Karl Baker, Jo Tuckman and Dan Roberts / The Guardian – 2015-01-09 01:30:08
MEXICO CITY and WASHINGTON (January 6, 2015) — Barack Obama has pledged support for the Mexican government despite calls for him to withhold aid to the country’s security forces following a string of incidents in which military troops and police have been implicated in torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.
After meeting with his embattled Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto on Tuesday, Obama said: “Our commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and the drug cartels that are responsible for so much tragedy inside of Mexico.”
Pena Nieto has faced a wave of protests against perceived corruption and impunity, fuelled in part by two high-profile cases of alleged human rights abuses: in June, troops allegedly executed at least 15 suspected gang members in the town of Tlatlaya after they surrendered following a gun battle. In September, 43 student teachers disappeared and are presumed to have been murdered after they were attacked by police officers in the town of Iguala.
As the two presidents met in Washington, nine civilians were reported to have been killed in clashes with troops in the western state of Michoacan. The state’s federal security commissioner Alfredo Castillo said the confrontations in the town of Apatzigan began Tuesday morning when the army tried to take control of city hall, which had been held for days by civilians.
Obama had been under pressure from groups including Human Rights Watch to withhold military aid to Mexico if it failed to rein in abuse.
Obama told reporters in the Oval Office that Americans have been following the “tragic events surrounding the students whose lives were lost.” He said Pena Nieto described reforms he’s initiated around the issues that were raised. But, he added: “Ultimately it will be up to Mexico and its law enforcement to carry out the decisions that need to be made.”
Pena Nieto responded by thanking Obama for working with Mexico to improve security, “especially this clear challenge Mexico has to continue fighting organized crime.”
Dozens of protestors gathered outside the White House, calling for justice in the case of the students.
Protests had been planned in 11 US cities on Tuesday, to call for a suspension of US aid to Mexican security forces. “President Obama should use his meeting to announce an end to the US military aid, which is helping Mexico’s military, federal police and other security forces continue killing and disappearing innocents with our tax dollars — and with impunity,” said activist Roberto Lovato, a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for Latino Policy Research, and one of the organisers of the #UStired2 campaign, which has organised the demonstrations.
“Not centring their meeting on the human rights crisis doesn’t just seem clueless and out of touch. It’s calculating and callous in extreme,” said Lovato.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, Human Rights Watch called on Obama to warn Enrique Pena Nieto that he must do more to stop abuses — or risk losing a portion of aid within a security and justice aid package, known as the MÃ©rida initiative, which is legally conditioned on the country’s human rights record.
“You should make it clear that if Mexico is unable to show significant results in prosecuting human rights crimes, your administration will no longer be able to certify that the human rights requirements in the MÃ©rida initiative have been been met,” wrote Human Rights Watch’s director, JosÃ© Miguel Vivanco, in an open letter.
“The United States could play an important role in helping Mexico address this crisis,” Vivanco wrote. “Unfortunately, however, your administration has been sending precisely the wrong message by failing to enforce the human rights requirements included in the MÃ©rida Initiative.”
Senator Patrick Leahy, of the Senate subcommittee on state and foreign operations, has also questioned the release of aid conditioned on human rights.
“Mexican officials say they take these issues seriously, but the situation has not improved,” said Tim Rieser, a spokesman for Leahy, the author of those human rights guidelines in the programme.
“[Leahy’s] continuing concern is that there appears to be a perception within some elements of the Mexican army and police that you can commit murder and get away with it — and that people in positions of authority will cover it up,” said Rieser.
So far, however, officials in Washington, have been reluctant to make waves with one of America’s staunchest allies in its so-called “war on drugs”, said Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“I think the US has been very tepid, publicly, in raising its concerns,” she said.
A week before the disappearance of the students — and nearly three months after the alleged executions in Tlatlaya — the State Department sent a positive assessment of the human rights record of Mexico’s authorities to Congress.
US officials insist they continue to bring up human rights issues informally with Mexico — and said that they will do at Tuesday’s “bilateral dialogue”. The meeting has been primarily billed as focused on issues such as trade, energy, border security and immigration, as well as calls on the Mexican government to help pressure Cuba into making democratic reforms.
A US senior official said the administration’s security dialogue with Mexico revolved around working to improve law enforcement and judicial institutions and that it would “continue to look for ways of working with Mexico on that”.
The official also said the administration was aware of the Human Rights Watch letter, and repeated earlier calls for a “thorough and transparent investigation” into the Iguala massacre. He added, “We know that the Mexican government has taken steps to carry out this investigation.”
The Mexican government has arrested dozens of people so far over the Iguala massacre — most of whom are local police officers and members of the Guerreros Unidos. The former mayor of Iguala, who allegedly maintained close ties with the gang and ordered the attack on the students, is also in jail.
The FBI is supporting the investigation by Mexican federal authorities, providing help with DNA analysis, the deputy foreign secretary, Sergio Alcocer, said last week.
The Mexican government is also prosecuting several soldiers in relation to the alleged army massacre in Tlatlaya, though there has been no action stemming from the related evidence of a cover-up.
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