Torture, Guns, and Money: The Neocon Agenda for Mexico

So it's Sunday morning and I'm halfway paying attention to the panel discussion on This Week with George Stephanopoulos when I do a double take. In the middle of a conversation about Guantanamo Bay, Newt Gingrich, sounding solemn and serious, interrupts with a grave warning:

Can I? I just want to raise one issue that did not come up today that I think is going to become a very big issue. There is a war under way in Mexico. There were more people killed in Mexico in 2008 than were killed in Iraq. It is grossly under-covered by the American media. It is on our border. It has the potential to extend into our countryside. It's a very serious problem.

Yes, it is. But I couldn't help but wonder why Newt Gingrich suddenly seems so passionate about it. I'm sure he's concerned with border security and drug violence, but it turns out Newt has another reason for talking about the "war in Mexico" right now. The neocons may have lost Iraq, but their agenda for Mexico continues unabated. And Newt's just doing what he can to make sure it stays that way.

Why did Newt bring this up now? There's little doubt that it was related to Monday's meeting between Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Reuters reports that:


One of Calderón's priorities was to press Obama to follow through on a U.S. aid program launched by Bush in 2007 to help Mexico combat the drug trade. The Mexican president is battling drug traffickers blamed for killing 5,650 people last year.

The program launched by Bush in 2007 was the Mérida Initiative. What's the Mérida Initiative? Back in the summer of 2006, when most of us were focused on failed efforts to de-fund the Iraq War, few noticed that Bush was busy securing $550 million in (military) aid to Mexico. According to the U.S. State Department, the Mérida Initiative provides:

Non-intrusive inspection equipment, ion scanners, canine units for Mexican customs, for the new federal police and for the military to interdict trafficked drugs, arms, cash and persons.

Technologies to improve and secure communications systems to support collecting information as well as ensuring that vital information is accessible for criminal law enforcement.

Technical advice and training to strengthen the institutions of justice - vetting for the new police force, case management software to track investigations through the system to trial, new offices of citizen complaints and professional responsibility, and establishing witness protection programs.

Helicopters and surveillance aircraft to support interdiction activities and rapid operational response of law enforcement agencies in Mexico.

Initial funding for security cooperation with Central America that responds directly to Central American leaders' concerns over gangs, drugs, and arms articulated during July SICA meetings and the SICA Security Strategy.

Includes equipment and assets to support counterpart security agencies inspecting and interdicting drugs, trafficked goods, people and other contraband as well as equipment, training and community action programs in Central American countries to implement anti-gang measures and expand the reach of these measures in the region.

Coming out of the Bush administration, that list sounds worrisome, at the very least. And the more I learn about Mérida, the less surprised I am that it's a program Newt Gingrich thinks is crucial. Apparently, promoting the Mérida Initiative has been a top priority for the neocon flagship American Enterprise Institute, where, of course, Newt has been a Fellow and Scholar for years. This is the organization that spawned PNAC and provided us with the architects of the Iraq War. You can read AEI advocacy for the Mérida Initiative here, here, and here.

But I'll give the floor to Laura Carlsen, Director of the Mexico City-based Americas Program. Writing on Huffington Post, Carlsen describes the Mérida Initiative as part of President Bush's "legacy plan" for Latin America:


The administration already took several major steps in Latin America to lock in its legacy. The most important is the Mérida Initiative, a multi-year military and police-aid package that includes equipment and training to Mexico and, to a lesser degree, Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Congress already passed the first $465 million-dollar installment in June of this year and the 2009 spending request will be coming up soon.

This plan, described as a regional security cooperation initiative, locks in three Bush policies that have resulted in demonstrable failure, major human rights violations, and death: the war on drugs, the counterterrorism paradigm, and border security. The Mérida Initiative replicates the Plan Colombia model of the war on drugs by focusing exclusively on interdiction and confrontation -- a model that didn't work in Colombia and won't work in Mexico.

The inclusion of counterterrorism imposes the failings of the model applied in the United States on its southern neighbors, where international terrorism hasn't been a threat and the political costs could be much higher. A 2004 Foreign Policy In Focus report on the counterterrorism model noted six failings of this Bush policy, which also apply to the Mérida initiative: an overemphasis on military responses, an underestimation of the role of and problems with intelligence sharing, a clear tendency to undermine democracy and civil liberties, a lack of focus on homeland security measures at home, a weakening of international institutions, and a failure to attack root causes.

Finally, the linking of immigration enforcement with national security in the initiative mimics the language found in the Republican platform. Migrants are treated as the equivalent of terrorists and drug-traffickers. The militarization of borders -- not just the U.S.-Mexico border but the Mexico-Guatemala border, as Mexico must assume the task of intercepting migrants before they get close to the United States -- provides juicy contracts to the defense industry and has led to hundreds of migrant deaths and abuses.

And here's the kicker:

The Democratic Congress failed to recognize that the Mérida Initiative was designed to tie the hands of a Democratic administration by imposing a classic Bushian script on relations with our southern neighbors. Following the feint that Mexico simply needed help with its drug war, Democrats approved the funding.

As with the U.S. occupation of Iraq, objections to the Mérida Initiative go beyond abstract concerns about neoconservative foreign policy objectives. And they sound all too familiar. Accusations of human rights abuses by the police and military are nothing new in Mexico. But last year, revelations surfaced about U.S. involvement in "torture training" of the Mexican police. ABC News reported that:

Videos showing Leon police practicing torture techniques on a fellow officer and dragging another through vomit at the instruction of a U.S. adviser created an uproar Tuesday in Mexico, which has struggled to eliminate torture in law enforcement.

[...]

"They are teaching police ... to torture!" read the headline in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma.

It even sounds like we're teaching them how to waterboard:


One of the videos shows members of a tactical unit trying out methods on a fellow officer. They appear to squirt water up his nose and dunk his head in a hole said to be full of excrement and rats. The man gasps for air and moans repeatedly.

Unfortunately, it appears that the neocon intervention in Mexico won't end with Bush's departure. Yesterday, following Obama's meeting with Calderón, incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had this to say:

On security, President-elect Obama underscored his interest in finding ways to work together to reduce drug-related violence. He applauded the steps that President Calderón has taken to improve security in Mexico and expressed his on-going support for the valuable work being done under the Mérida Initiative. President-elect Obama believes the cooperation under the Mérida Initiative can be a building block for a deeper relationship.

If Obama has concerns about the Mérida Initiative, he's keeping them to himself. I'm sure that pleases Newt Gingrich and the American Enterprise Institute. The Iraq War is a failure, but the neoconservative agenda is alive and well in Mexico.

Tags: american enterprise institute, Laura Carlsen, Marida Initiative, Mexico, Neocons, Neoconservatives, newt gingrich, torture, War on Drugs, war on terror (all tags)

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