U.S. Military Training in Mexico Increased as Human Rights Waned, New Database Reveals

In the years after the U.S. pledged to invest in human rights and rule of law, the Pentagon spent millions training elite Mexican units how to fight.

Mexican marines observe the burning of kilos of cocaine that were seized in Veracruz, Mexico, on January, 16, 2018. Photo: Victoria Razo/AFP via Getty Images

Families in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas were left reeling last week after a federal judge released from custody 12 members of an elite U.S.-trained special operations unit accused of kidnapping their loved ones. According to the families, the Mexican marines orchestrated a wave of terror during their six-month deployment in the city of Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Laredo, Texas, that resulted in at least 47 abductions in 2018. The bodies of 19 victims were later recovered, some bearing signs of torture; 25 people remain missing, including a teenage U.S. citizen. The youngest of the victims was a 14-year-old boy.

Drawing international condemnation, the disappearances in Tamaulipas are significant not only for the acts the Mexican marines are accused of perpetrating but also because the marines, as an institution, have been the U.S. government’s most trusted drug war ally in Mexico for more than a decade, receiving extensive training, operational support, and praise from the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies. A new database released this week provides the most detailed picture to date of what the U.S. government’s relationship to the Mexican marines has looked like on the ground, revealing the extensive tactical training that the Pentagon has provided to the marines’ elite units and other elements of the Mexican military.

Launched by the Mexico Violence Resource Project at the University of California, San Diego, the database allows users to search through more than 6,000 instances of U.S. military training for Mexican security forces spanning nearly two decades and totaling nearly $144 million in U.S. taxpayer funding. According to Michael Lettieri, a managing editor of the Mexico Violence Resource Project and lead analyst and designer of the project, the data, drawn from annual Pentagon and State Department reports to Congress, reveals that tactical and lethal training for Mexican military units — especially the Mexican marines — by the U.S. military has increased substantially over the past decade while human rights instruction has sharply decreased.

“One hand is saying, ‘We’re building up the justice system and the civilian police,’ and the other hand is saying, ‘We’re making your military really good at killing people,’” Lettieri told The Intercept. “I don’t know that it’s an incoherent foreign policy, but it’s certainly a slightly deceptive one.”

“One hand is saying, ‘We’re building up the justice system and the civilian police,’ and the other hand is saying, ‘We’re making your military really good at killing people.’”

Last month, top officials from the U.S. and Mexico met to discuss replacing the Mérida Initiative, a $3.5 billion aid package that has been the public face of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation since 2007, with a new bilateral security framework. More than 300,000 people have been killed in Mexico since former President Felipe Calderón deployed the military in a stated war on drug trafficking in 2006. More than 100,000 others have disappeared. Security forces at all levels have a well-documented history of systemic human rights abuses.

In 2011, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to a reorganization of Mérida that would strengthen “law enforcement institutions, enhance criminal prosecutions and the rule of law, build public confidence in the justice sector, improve border security, promote greater respect for human rights, and prevent crime and violence.” The shift was seen among some close trackers of the U.S.-Mexico security relationship as a potential move away from the militarized drug war model that has fueled unprecedented levels of violence and instability in the country.

The database complicates that picture. Significant chunks of Mérida spending have indeed gone to civil society programs in Mexico in the past decade, largely through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department; however, the government’s own records show that the Pentagon has taken the opposite track since 2011, doubling down on tactical training while moving away from human rights instruction. While the database captures the language proficiency and technical training courses one might expect to find in a binational security partnership, it also features extensive records of recent and large-scale training operations involving U.S. personnel in Mexico, including dozens of “unit-level pre-deployment training” missions involving upward of 140 marines at a time, combat shooting courses, martial arts courses, airborne parachute courses, tactical driving courses, asset interdiction courses, aerial warfare courses, and more.

“The top-line story that everybody’s giving is, all the Mérida spending is going to justice reform and it’s not just about shooting the baddies anymore,” Lettieri said. “I would say what the Pentagon is doing is ‘here’s how you shoot the baddies.’”

The information in the database, first organized by Security Force Monitor, a Columbia Law School project, shows that from 2007 to 2012, the U.S. provided tactical training to an average of 261 members of Mexican security forces annually. After 2012, that number jumped to 1,454. The Mexican marines were the primary beneficiary of the explosion in training, representing nearly 60 percent of the Pentagon’s students and receiving nearly half — $46.3 million — of the $101.2 million spent post-2011. From 2013 to 2019, while tactical training was surging, the Pentagon provided human rights training to just 27 students, only 12 of whom came from the Mexican military. Combined Pentagon and State Department funding on human rights training post-2012 came out to a mere $212,000.

“When you look at it over time, it just jumps off the page that it’s tactical.”

Lettieri went into the project neither searching for nor expecting to find the post-2011 increase in tactical training, but as he continued to work with the data, the shift became clear. “When you look at it over time, it just jumps off the page that it’s tactical,” he said. It wasn’t just the marines, known in Mexico as SEMAR, receiving tactical training, he discovered. The army, known as SEDENA, also received extensive Pentagon support at the tactical level. The finding was significant because Washington has couched its embrace of the marines as allies in the drug war in Mexico in the perceived unreliability of the army as a trustworthy partner in matters of operational security and human rights. SEDENA has long been one of Mexico’s most powerful institutions; it has also been tied to many of the country’s worst state crimes, including the 2014 disappearance of 43 college students in the state of Guerrero.

The database provides just one glimpse into a much wider world of security exchanges between the U.S. and Mexico, Lettieri said, most of which is inaccessible to the public. It does not include, for example, information on the enormous array of arms Mexico purchases from the U.S. or where those arms ultimately end up, nor does it reveal anything about the extensive training and cooperation that occurs between state and local law enforcement agencies on the two sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Thanks to the joint State Department and Pentagon report on foreign military training that’s delivered to Congress each year, “we have some ability to understand this section of U.S. interaction with Mexico,” Lettier said. Still, he added, “There’s a whole bunch of stuff we don’t know very much about.”

“That’s a key takeaway here,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of money being spent, but we don’t have even this minimal kind of accountability.”

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