Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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Human Rights and the Mexican Drug War
There is little question that fighting drug traffickers' efforts to take over the state or render it an effectively "ungoverned space" needs not only firepower but the support of the civilian population. The Mexican government of Felipe Calderón finds itself in that extremely difficult and dangerous nether world between needing to use the military in a war the military is not equipped to fight and not totally alienating the civilian population.

The New York Times today story on the State Department's report makes the point. Complaints of human rights abuses have jumped since the military entered the fray. It is a force that is neither trained nor interested in going after drug traffickers.

While the State Department cited several examples of progress, it was hardly a glowing endorsement. And a key Democratic senator said the report failed to adequately address the concerns about impunity within the Mexican military that led him to threaten to hold up millions of dollars in United States assistance.

“It is well known that the military justice system is manifestly ineffective,” said a statement issued Tuesday by Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, which must approve disbursement of the Merida assistance. “And it is apparent that neither the Mexican government nor the State Department has treated human rights abuses by the military, which is engaging in an internal police function it is ill suited for, as a priority.”

As in Afghanistan, Iraq, El Salvador and every other counterinsurgency effort (and it would be a mistake to think Mexico is facing anything less than a loose confederation of insurgent forces, each intent on controlling geographic territory to carry out its criminal activity) has shown, it is a tragic and costly mistake to think that the best way to gather information is to torture or execute the civilian population (or the enemy).

Every act of torture and murder by government forces moves an entire family to the side of the enemy who will then do everything possible to get revenge. While often viewed as the most expeditious way to acquire information or the result of sloppy intelligence, planning or execution, the abuses do far more damage than any intelligence they may produce.

This makes human rights behavior by government forces a matter of national security, not just a moral imperative. To move forward Mexico must do away with the opaque nature of the military tribunals, be willing to name names and publicly punish offenders. Anything less does the nation great harm.

There is an added complication that I witnessed in El Salvador and Colombia that I am sure is at play here. There are certainly serious abuses that go unpunished. There are also legions of people paid by the cartels to file, on top of that, endless streams of frivolous complaints that both inflate the number and make it much more difficult to investigate the real abuses.

After many years, the Colombian police and military still continue to carry out abuses, although the institutionalization of the abuses has been largely broken. The strongest evidence of the changing nature of the relationship between civilians and the police and military there is the huge volume of intelligence now generated by people who trust the government forces enough to pass on the information.

The government forces are often (certainly not always) viewed as less of a threat to the civilians than the FARC or other criminal organizations. While not a ringing endorsement, it is a long way from the days when the military could gather almost no intelligence at all.

Mexican officials are embarking on a long and slippery road. The military as an institution is fighting for something it does not necessarily believe in, which is a bad place from which to start. While it started out as one of Mexico's most trusted institutions, that trust is battered with every abuse committed.

Every loss there is a victory for the narcos and their desire to paint themselves as the protectors of the people. This is particularly true of groups like La Familia Michoacana, which fashions itself as a religious/civic organization, doing the work of both the Lord and the people.

Plan Merida cannot succeed without the goodwill of the Mexican people in the areas most affected. If that is impossible, neutrality has to be the minimum goal. That is a war that is far more difficult to wage than shooting war, but ultimately much more important.
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