Better living through military might: the Merida Initiative

 In Arms Sales and Military Aid

The past few years, we all have been actively opposing Bush’s failed strategy in Iraq and the underlying philosophy that blunt military force will solve our international problems.  Of course this far-from-nuanced strategy is not new, and it is happening under the radar as the Bush administration slips in military aid to other countries while decreasing humanitarian assistance.  One egregious example of this is the Merida Initiative, another episode in a series of ineffective Latin America policy initiatives that endanger human rights and fail to address human need.  From the Latin America Working Group:

The Merida Initiative itself is a hodgepodge of assistance programs, including aircraft, communications equipment, computer software, and technical assistance and training destined for the military, attorney general’s office, federal police, National Migration Institute, other federal institutions, and, to a far lesser extent, civil society organizations. However, the first installment of the Merida Initiative is dominated by hardware for the Mexican military, namely helicopters and inspection equipment.

We are strongly concerned that such assistance will reinforce the highly flawed counternarcotics strategies utilized by the administration of Mexico’s President Calderón. These strategies rely heavily upon the Mexican military, a force that has been linked to ongoing human rights violations including rape, torture, murder and robbery in the course of counternarcotics and domestic law enforcement operations.

Since his election, President Calderón has deployed over 25,000 additional troops around the country to engage in counternarcotics efforts. The impact this strategy has been felt in communities as reports of horrific human rights violations at the hands of the military have surfaced. Just days ago, soldiers open fired on a vehicle at a military checkpoint in Santiago de Caballeros, Sinaloa, killing four civilians. Other recent violations have included a June 2007 incident in Sinaloa in which soldiers opened fire on a pick-up truck after it failed to stop at a checkpoint, killing three women and two children. In 2007 Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission cited additional reports of sexual assault, torture, and other severe human rights abuses committed by soldiers against civilians in the course of counternarcotics efforts, including the rape of 14 women by soldiers in Coahuila in July 2006. A recent article in Mexican newspaper La Jornada notes a surge in reports of abuses by the Mexican military in the past three years. Far too many of these incidents have gone unpunished as military authorities are solely responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of abuse by soldiers…

…Soldiers are not trained for domestic law enforcement and should not take over policing roles, even in cases where police are tainted by corruption. Rather than perpetuate these human rights abuses, U.S. aid should support a shift away from the use of the military in carrying out counternarcotics activities.

Moreover, the Merida Initiative, if passed as presented by the administration, will further skew U.S. assistance to Latin America in the direction of security and counternarcotics assistance. Unlike aid to Africa, where HIV/AIDS programs have helped improve the United States’ reputation in the region, nearly half of U.S. aid to Latin America is security assistance. As the White House proposes this $550 million package for counternarcotics, it also proposes to reduce assistance for children’s health programs (Child Survival and Health programs) in the region. To be a better neighbor to Latin America, our nation must help to reduce poverty, support public health programs, and help refugees and people displaced by violence and natural disaster.

Money for the Merida Initiative has been included in the “emergency” Iraq supplemental funding bill that will be voted on in Congress within the next few weeks.  Call the congressional switchboard at 1-800-614-2803 and urge your member of Congress to demilitarize the Merida Initiative. We need to direct our resources toward aid that addresses the root of problems and respects human rights. The US has a tremendous amount of power and resources, and if used effectively can promote positive development and human rights.

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