Human Rights in the Rear View Mirror: Colombian Commandos Training Mexican Military and Police*
By Cyril Mychalejko
In another misstep of the historic failure of Plan Colombia and the US supported War on Drugs, Colombia is training thousands of Mexican soldiers, police and court officials in an effort to boost Mexico’s fight against drug cartels.
Trainings have mostly taken place in Mexico, but now Mexican troops and police are traveling to Colombia to receive training from “Colombia’s battle-tested police commandos,” The Washington Post reported on Saturday. The article also suggests that, in addition to asserting itself as a regional power, Colombia is acting as a proxy for Washington because increased U.S. military presence in Mexico is not politically viable.
White House Drug Policy Director Richard Gil Kerlikowske, while meeting with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón in Bogotá on January 18, said that Colombia “serves as a beacon of hope for other nations struggling with the threat to democracy posed by drug trafficking and related crime.”
A Beacon of Hope?
Kerlikowske’s deceptively rosy assessment of Colombia and the effectiveness of Plan Colombia is severely undermined by the facts on the ground.
Earlier this month, Colombian military judge Alexander Cortes and his family were granted asylum by Switzerland. They were forced to flee the country after receiving death threats as a result of Cortes’s ruling that the Colombian Army had been guilty of 55 instances of “false-positives”, during which soldiers killed innocent young men and dressed them up as rebels in the military district of Urabá, Antioquia Department, in March of 2007.
A February 2009 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá released by WikiLeaks last year revealed that, despite thousands of extrajudicial murders committed by soldiers in the ‘false-positives scandal’, Colombian Army Inspector General Maj. Gen. Carlos Suarez, in charge of investigating the scandal, told an embassy official that then-President Álvaro Uribe continued “to view military success in terms of kills.” In addition, military policy rewarded soldiers with “bonuses, promotions and vacation days.” According to Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) annual human rights report released on Monday,
“As of May 2010, the Attorney General’s Office was investigating 1,366 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings committed by state agents involving more than 2,300 victims. There have only been convictions in 63 cases.”
But these types of problems have plagued Colombia for decades. “The CIA and senior U.S. diplomats were aware as early as 1994 that U.S.-backed Colombian security forces engaged in ‘death squad tactics,’ cooperated with drug-running paramilitary groups, and encouraged a ‘body count syndrome,'” state declassified documents published by the National Security Archive in January 2009. This might account for why Colombia leads the world in cases of forced disappearances.
In 1997 the US Congress approved the “Leahy Provision” or “Leahy Law,” an amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act which banned the US from giving anti-narcotics aid to any foreign military unit whose members have violated human rights.
Furthermore, Uribe, who currently teaches at Georgetown University, is being investigated by a Colombian congressional commission for using his country’s intelligence office, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), to spy on supreme court justices, rival politicians, journalists, human rights organizations and other civil society groups. In addition, according to the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project, the DAS “was exposed for providing paramilitaries a hit list of 23 trade unionists and others. The majority of the individuals on the list have since been killed or displaced.”
Uribe, who in June was praised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a “remarkable example of democratic leadership”, also saw some of his “most prominent political supporters” investigated for ties to paramilitaries. Now that his hand-picked successor and former defense minister is in power, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón can be expected to continue what Clinton calls “a great legacy of progress,” and which Washington continuously and groundlessly gushes over.
Mexico: From Bad to Worse?
In September, U.S. President Barack Obama praised Mexico for its “vast and progressive democracy.”
Human Rights Watch’s section on Mexico in Monday’s report paints a different picture of this country’s democratic institutions. The report documents that “while engaging in law enforcement activities, the armed forces have committed serious human rights violations, including killings, torture, and rapes,” and that 1,100 complaints of human rights abuses have been filed against the Army with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission in the first six months of last year.
Amnesty International also released a report in December 2010, Mexico: Human rights violations by the military, in which the human rights organization criticizes the Mexican government for its inadequate pursuit of justice regarding allegations against the military. “There is a disturbing pattern of crimes committed by the military in their security operations, abuse that is being denied and ignored by both the civilian and the military authorities in Mexico,” says Kerrie Howard, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Americas programme.
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose 2006 election was marred by allegations of irregularities and fraud, unleashed the military to take the lead in the fight against drug cartels, close to 35,000 people have been killed, while “collateral” civilian deaths increased 172 percent from 2009 to 2010.
“If the killings continue to increase at the current rate, that total will rise to about 75,000 by the time the government’s term in office ends in December 2012,” Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez, a political scientist and security consultant, told Canada’s National Post.
The Latin American Herald Tribune also pointed out that, like in Colombia, Mexico’s military are using “false-positive” methods to cover up civilian deaths. Meanwhile, a WikiLeaks cable dated Jan. 29, 2010 reveals that Washington, at least privately, is concerned with widespread corruption, low prosecution rates, and human rights abuses.
Extinguishing a Fire with Gasoline
The decision to allow Colombia to train Mexican authorities and military personnel to aid the fight in the drug war is akin to throwing gasoline on a fire, given both countries’ records of human rights scandals and institutionalized impunity. Never mind the fact, as The Economist recently pointed out, that Colombia is still “the world’s biggest cocaine producer,” which calls into question the effectiveness of Washington’s military approach to combat drug trafficking, or whether this is even their objective.
“The use of Colombian military trainers in Mexico may also be a way to get around the US legal requirement, contained in the Leahy Law, to exclude rights abusers in Mexico from receiving training and equipment,” said John Lindsay-Poland, Research and Advocacy Director for the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He also noted that, unfortunately, “the Leahy Law doesn’t put a filter on abuses by the trainers.”
According to “Drug Czar” Richard Gil Kerlikowske’s recent interview with CNN, this may mark part of the “next wave” of the Mérida Initiative, Washington’s $1.6 billion security package to bolster anti-drug efforts in the region.
“There is [the] Mérida [Initiative] and the [Obama] administration is working on the shifts for the next wave of what will happen with Mérida…Mérida is not just a Plan Mexico; it is about Central America as well,” he told CNN.
If that is the case, the resulting violence could light the whole region on fire.
Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org