugs, the U.S. government is funding a force that has been regularly implicated in violence against its own people.

FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2016 file photo, soldiers look up toward the president as they ride past the National Palace during the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City's main square, known as the Zocalo. A bill to give legal justification for Mexico’s armed forces to assume police roles advanced in the country's Congress, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, over objections by rights groups and opposition legislators who say it would provide for an open-ended militarization.  (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2016 file photo, soldiers look up toward the president as they ride past the National Palace during the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City's main square, known as the Zocalo. A bill to give legal justification for Mexico’s armed forces to assume police roles advanced in the country's Congress, Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017, over objections by rights groups and opposition legislators who say it would provide for an open-ended militarization. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File) Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Last December, the Mexican government enacted a new law that empowered its military to act domestically against “internal security threats,” cementing the role of the country’s armed forces in combatting crime and giving them expanded surveillance authorities. The law also allows the Mexican president to deploy troops for immediate action against those threats.

As the law, formally called the Internal Security Law, was being debated, Claudia Medina Tamariz spoke out about the way the country’s military has treated the citizens it is supposedly fighting to protect.

In 2012, she was arrested by Mexican marines on false charges of cartel ties and subjected to horrendous torture. Marine troops tied her to a chair, shoved a rag in her mouth, and electrocuted her with two cables attached to her big toes. They splashed her with buckets of water, forced hot sauce into her nostrils, wrapped her in an elastic band, and proceeded to kick and beat her. She was also blindfolded and sexually assaulted. As the troops tortured her, they also threatened to do the same to her children.

The charges against Medina were eventually dropped, but the trauma lingered.

“When I got back home, I arrived with a lot of fear,” she told The Intercept. “I couldn’t sleep at night, thinking [the marines] would do something to me. My children would be laying down, sleeping, and I would be at the window to make sure no one would come in.”

She has spent years fighting to clear her name and obtain justice. Recounting her torture, Medina said she is horrified by the idea that the Mexican government is giving more power to forces known to carry out abuses.

“It’s sad to see that our senators, our representatives, everyone in Mexico sees this, and yet they are continuing to hand Mexico over to sick people,” Medina said.

The U.S. government is also well aware of these abuses. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has remained quiet on the Internal Security Law and has continued with plans to support Mexico’s security forces. Despite President Donald Trump’s anti-Mexico vitriol and his public feud with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over a wall for the border between the two countries, funding is still flowing from the American government. What’s more, the Trump administration has cut funding from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which supported efforts to strengthen Mexico’s criminal justice system, while U.S. military funds have increased.

“Now, with Trump, what we’re seeing is an intention to return to a focus on militarized help,” said Ximena Suárez-Enríquez of the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA, which tracks U.S. policy in the region.

The opioid epidemic ravaging the U.S. is partly the reason for Congress’s insistence on giving security assistance to Mexico. But according to Mexican government data, the amount of heroin seized by the military has declined dramatically in recent years. In standing staunchly behind Mexico’s war on drugs, Congress and the Trump administration are funding a force that has routinely been implicated in violence against its own people.

Mexican soldiers patrol the streets of Apatzingan community, state of Michoacán, on January 10, 2015. A deadly clash erupted on January 6th between federal forces and civilians in Apatzingan, a former Knights Templar stronghold. Officials say at least nine people died after federal police and soldiers took back control of the City Hall from a group that had been occupying it since last December. AFP PHOTO/Alfredo ESTRELLA        (Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)

Mexican soldiers patrol the streets of Apatzingán, Michoacán, on Jan. 10, 2015.

Photo: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón deployed troops in his home state of Michoacán, marking the first move in the Mexican drug war. Ever since, Mexico’s military has been tasked with what would have traditionally been police work: finding and capturing cartel members and seizing drugs. Along with the military’s increased role in quelling cartel violence have come reports of torture, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial assassinations, the majority of which have not been investigated or prosecuted.

In December, Peña Nieto approved the controversial Internal Security Law, which gives the president the power to issue a “declaration of internal security protection” and immediately deploy troops to intervene in any situation that may “threaten” the country’s internal security. Effectively, the law formalizes the military’s already outsized role in local policing.

The law “goes toward a hybrid concept that blends the question of national security and public security, to generate an intermediary concept that confuses the two, which should be clearly separated,” said Santiago Aguirre, sub-director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, also known as Centro Prodh.

The legislation went into effect immediately, although Mexico’s Supreme Court is currently hearing a challenge to its constitutionality, and Peña Nieto says he will not issue a declaration regarding the law until the court rules.

“We can safely say this is the legislation that has been opposed by the largest number of public and private institutions in Mexico in recent history,” said José Antonio Guevara, executive director of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.

Supporters of the law — mostly legislators from the center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party — say the armed forces are necessary to continue fighting against organized crime in Mexico. Since the military has already been on the streets for over 11 years in a state of legal ambiguity, they say, this law provides a legal framework to regulate and formalize the military’s role.

They also point to rampant corruption within many police forces around the country. In Veracruz, for example, police working for the state’s former governor have carried out brutal paramilitary disappearances and executions; in 2016, they allegedly threw bodies from helicopters, leaving some stuck in the treetops.

But the military’s role in public security has not reduced the volume of blood running through Mexico’s streets. The number of deaths has only gone up since the military was first deployed. According to a government database, 11,806 homicides were reported in 2006. Eleven years later, more than 25,000 homicides were reported, making 2017 the deadliest year in recent Mexican history.

The database does not specify how many of those homicides were related to the drug war or other crimes, such as rampant so-called femicide. But a report by the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics — or CIDE, its Spanish-language acronym — a renowned public research institution, explains that having the military in the streets has heightened violence in two ways. First, by fragmenting criminal groups, leading to bloody fights and turf wars between fissured cartels; and second, by triggering the groups to retaliate, often costing innocent bystanders their lives.

“The data shows us that the military, taking care of public security matters for 12 years, has produced what is probably the gravest human rights crisis Mexico has had since the time of the revolution,” Alejandro Madrazo, a researcher from CIDE, told The Intercept, referring to the decade of armed struggle in Mexico between 1910 and 1920.

The armed forces themselves have been implicated in the violence and human rights abuses, with several cases that have caught international attention.

On January 30, in Culiacán, Sinaloa, marine forces burst into a party, seeking members of criminal organizations. “I’m going to fuck up anyone who has a cellphone in their hand,” one marine can be heard saying on a video that was clandestinely recorded.

According to official sources, there was a shootout and four armed men were killed. However, an investigation by RioDoce, a local news organization, suggested that the military had actually committed extrajudicial executions of the four men while they were cuffed and kneeling on the floor.

This recent instance has similarities with another high-profile case from 2014, in which bullets rang out on the outskirts of Tlatlaya, in Mexico state. According to the official story put forth by the Mexican attorney general, military forces came under attack by alleged kidnappers, and the ensuing shootout left 22 dead. But subsequent investigations revealed inconsistencies and suggested that between 12 to 15 of the dead were executed as they surrendered.

WOLA released a report in November 2017 that found that between 2012 and 2016, the attorney general’s office launched 505 investigations into human rights violations committed by soldiers. But in the same time frame, there were only 16 convictions of soldiers.

“We have seen how in cases documented by the National Commission of Human Rights, soldiers, with investigations, have altered the crime scene, have planted weapons,” said WOLA’s Suárez-Enríquez. “With the new law, there is no guarantee that the situation will change. There is no guarantee there will be an improvement in investigations.”

Mexico will hold elections in July – an event that has historically led to social movements in response to claims of election fraud. Although the Internal Security Law includes an article specifying that social or political protests will never be considered a threat and cannot be subject to a presidential declaration, critics like Madrazo, of CIDE, say the law’s language is still worryingly vague.

“The law says there are two situations in which it can be activated, not just against ‘threats’ to internal security, but [also] ‘risks’ to internal security. And ‘risks’ is even more lax and open,” Madrazo said. “Political-electoral protests were not excluded from being considered ‘risks.’ So the military can act against a political-electoral protest if they consider it to be a ‘risk’ and not a ‘threat.’”

Demonstrators display posters reading "No to the militarization of the country" during a protest against the eminent approval of an Internal Security Act outside the Senate in Mexico City, on December 5, 2017.Mexican deputies approved a new security law, which provides a legal framework for military deployment, the controversial initiative is being discussed in the Senate. / AFP PHOTO / PEDRO PARDO (Photo credit should read PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrators hold posters that read, “No to the militarization of the country” during a protest against the imminent approval of the Internal Security Law outside the Capitol in Mexico City, on Dec. 5, 2017.

Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

While the U.N. and a host of international human rights organizations have protested Mexico’s militarization, the U.S. government continues its generous funding of Mexican armed forces.

In 2008, the State Department established the Mérida Initiative, a partnership with the Mexican government to disrupt organized crime. Congress appropriated $2.5 billion through the initiative to support, train, and provide equipment to Mexican law enforcement and has already provided $1.8 billion of the allocated funds. Although funding levels have declined slightly in recent years, from $169 million in 2016, under former President Barack Obama, to this year’s White House request for $78.9 million, the U.S. still supports an array of programs.

“They have been rapidly expanding to also include other contexts,” Iñigo Guevara, Latin American security analyst and director of Jane’s Aerospace, told The Intercept. Guevara said U.S.-Mexico military cooperation also includes disaster response, intelligence and information exchange, and more traditional types of military training.

When reached for comment, a State Department spokesperson said the department does not publicly share which Mexican military units have received support through Mérida.

“U.S. assistance to Mexican security forces is contingent upon rigorous vetting for gross violations of human rights in accordance with the Leahy amendment,” the spokesperson added. The Leahy laws prohibit assistance to units with human rights violations.

The Defense Department also collaborates and trains Mexican armed forces, and according to the Congressional Research Service, such cooperation has been increasing. Recent data shows an overall shift in funds going toward Mexico from the State Department to the Defense Department, a change that makes security assistance more difficult to track.

At the same time, the Trump administration has cut back on State Department funds to Latin America through USAID, which, according to WOLA’s Suárez-Enríquez, were being used to strengthen Mexico’s judicial system and to help protect journalists and human rights defenders. She sees the USAID cuts and Defense Department increases as a step backward.

The Pentagon reports to Congress the money it plans to spend on counternarcotics in Mexico: an estimated $54.8 million in fiscal year 2016, $58.1 million in 2017, and $63.3 million in 2018, according to the Congressional Research Service. It is unclear how much more money may flow to Mexico from other DOD accounts.

Training from Northern Command, the DOD arm that focuses on Mexico, includes courses on surveillance, interdiction, and logistics.

“USNORTHCOM has provided training to Mexican service members in a wide variety of technical and professional courses,” a Northcom spokesperson wrote in an email. “All recipients of USNORTHCOM assistance undergo a rigorous process for human rights vetting.”

The U.S. has also moved forward with weapons sales to Mexico, approving earlier this year the possible sale of $98.4 million in missiles to the Mexican navy.

Congress appears to want to send even more assistance to Mexico than the executive branch. For 2018, the House of Representatives authorized $129 million, and the Senate $139 million, for Mérida Initiative funds. Both Congress and the White House have tied the U.S. opioid crisis to the flow of drugs from organized criminal groups.

But despite this support, according to publicly available documents from the Mexican government analyzed by The Intercept, there has been a decreasing rate of narcotic seizures by Mexican armed forces. In 2015, there were 425 kilograms of heroin seized by the army and navy. In 2017, however, the army seized just 218 kilograms, and the navy reported having seized none.

The Mexican Naval Secretariat and the Secretariat of National Defense did not respond to requests for comment.

U.S. military support to Mexico worries those who oppose the Internal Security Law. In its November report, WOLA wrote that U.S. security assistance “supports a concerning and open-ended role of the Mexican armed forces in combatting drug trafficking and organized crime in the country and provides backing to a military that has a record of committing widespread human rights violations with impunity.”

“It’s a bad idea,” Suárez-Enríquez said. “It’s worrying because there are adverse effects for communities living nearby.”

For Medina, the woman who was tortured in 2012, it is essential that Mexicans question the actions of the military, even though the risk is great. She had to flee Veracruz with her children. Even with the support of prominent human rights groups, her reputation was tarnished after being labeled a cartel member, and her husband remains behind bars.

“There was a lot of fear, because speaking out is confronting the government — because it’s against elements of the marines, of the federal government,” Medina said. “It’s confronting a big monster. But thanks to God, I spoke up.”

The “big monster” is not just the Mexican authorities relishing their impunity. It is also the entire structure that funds and enables further abuse, including the U.S. government.

Top photo: Soldiers look up toward the president as they ride past the National Palace during the annual Independence Day military parade in Mexico City on Sept. 16, 2016.

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