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July 14, 2009
U.S. keeps Mexican drug trafficking on the back burner

Police search bags for drugs and weapons in Mexico.

PUERTO LAS OLLAS, Mexico — The Mexican army has carried out forced disappearances, acts of torture and illegal raids in pursuit of drug traffickers, according to documents and interviews with victims, their families, political leaders and human rights monitors.

This was the lead last week in the Washington Post, in a well-reported piece by Steve Fainaru and Bill Booth. Over the last quarter century, it’s been amazing and shocking to see how U.S. policy and world condemnation have always focused elsewhere in dealing with stories about drug trafficking and the impunity with which it takes place.

The first Bush administration invaded Panama (for something like the 14th time in history) in 1989, supposedly to staunch the disease of drug trafficking through that country. The second Bush administration paid billions to Colombia from 2001-2009 to fight a drug war that looked a lot like a license for corruption and human rights abuses among security forces.

And yet, all the while, Mexican drug trafficking has trundled along, with organized crime corrupting generals and privates, police chiefs and mayors — or killing them if they didn’t play ball. Mexican officials have never been able to control the trafficking and the crime surrounding it. But they do launch military campaigns that don’t resolve the long-term problem — and people die in the crossfire. We’re in a long-lasting crescendo now — some U.S. officials have said the Mexican government is in a dire situation akin to the failed state status of Pakistan.

We’re not allowed to say that though — Mexican officials don’t want to hear it, and U.S. officials don’t want to push the issue too far ahead toward the front burner.

The reality and the danger are evident.

Early in her tenure, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that the United States shares responsibility. She said this on a visit this spring to Mexico:

We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States, that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States to Mexico; and therefore, we see this as a responsibility to assist the Mexican government and the Mexican people in defeating an enemy that is committing violence and disruption that is very harmful and which is something that all people of conscience should attempt to defeat.

The State Department is now preparing to issue a report on Mexican efforts to police drug crime, and accountability in meeting accepted norms on human rights. Human rights organizations, such as the Washington Office on Latin America [WOLA], are calling on Congress to recognize the questions surrounding Mexico’s pursuit of the drug war before releasing further funding that supplies aid to the Mexican army and police.

Reacting to the Washington Post story, WOLA said this:

The growing number of military abuses is illustrated by amount of complaints received by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). During the first six months of 2009 the CNDH received over 2,000 complaints against the army, a dramatic increase from the 1,231 registered for all of 2008.

What role will the United States play in recognizing the dire situation — and who will deal credibly with the problems surrounding drug dealing and the accompanying violence?

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Prometeo Lucero under a Creative Commons license.

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Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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