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U.S. Senate Report Signals Shift in Drug War Strategy

But Will President Peña Nieto Listen?
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A Mexican Highway Patrol

In April, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations sent a team of staffers to Mexico City and Monterrey to assess the state of Mexico’s police and judicial reform. The staffers spoke with Mexican and U.S. officials, policy analysts and human rights representatives.

The result is a 12-page report released Thursday that sums up President Felipe Calderon’s military deployments to combat organized crime as having “achieved limited success and in some cases led to human rights violations.”

While this may come as no surprise to most readers, it’s a strikingly different tone from the usual U.S. government narrative. Just two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Calderon’s military deployment against the cartels. “I’m a fan. I believe [in] and greatly admire what President Calderon is doing,” she told reporters.

Privately, U.S. government officials had grave concerns about Mexico’s deteriorating security strategy but publicly Clinton and other government officials were unflagging supporters of Calderon.  But after 55,000 deaths and as many as 30,000 disappearances it’s tough to keep up the rah rah speeches after so much suffering and bloodshed. Not even the U.S. government has the stomach for it anymore.

Though it was nice of the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to release its report after the July 1 presidential election. I’m sure Calderon appreciated the courtesy.

Calderon’s militarization strategy has been partially funded by the U.S. government’s Plan Merida, which has provided $1.9 billion for training, equipment and technical assistance. The plan, devised in 2007 by former President Bush and Calderon, has four goals: disrupt the capacity of organized crime, strengthen the rule of law; create a 21st century border; and build strong and resilient communities.

Calderon’s government has mostly focused on hunting drug capos, while forgetting the other three goals. The judicial system and rule of law have deteriorated. Communities and civic organizations are being destroyed instead of strengthened. With Enrique Peña Nieto taking office in December and a new U.S. presidential term starting in January, the report recommends a different tactic: reform and strengthen the judicial system and reform state and local police forces.

The committee recommends that Congress keep funding Plan Merida at $250 million a year for the next four years and that Mexico spend the majority of it on these reforms. Even $250 million is still a pittance compared to the estimated $39 billion U.S. drug users send annually to Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

The report’s authors warn the judicial and police reforms will be long and costly. “Simply put most Mexicans mistrust the federal and state authorities main tools to fight crime, the police and judicial system, given their record of pervasive corruption and ineffectiveness.”

Then they engage in some finger wagging. “These reforms are long-term, technically difficult, require political cooperation across party lines as well as cooperation between federal and state-level authorities, and therefore do not lend themselves to splashy public relations.”

It’s slightly ironic coming from U.S. Congressional members.

To further the goals of reform the U.S. government opened up a police training center in Puebla in May. U.S. law enforcement trainers are there working to train Mexican police officials. There are approximately 350,000 police officers across Mexico that the report estimates have little training or resources. It is a mind boggling challenge for Peña Nieto. It’s going to be a long, bumpy ride.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.