Drug wars next door

Great piece by journalist Clarence Page. One mistake: his implication that Amnesty International opposed the Merida Initiative. They didn’t; they supported it on ‘condition’ that it included notoriously inadequate human rights safeguards. Even though the final bill did not have even these safeguards, Amnesty refused to issue a statement of opposition to the Merida Initiative.

Sad testament to that human rights organization.



Drug wars next door

As if our military didn’t have its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, the head of the Minuteman Project border security group seems to think they might also make good narcotics cops.

Minuteman cofounder Jim Gilchrist suggested in recent radio interviews that the U.S. give Mexico 12 months to corral its criminal drug cartels and rising violence, particularly in border towns like Juarez and Tijuana — or deploy the U.S. Army to do the job.

That’s the Minutemen. Their remedies for the drug war next door sound simplistic, but at least they’re paying attention.

While most of us north of the border have been absorbed with our presidential sweepstakes and other happenings, or southern neighbor has exploded into the full-scale drug violence previously associated with Colombia or Peru.

For now, we’re not sending troops, just money. The Senate last week approved a $1.6 billion, three-year package of anti-drug assistance to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Known as the “Merida Initiative,” it includes $400 million for military equipment and technical assistance for Mexico’s anti-drug fight. The bill was passed earlier by the House, and President Bush is expected to sign it.

Mexico’s government cheered the bill, because it waters down proposed restrictions that would have required Mexico to change the way it handles allegations of human rights abuses by its military. Mexican leaders threatened to reject the money, if there were too many restrictions on their sovereignty.

But the omission brought jeers from Amnesty International and some other human rights organizations, like the Friends of Brad Will, founded in the name of a freelance New York journalist who was shot and killed while shooting video of a teachers strike in Oaxaca two years ago. Will was 36.

His final video shows protesters hurling rocks and captures the sounds of gunshots, along with a shout: “Stop taking photos!” A shot is heard whizzing toward Will. He was struck in the abdomen and once in the right side.

Within days, state authorities took two men into custody, a local town councilor and his security chief. But they were released less than two months later. A state judge ruled that they were not close enough to have shot Will.

No further suspects were brought in. Publicity eventually helped to nudge federal authorities into taking over the state’s investigation, but the federals have not made much progress, even with a murder that was caught on tape.

Twenty-one journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member, seven of them in direct reprisal for their work. Seven others have gone missing in the past three years.

“Mexico is not at war,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the committee. “And yet it is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press.”

But that’s only a sliver of the thousands of drug-related murders of non-journalists in Mexico. By various counts, more than 4,000 people — including some 500 local, state and federal police officers — have been killed in the 18 months since President Felipe Calderon launched his campaign against the drug gangs.

Gang wars have escalated in recent years over smuggling routes to the United States and over control of local police forces. Among other particularly grisly touches, drug gangs in the northern state of Durango recently have left severed heads with warning notes attached in coolers by the side of the road.

Journalists like Francisco Ortiz Franco, co-editor of the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta, have been killed for aggressively covering corruption and drug trafficking. At age 50, he was fatally shot in front of his children on a downtown Tijuana street.

Cases like his led to a meeting between President Calderon, who has sent federal troops in to bring peace to some towns, and CPJ board members, including me, in Mexico City on June 9. Among other press freedom reforms, he agreed to work toward laws that would protect speech and press freedoms at the federal level, not just the states, where corruption is more rampant.

With hundreds of millions of Washington anti-drug dollars still pending at the time, Calderon had ample reason to speak in glowing terms about human rights reforms. Now he needs to follow his talk with action — and Americans needs to keep an eye on how well our money is being used.

Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune. His column is distributed by Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207. You can reach him at cpage@tribune.com.

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