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POLICY ANALYSIS: Mexican Family Tragedy at the Epicenter of U.S. Aid and Military Abuse

May 5th, 2011

 Josefina Reyes was assassinated with a gunshot to the head outside her barbeque stand last January. Her crime? Protesting the U.S.-backed war on drugs that has killed almost 35,000 Mexicans since 2006.

A long-time women’s rights advocate, Josefina never imagined that she would lose five family members and her own life for her activism. Then thousands of military troops were sent to Chihuahua. It was 2008, and U.S. funding was unleashing the Mexican Army on drug traffickers throughout the country.

The consequences of the heightened military presence prohibited Josefina from staying silent. When the military placed thirteen of her neighbors under pre-charge detention, Josefina petitioned for their release. Then she spoke at a conference titled “Forum Against Militarization and Repression.” That was about all it took: her son was disappeared several days later.

“There are powerful interests that want to silence the Reyes family,” says Josefina’s sister Marisela.

After Josefina’s murder, the family continued speaking out. And as a result, they’ve buried six murdered loved ones, despite the fact that they were granted protection by the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights.

It’s “because we don’t shut up,” says Olga Reyes Salazar.

With the help of U.S. aid through the Mérida Initiative, Mexican President Calderón has sent 50,000 soldiers and federal police to the streets of Mexican cities and towns. The deployment has corresponded to an increase in human rights violations: the military has been named in over 4,200 formal human rights accusations since 2007.

However, U.S. military aid to Mexico has failed to reduce illicit drug flows, assure public safety or significantly weaken cartels. Now people on both sides of the border are clamoring for a change in direction. Failures of the U.S. Drug War Model Until now, the U.S. strategy for combating drug trafficking throughout the continent has centered on military tactics.

The Mérida Initiative, modeled after Plan Colombia, designated $1.5 billion for military and police aid to Mexico. This money puts Mexican soldiers on the frontlines of the war on drugs.

With 50,000 troops deployed throughout the country, the Mexican Army has been implicated in murders, rapes and other abuses—the vast majority of which have never been prosecuted.

Almost 35,000 people have died and over 5,397 people have been reported missing since 2006. According to UNICEF, more people have died in the Mexican drug war than in the entire 10-year Afghan war. Yet only 5% of all murders in 2010 were investigated by Mexican authorities.

And even though the U.S. withheld $26 million in 2010 Mérida funding because of human rights concerns, the State Department still plans to fund Mérida past 2012.

Two decades of counter-narcotics assistance in Latin America have shown that military aid does little to reduce drug production and trafficking. At best, it shifts production centers and trafficking corridors, spurring drug-related violence with deadly consequences.

But as the drug war moves south to Central America, it’s met with the same one-size-fits-all military strategies—at the insistence of the U.S. government.

Realistic Solutions for the Drug Crisis

The Mérida Initiative is a military strategy focused on Mexico, the gateway for drugs produced mostly in South America. But with over 20 million drug users, the U.S. drives the drug trade in the first place—an issue that current policies don’t adequately address. In fact, the Obama administration provides even less funding to prevention programs than the Bush administration did.

Meanwhile, trade policies like NAFTA exacerbate the poverty, displacement and social inequalities that give cartels nearly endless opportunities for recruitment and influence.

It’s a perfect storm for human suffering. But is military aid the solution?

“Our politicians see Mexico in flames, and their knee-jerk response is to throw water on the fire by increasing military aid,” says Witness for Peace board member and drug policy expert Sanho Tree.

But to more and more public figures, civil society organizations and international bodies, it’s become clear that the U.S. must rethink its drug war strategy to end the violence and corruption associated with drug trafficking.

Even President Obama recently admitted that drug legalization was a valid subject for debate—the most daring admission made so far by a sitting U.S. president.

Last month a United Nations working group urged the Mexican government to stop using the Army in anti-drug operations. And on April 6, massive demonstrations erupted throughout Mexico. From coast to coast, the unified call was for the Army to leave the streets and return to their barracks.

Keeping the Faith

Despite all that’s happened to them, the Reyes Salazar family remains dedicated to speaking out against military abuse and impunity.

“We will continue fighting so that other families won’t suffer and live what we are going through now,” says Marisela.

To support their work, Witness for Peace supporters call on the U.S. government to reduce demand fordrugs stateside, work with Mexico to develop a strategy that prioritizes human rights, eliminate aid to Mexican security forces, and redirect Mérida funding to programs that address social and economic inequalities in Mexico.


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