La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Merida Initiative

Calderon calls on U.S. society to curb its drug use

Felipe calderon press conference

The White House on Friday issued a rare statement by U.S. President Obama on the deadly attack against civilians in a casino in northern Mexico, while President Felipe Calderon of Mexico delivered sharp words on American complicity in the violent conflict that has left tens of thousands dead in his country.

Obama's statement said:

I strongly condemn the barbaric and reprehensible attack in Monterrey, Mexico, yesterday. On behalf of the American people, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families at this difficult time. 

The president called Mexico's campaign against organized crime groups "a brave fight" and said the U.S. "will remain a partner in this fight." The statement renewed a consistent American commitment since President George W. Bush's administration to support Calderon, in office since late 2006, and his government's efforts against powerful drug cartels.

On Friday, Calderon visited the site of the attack that killed more than 50 gamblers and employees at the popular Casino Royale in Mexico's wealthiest city. Calderon again issued a call to the U.S. to do more to tackle the American demand for drugs and the smuggling of weapons into Mexico.

In the prepared remarks released by the president's office, Calderon said the extortion-related attack in Monterrey was due to one primary factor, "the movement and sale of drugs to the United States." Calderon went on (link in Spanish):

Part of the tragedy that Mexicans are living has to do with the fact that we are alongside the biggest consumer of drugs in the world, and at the same time, the biggest vendor of weapons in the world, which pays billions of dollars every year to the criminals who supply them with narcotics.

These ... dollars end up arming and organizing the criminals, and places them in their service and against the citizens.

This is why it is my duty, also, to make a call to the society, the Congress, and the government of the United States. I ask them to reflect on this tragedy that we Mexicans and many other countries in Latin America are living, as a consequence, in great part, to the insatiable consumption of drugs in which millions and millions of Americans participate.

Separately, the Obama administration is facing domestic political pressure over the secret gun-tracking program dubbed Fast and Furious, which resulted in hundreds of weapons being "walked" into Mexico and then lost, fueling drug-related violence. Read recent coverage in The Times of Operation Fast and Furious here and here.

Since 2007, when Bush and Calderon negotiated the Merida Initiative, the U.S. has sent almost $1.5 billion in aid to Mexico for its fight against the cartels, a foreign-aid package similar to the $7 billion Plan Colombia that sought to help that South American nation fight drug traffickers and guerrillas.


Searchers comb torched ruins of casino where 52 died

Mexican cartels splinter, branch out as drug war rages

Emails to White House didn't mention gun sting

U.S., Mexican governments reject report calling for drug legalization

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Felipe Calderon of Mexico, along with First Lady Margarita Zavala and top officials, Friday, August 26, 2011. Credit:

'Fast and Furious' scandal grows with revelation that Mexican cartel suspects may be paid U.S. informants

Mexico weapons seized june

Are high-profile suspects in Mexican drug cartels also paid informants for U.S. federal investigators? If so, could a brewing scandal in Washington implicate more U.S. agencies in the ongoing drug-related violence in Mexico?

Kenneth Melson, the embattled chief of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), made the earth-shaking revelation in testimony early last week, The Times reports. Melson reportedly told congressional leaders that Mexican cartel suspects tracked by his agents in a controversial gun-tracing program were also operating as paid informants for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the FBI.

The revelation is further complicating an already tangled scandal unfolding in Washington that ties U.S. weapons to the violent drug war in Mexico. The conflict has left about 40,000 dead in 4 1/2 years. In effect, the scandal also points to a deeper involvement of the U.S. government in Mexico's drug war than the public has previously known or suspected.

Times reporters have been actively covering the ATF scandal since it broke earlier this year. Using our stories, La Plaza explains below what is at stake.

Continue reading »

MEXICO: Poet's peace caravan to end drug war approaches Ciudad Juarez

Caravan peace march morelia

Every few years in Mexico, a grass-roots social movement pops up that seeks to shake up the status quo, take on longstanding corruption, the wide gap between rich and poor, and the often-unresponsive political class.

There was the Zapatistas' march to Mexico City in 2001, the Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador "vote by vote" movement after the presidential election in 2006, and the "nullify your vote" movement during the 2009 midterm elections.

Each has expressed a simmering discontent. Some see Mexico as little changed over the years, despite the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the arrival of democratic pluralism with the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000.

This year, the movement nudging its way into headlines in Mexico is led by a poet named Javier Sicilia, whose 24-year-old son was kidnapped and killed in Cuernavaca. L.A. Times correspondent Ken Ellingwood profiled Sicilia here. Sicilia is calling for a "re-foundation of the state," or a "peaceful revolution" in which the primary and immediate goal is to halt the violence of the drug war.

It's a tall order. Mexico's war is a multi-theater conflict pitting the resources of the U.S. and Mexican governments against combat-ready drug-trafficking organizations that reach across borders and show little hesitation to kill anyone who stands in their way. Innocents, migrants passing through Mexican territory, women activists who have boldly criticized criminals in public — many have met their end at the hands of cartel assassins.

Many Mexicans say they feel caught in the cross-fire between the cartels and the country's military and federal police. So they've taken to the streets, marching in cities from Monterrey to Mexico City, dressed in white, demanding peace. After his son's death, Sicilia vowed never to write another poem again, striking a chord, (link in Spanish) and called tens of thousands to march alongside him.

At the demonstration in Mexico City's Zocalo on May 8, Sicilia delivered an impassioned rebuke of President Felipe Calderon's strategy against organized crime, seeking to crystallize the frustrations (link in Spanish) of residents fed up with the extreme violence.

Mexicans across the world (link in Spanish) have held concurrent protests and news conferences denouncing the drug war, from Berlin to Buenos Aires, including in front of the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles.

On Friday, Sicilia's "peace caravan" is expected to roll into Ciudad Juarez for the signing of a "national pact" to change course as he called for on May 8 in Mexico City.

Activists from both sides of the border are set to converge on a city that has become the dark emblem of how horrific the drug-related violence can get. More than 8,000 people have died violently in Ciudad Juarez since the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels began battling there three years ago.

Drafts of the pact refer to six demands: Initiating a "new path to peace with justice and dignity"; an end to the war strategy against organized crime with a renewed focus on human rights; attacking corruption and impunity; attacking the economic roots and profits of organized crime; attending to the "emergency" facing Mexico's youth; initiating "participatory democracy" and democracy in mass media.

Ultimately, the pact appears to be a symbolic gesture. But can the movement translate emotional power into political strength? Can it avoid the fate of other social movements — being swallowed up by established political parties? Is Javier Sicilia's grief enough to force a change in the anti-crime strategy?

So far, the Mexican government has signaled it will not turn back in the drug cartel crackdown, an operation backed by the U.S. aid package known as the Merida Initiative. Both governments last week rejected the findings of a high-profile international commission calling for the legalization of some drugs.

On Wednesday, new U.S. government reports found that the "Obama administration is unable to show that the billions of dollars spent in the war on drugs have significantly stemmed the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States," reports The Times

For updates on the caravan to Ciudad Juarez, follow the Twitter hashtag #CaravanaMX.

Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Javier Sicilia's peace caravan passing through Morelia, Mexico. Credit: Reuters

U.S., Mexican governments reject report calling for drug legalization

Drug war peace march zapatistas efe

The governments of the United States and Mexico promptly rejected this week the conclusions of a high-profile international report calling for the "legal regulation" of some drugs.

In separate statements, the governments signaled that they would not back away from current strategies in the war on drugs, which in Mexico has resulted in more than 38,000 deaths in 4 1/2 years and is backed by more than $1 billion in U.S. aid under the Merida Initiative.

As The Times reported Thursday from Mexico City and Washington, the Global Commission on Drug Policy is urging governments to decriminalize drug consumption and experiment with legalization and regulation of some narcotics, especially marijuana. The report calls the 4-decade-old war on drugs a failure.

"We can no longer ignore the extent to which drug-related violence, crime and corruption in Latin America are the results of failed drug war policies," former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria said in a prepared statement tied to the report's release. "Now is the time to break the taboo on discussion of all drug policy options, including alternatives to drug prohibition."

Here's the commission's website, where visitors can download the full report in English or Spanish. The commission includes a former president of Brazil, a former president of Mexico, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and several business leaders.

On Thursday, as the drug-policy report was being released in New York, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued a statement arguing against its recommendations.

"The Obama administration's efforts to reduce drug use are not born out of a culture war or drug war mentality, but out of the recognition that drug use strains our economy, health, and public safety," the statement said.

In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon's government has consistently stated that it does not support the legalization of drugs but remains open to debate. The position was reaffirmed this week by the president's top national-security spokesman, Alejandro Piore (link in Spanish).

Piore said the Mexican government "categorically rejects the impression that in Mexico, by definition, a stronger application of the law on the part of the authorities shall result in an increase in violence on the part of the narco-traffickers."

Legalization, his statement also said, "does not do away with organized crime, nor with its rivalries and violence."

Read the full L.A. Times story on the commission's report here.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Masked Zapatistas, holding signs that read "No More Blood," march in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, on May 8. Credit: EFE

U.S. cables on Mexico: Unprepared for a drug war?

Bodies monterrey drug war mexico

Freshly dumped secret diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City reveal that top American advisers to Mexico's government have been dismayed by that nation's efforts to dismantle powerful drug-trafficking groups, Tracy Wilkinson reports in The Times.

The cables suggest an active and close cooperation between U.S. and Mexican anti-drug authorities, and a sense that high-profile victories against the drug organizations are believed necessary to maintain support among the Mexican public for the drug war. The cables praise Mexican President Felipe Calderon for attacking the cartels "head on" but offer a frank assessment of an overall unpreparedness for the complexities of the task among Mexico's civilian and military institutions.

The four-year conflict has left at least 30,000 dead. Meanwhile, narcotics continue to move almost unabated into the United States and the death tolls rise daily.

Mexico has had a handful of arrests and killings of "high-value targets," but more substantive victories are difficult to obtain as the country's justice system, intelligence infrastructure, and military remain far from achieving "modernization," the cables show.

Here's a breakdown of key findings in two of six new U.S. cables from Mexico, released Thursday by the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Continue reading »

WikiLeaks on Latin America: A cache on Mexico

WikiLeaks has amassed 2,836 classified or secret records relating to Mexico, but the website has made no announcement on when or if any of those records will be released.

The Mexico records were discussed briefly in an online chat on Monday with the editor of the Spanish daily El Pais, which has been publishing some of the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables (link in Spanish). The editor, Javier Moreno, says the Mexico records are related to "the war against drug trafficking." Moreno defended El Pais' decision to publish leaked U.S. cables, saying  his newspaper's job is "not to protect governments."

He did not say whether El Pais will be publishing any records on Mexico.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the leaking of the diplomatic cables "an attack on America's foreign policy interests" and said her office would not be commenting on the contents of any specific leaked documents.

The Mexico records obtained by WikiLeaks originate mostly from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, but also come from consulates in Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana, Monterrey, Guadalajara and other cities, reports El Universal (link in Spanish).

The United States has a deep diplomatic and intelligence infrastructure in Mexico, with field offices inside the country for the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service, FBI and other agencies. As reported previously by La Plaza, the United States and Mexico opened a joint office in Mexico City in August to oversee the implementation of the Merida Initiative, the multiyear aid package to help Mexico confront powerful narcotrafficking groups in a conflict that has left 30,000 dead over four years.

"Neither officials from Mexico or the United States working in the Bilateral Implementation Office will engage in intelligence or operational activities," the State Department said in its August statement announcing the office.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Report demands that Mexico try human rights claims against military in civilian courts

Mexico soldier

A new report on human rights abuses by Mexico's military in the country's ongoing armed conflict with drug traffickers depicts in stark terms the air of fear and impunity that have come to define the drug war, particularly in violence-torn Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Human rights claims against the military have jumped by 1,000% since President Felipe Calderon dispatched the army in December 2006 to combat drug gangs, and a variety of institutional reforms are crucial to reversing the trend, says the report released Tuesday by the liberal Washington Office on Latin America.

Mexico's Constitution stipulates that crimes against civilians by members of the military must be tried within civilian institutions, but Mexico's Code of Military Justice has been "broadly interpreted" to "assign jurisdiction of military discipline to include or encompass any disciplinary action against a soldier," said Maureen Meyer, main author of the WOLA report.

"So that's been one of the main issues, that there is that conflict over what the military interprets what their jurisdiction should be and what the Constitution says," Meyer told La Plaza from Washington, D.C. "In practice, the [civilian system] could say, 'This is our case.' But they most actively cede that jurisdiction to the military justice system."

Mexico's military led police operations in Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located, between March 2008 and April of this year. Military personnel have been accused of a range of abuses, such as forced disappearances, rape and robbery, even extrajudicial killings.

Army officials say they are working to prevent rights abuses by soldiers and have blamed some incidents on drug-gang henchmen disguised as troops. Military officials say they prosecute wrongdoers when there is evidence. But prosecutions have been few and details generally not made public.

In one case cited in the WOLA report, a man on his way to a night-shift job in Juarez was stopped at a military checkpoint, where soldiers allegedly planted drugs in his vehicle. The man was blindfolded and taken to an undisclosed location, where he was beaten and interrogated for three days. When he was released, the report said, soldiers warned him: "If anyone asks what happened to you, tell them that you were kidnapped. Remember that we know where your family lives."

In another case, a woman was stopped at a military checkpoint on her way to work and sexually assaulted by soldiers.

The report, titled "Abused and Afraid in Ciudad Juarez," was co-authored with the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Augustin Pro Juarez, a Jesuit-affiliated organization in Mexico City, and included data and testimonials from affiliated human rights groups in Ciudad Juarez. Such groups are also at risk of abuse as they investigate claims against the military in the violent border city. The WOLA report cites multiple threats against human rights activists and the unsolved shooting death of at least one, Josefina Reyes, in January.

The report concludes by demanding that judicial reforms passed by Mexico's Congress in 2008 be more speedily implemented and that the "gray area" over jurisdiction of human rights claims against the military be resolved. The international human rights community, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, has repeatedly called on Mexico to handle military-abuse claims in civilian courts.

The United States is also applying pressure on the issue, recently withholding allotted aid funds under the so-called Merida Initiative due to concerns about progress on human rights, as La Plaza reported earlier this month. Discussions on the jurisdiction issue are expected in the newly convened session of Mexico's Congress, Meyer said.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A Mexican soldier. Credit:

Report: Mexico is not Colombia, here's why

Mayor mexico body reuters

Comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton comparing Mexico's drug war to a Colombia-style "insurgency" touched off a flurry of debate over the parallels between the two conflicts. Seeking out the facts, L.A. Times foreign correspondents conclude that the secretary's comments were like comparing "apples and oranges."

Here's the full story from Sunday's paper. At issue is whether the U.S. will seek to model the Merida Initiative aid package to Mexico on Plan Colombia, the deal that has supplied Colombia with more than $7 billion in aid to combat rebels and drug traffickers.

In their reporting, correspondent Ken Ellingwood, Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson and special correspondent Chris Kraul in Colombia break down the two conflicts into basic areas. Here's the La Plaza summary:

The nature of the foe: Colombia's decades-long conflict with the FARC rebel group and with powerful drug cartels is motivated, at least on the rebel side, by a Marxist ideology aimed at overthrowing the state. In Mexico, the drug war is motivated by the cartels' basic goal of moving narcotics into the U.S. without government interference, and collecting profits.

Territory: At the peak of its power, the FARC controlled a "Switzerland-size chunk" of Colombia's territory, with identifiable borders, plus other land. In contrast, Mexican drug gangs' sway over certain regions of Mexico remains fluid, and there is "no zone the Mexican army cannot reach when it wants."

Targets and tactics: Terrorist-style attacks have occurred in Mexico's drug war (a remote-controlled car bomb in Ciudad Juarez, a grenade attack on civilians in Michoacan) but they have not occurred with the frequency and scope as such tactics in Colombia. The Mexico drug war is mostly a conflict between feuding cartel groups.

State weakness: This is where the line is fuzziest. Colombia had a weakened army when the FARC began attacking the state, but a relatively strong civil society that eventually rose up and demanded solutions. Mexico sent 50,000 troops head-on to combat its drug gangs, but it has so far fallen short in pursuing desperately needed reforms in the justice system, for example, and in money laundering.

What's the proper prescription for Mexico then? One unnamed U.S. official in Mexico told The Times: "Institution building, institution building, institution building."

The U.S. recently signaled it would drastically boost funds to Mexico but held back a fraction of a previously pledged amount over doubts on progress over human rights allegations. Human rights abuses remain the darkest mark on Colombia's advances over the FARC and traffickers, as reported recently by the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America, in an extensive analysis on Plan Colombia titled "Colombia: Don't Call it a Model."

On the 10th anniversary of Plan Colombia's start, Kraul reports in The Times that the country is more secure and that the military has made advances over the FARC. Still, coca eradication efforts have not been as successful as hoped, and have pushed some cocaine production over to neighboring Peru. Kraul notes that the Colombian military is believed responsible for 3,000 extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2009.

On Thursday in New York City, U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos over the confirmed death of a major FARC leader in a military operation on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, a mayor in a town in the Monterrey metropolitan area was assassinated late last week, the fourth mayor killed by suspected drug hitmen in the last six weeks, Wilkinson reports. A mayor-elect in Chihuahua state was also shot on Friday and was in critical condition.

In another troubling and slightly Colombia-esque development here last week, a lawmaker-elect with suspected ties to the La Familia drug organization was sworn into office after evading police. The newly sworn-in federal deputy, Julio Cesar Godoy of Michoacan, now has immunity from prosecution.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The body of Prisciliano Rodriguez Salinas, mayor of the town of Doctor Gonzalez, northeast of Monterrey, Mexico, lays near his truck after gunmen assassinated him on Sept. 23, 2010. Credit: Reuters

U.S. considers boosting funds for Mexico drug war, but holds cash back over rights

Mexican military soldier merida initiative human rights afp The U.S. government is considering substantially increasing funding for Mexico's drug war beyond the $1.4-billion Merida Initiative, Paul Richter reports from our Washington bureau. Citing an unnamed source in the White House, Richter reports that the Obama administration sees its joint anti-drug effort with Mexico as a top priority. 

At the same time, the administration separately announced that Mexico would receive $36 million in already-scheduled funds from the Merida Initiative but that another $26 million was being withheld until "additional progress can be made" on human rights issues in Mexico.

The State Department's report on Mexico was sent to Congress last week but has not been publicly released.

The administration wants Mexico to increase the authority of its National Human Rights Commission and for Mexican soldiers to be prosecuted on human rights charges in civilian courts rather than military tribunals. Soldiers and officers are rarely if ever convicted on such accusations in military courts, even as rights complaints have skyrocketed since President Felipe Calderon launched the army-led campaign against drug-trafficking groups in late 2006.

On Sunday, Mexican soldiers opened fire on a family's car at a highway checkpoint in the northern state of Nuevo Leon, killing a man and his teenage son and injuring five others. The Mexican army is implicated in the shooting deaths of two children in April. In March, a suspected drug gang member was photographed being hauled into the custody of marines one day, then showed up dead on a roadside the next.

Mexico's Interior Ministry said it would be paying the funeral expenses (link in Spanish) of Sunday's shooting victims, citing the military's "error" in the incident.

After last week's announcement about the withheld money, Mexico's Foreign Ministry responded with a measured critique. "Cooperation with the United States against transnational organized crime through the framework of the Merida Initiative is based on shared responsibility, mutual trust and respect for the jurisdiction of each country, not on unilateral plans for evaluating and conditions unacceptable to the government of Mexico," the statement said.

Meanwhile, as promised last year, the governments of the U.S. and Mexico opened a joint office -- the Merida Initiative Bilateral Implementation Office -- in Mexico City. Merida is a three-year program approved by the George W. Bush administration that designates $1.6 billion to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, with the lion's share, $1.4 billion, earmarked for Mexico.


-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A Mexican soldier stands guard at a crime scene in Tamaulipas state. Credit: Agence France-Presse



Report: Mexico's drug war is not working

Mexico drug war tijuana memorial police

Is the U.S.-backed drug war in Mexico working? By almost any account or any measure, the answer is no. Though high-ranking authorities on both sides of the border continue to support Mexico's military-led enforcement strategy against the country's powerful drug trafficking cartels, the facts remain stark, L.A. Times correspondents Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood say in a special report published Sunday.

The cartels are stronger, more violent, and transnational. Here are the worrisome highlights from the story:

* More than 28,000 people have been killed since December 2006.

* Mexico's effort has failed to dismantle the networks or significantly slow the flow of drugs. More narcotics are flowing into the United States.

* The availability of methamphetamine in the U.S. has hit a five-year high, while cocaine exports have dropped, possibly due to increased flow to other markets.

* Traffickers may now pose a long-term danger to Mexico's stability. Swaths of the country are now in effect without authority.

* The groups have transformed themselves into broad criminal empires deeply involved in migrant smuggling, extortion, kidnapping and trafficking in contraband.

* Drug gangs are armed with military-class weapons smuggled from the U.S., or weapons left over from U.S.-backed wars in Central America.

* Mexican traffickers have muscled aside competitors to gain control over shipments of most types of illegal drugs in the hemisphere.

* Criminal groups have usurped the government's role as tax collector.

* Traffickers have succeeded in shutting down major operations of Pemex, the state oil company and top source of national income. Traffickers have been stealing oil for years.

* Mexican drug gangs now operate in more than 2,500 cities in the U.S.

In addition to all this, attacks on journalists and human rights workers have skyrocketed, and so have claims of human rights abuses committed by Mexico's military. Still, the administration of U.S. President Obama plans to supply Mexico with more than $1 billion in aid under the Merida Initiative. A recent congressional report warns of lack of oversight on how that aid is spent. Only 9% of Merida Initiative funds have been delivered so far.

Now, the question of whether Mexico should legalize drugs, as former President Vicente Fox now advocates, is in many ways a moot proposal. A legalization of drugs in Mexico would have no effect on the illicit drug trade and market without a concurrent plan in the United States, many experts say.

But don't count on that to happen anytime soon. As the idea floats over both countries this week, a U.S. State Department spokesperson told the Associated Press: "We don't believe legalization is the answer." 

Then ... what is?

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photos: Authorities salute the caskets of seven police officers slain in Tijuana in April 2009. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times


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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson