independent journalist and Global Exchange Human Rights Fellow based in Mexico. His forthcoming book is called Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt.
We broadcast a report from Mexico produced by Inside USA (Al Jazeera English) on the US role in Mexico’s growing drug war. And we speak about the Plan Mexico initiative with Avi Lewis, Laura Carlsen and John Gibler. [includes rush transcript]
ANJALI KAMAT: As the WTO talks collapse, we turn now to the country perhaps most profoundly impacted by US trade during the neoliberal era. In the fifteenth year since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, Mexico continues to fall short of the lofty gains that backers of neoliberal globalization had promised. Today, polls show that by a two-to-one margin Mexicans believe they’re on the losing end of NAFTA.
The latest US initiative in Mexico is also attracting scrutiny. Last month, the Bush administration and the Democratic-led Congress agreed on Plan Mexico, a $400 million program to fight Mexican drug trafficking. Much like its predecessor, Plan Colombia, the Mexico initiative has been criticized for emphasizing militarization and security rather than addressing social and economic causes. The bulk of the money will go to military contractors and Mexico’s armed forces. The final version of the bill also omits several key provisions that would have linked funding to human rights.
In a few moments, we’ll talk to three guests about Plan Mexico. But first we turn to an excerpt from last week’s episode of Inside USA, an investigative news program airing on the network Al Jazeera English.
NARRATOR: Culiacan, Mexico. This is a city on the frontline of war, one that is at its heart deeply tied to policies made in Washington. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon came to power, more than 4,000 have been murdered in drug trafficking-related crimes, many times more than the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same time period. At stake, control of tens of billions of dollars of cocaine and methamphetamine flowing annually to American drug users. It’s not just the traffickers who are being killed. Dozens of civilians have been caught up in the crossfire, journalists assassinated, and hundreds of Mexican security forces gunned down.
In this Culiacan cemetery, the family of one policeman, recently killed, bury his body. He’s being laid to rest in a modest grave next to the extravagant mausoleums built for slain drug traffickers.
COMMANDER MANUEL HERNANDEZ: [translated] It’s always tough when you lose one of your men.
NARRATOR: For Police Commander Manuel Hernandez, seeing his men fall has become a regular occurrence, and the fear being killed is beginning to take its toll.
COMMANDER MANUEL HERNANDEZ: [translated] Of course, I’m scared. I am a human being, and I would be scared, or otherwise I would be crazy. But I’m more scared of not doing my duty for Mexico out of fear for my life.
NARRATOR: His officer’s death is not expected to be the last. Dozens of graves here are being dug to accommodate the growing casualties. The violence in Sinaloa, home to some of the largest drug cartels in Mexico, is taking place on a massive scale. The capital, Culiacan, averages four executions a day.
We followed local journalists and police on what has become a grisly daily ritual. On the streets, it seems that the huge number of security forces are completely powerless to stem the violence. Bodies are discovered almost on the hour in all parts of the city.
REPORTER: As night falls on day two of our tour of this region, three more young men have been gunned down here on the streets of Culiacan — bodies seven, eight and nine in less than forty-eight hours.
NARRATOR: And the violence is terrifying in its brutality. Recently, in the chilling message from the cartels, nine bodies were decapitated, the heads dumped in the center of the city for police to collect. Often in response to the violence, police are accused of spraying quiet streets with bullets with little regard for civilian life.
CULIACAN RESIDENT: [translated] This is the bullet hole from the police that happened on Friday morning.
NARRATOR: The residents here keep tallies on each day’s escalating body count by reading what’s referred to as “the execution meter” on the front page of one local newspaper.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon, more than a year-and-a-half ago, declared war on the cartels. 25,000 troops and police flooded into a number of cities. Also wading into the fight: the United States of America. Approximately a billion-and-a-half dollars of direct military aid was pledged by President Bush. Called the Merida Initiative, or Plan Mexico, the move follows a similar blueprint to the widely criticized and ultimately failed Plan Colombia.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I made it very clear, you know, to the president that I recognize the United States has a responsibility in the fight against drugs.
NARRATOR: Under the plan, America will provide training programs and military equipment. Undoubtedly, in terms of influence, it will also tie Mexico closer to Washington. In fact, just one day after the plan was signed into law by George Bush, serious questions were raised about exactly what sort of training the US would provide. Shocking videos surfaced showing Mexican police undergoing a torture training session, directed by a contractor believed to be working for a US private security firm. In one video, the contractor drags an officer through his own vomit. In another, a victim receives shots of water up his nose, a common torture technique.
MERCEDES MURILLO: They were training people to torture. The guards torturing, the police torturing.
NARRATOR: Mercedes Murillo is one of Mexico’s most vocal human rights activists. She believes corrupt police forces in Mexico are responsible for a number of murders and also involved in the drug trade itself and that US money and training will only make the situation worse.
MERCEDES MURILLO: In this, we have in the states, some policemen are good. And some, of course, are bad. But the good ones, I’m afraid that these people are going to make all our police bad.
NARRATOR: Regardless of who is killing who, there is no doubt that one of the biggest problems here is the staggering number of weapons on the streets. High-powered assault rifles and machine guns are easy to come by despite strict gun laws here. On this street, we witnessed the body of one uniformed police officer shot dead on his way to work. The chances are that the bullets that riddled his car were fired from a US gun. According to some sources, 2,000 illegal firearms are brought into Mexico every day from the United States.
CESAR CAMACHO: [translated] The fact that the US Constitution allows any person to freely buy, without any limitations, high-caliber weapons has made Mexico full of guns that fundamentally originated in the United States. And with their sophistication and firepower, they are much stronger than the military and police forces here.
NARRATOR: So, in a game of supply and demand, the drugs flow into America, US guns flow into Mexico. It’s a business known by all.
MERCEDES MURILLO: The same as you go and buy a hamburger, you can go and buy a gun. It’s the same.
INTERVIEWER: In America.
MERCEDES MURILLO: In America, all America.
NARRATOR: One such weapon was traced to this Texas gun shop just across the border from Ciudad Juarez. Kalashnikovs sold here, like this one made in Las Vegas, Nevada, are now easier to buy, after the Bush administration in 2004 failed to renew a ban on assault weapons, and are now pouring into Mexico.
JOHN HUBERT: As long as the people over there are willing to pay $5,000 for a gun that you can buy for $600 over here, somebody is going to try to sneak one across the border.
SHERIFF ARVIN WEST: Oh, it’s anywhere you want to cross.
NARRATOR: The federal government, according to Texas Sheriff Arvin West, has done little to stop the flood of weapons into Mexico.
SHERIFF ARVIN WEST: We’ve seen as many as thirteen semi trucks going into Mexico, and the federal government, just non-complacent about it, they could care less. It’s simple. I mean, we’ve got ninety miles or a little over ninety miles of border — right at a hundred miles, actually, of border in this county that’s wide open.
NARRATOR: On the Mexican side of the border, we watched several vehicles roll through with no more than a passing glance from customs officials here.
Throughout Mexico, American guns continue to kill. Just weeks ago, in the small town of El Pozo, thirteen people were murdered, one of them a fourteen-year-old boy. The evidence of what happened here we found littered across the ground.
EL POZO RESIDENT: [translated] They’re afraid that people will come and that when they find them, they’ll shoot them.
NARRATOR: Like refugees in a war zone, many residents are now packing up to leave. They believe the worst is yet to come.
Critics say that Plan Mexico is following a tried and failed US policy on drugs. As long as Washington continues to focus on cutting the supply to the US rather than treating the drug problem from within, questions must be asked about its complicity in the escalating violence seen across the border. For those on the streets, the war goes on, fueled by America’s guns on both sides.
MERCEDES MURILLO: So, they’re mixing security with fear. They’re mixing security with politics. And they’re mixing security with lies.
SHERIFF ARVIN WEST: What Mexico needs to do is enforce the laws that they’ve got, start putting some of these bad guys in jail.
MERCEDES MURILLO: We have more people dead right now than in Iraq.
SHERIFF ARVIN WEST: I guarantee our guys would go down there and, for a lack of better words, would kick ass and take names.
MERCEDES MURILLO: Because it’s the same: it’s a war.
ANJALI KAMAT: An excerpt of the program Inside USA.
We’re joined now by three guests. Avi Lewis is the host of Inside USA, airing weekly on Al Jazeera English. He’s also a filmmaker. Along with Naomi Klein, he made the 2004 documentary The Take about Argentina’s recovered factory movement. Avi Lewis joins us now from Washington, D.C.
Laura Carlsen is also with us. She’s the director of the Mexico City-based Americas Policy Program for the Center for International Policy. She has written extensively on US-Mexico relations and blogs at the website americasmexico.blogspot.com. Laura Carlsen joins us from Portland, Oregon.
And on the line from Mexico, we’re joined by John Gibler. He’s an independent journalist and Global Exchange Human Rights Fellow based in Mexico. His forthcoming book is called Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt. John Gibler is speaking to us from Tapachula near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now!
Avi Lewis, I want to start with you. You just got back from Mexico. Can you talk about the sense that people have in Mexico of American culpability for the human toll of the war on drugs?
AVI LEWIS: Well, I mean, the images are, of course, dramatic and staggering, and the death toll is shocking. But for me, what this story does is it just recasts the whole conversation about the border. In Mexico, people would be very, very grateful to have a kind of discourse about securing the border the way we have here in the United States. There’s a desperate need to secure the border, because American guns are pouring over the border, and there’s a direct human toll.
But it’s also — this is a movie we’ve seen before, and Plan Colombia is in the background of this whole conversation, because under the sort of, you know — under the story of a war on drugs, if you look at the details of Plan Mexico, $400 million in the first year, more than half of it is going to hardware that both — eight Bell helicopters with night vision equipment that track people back and forth across the border as easy as drugs and a huge IT system for the Mexican Migration Institute, which has as its explicit goal to track the movement of Mexican citizens and Central Americans coming through Mexico. So you have this kind of biometric immigration agenda, which is being swept in under cover of a war on drugs rhetoric. And when there’s this much bloodshed in the streets in Mexico, it’s very easy for the blood to hide the political agendas underneath.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Laura Carlsen, you’re the director of the Americas Policy Program of the Center for International Policy based in Mexico City. You’ve written extensively about Plan Mexico, and you relate its origins back to NAFTA. Could you talk about that?
LAURA CARLSEN: Well, in March of 2005, NAFTA was extended into the Security and Prosperity Partnership, and this was an unprecedented move for a trade agreement to go into the security area, but it’s something that the Bush administration had been wanting to do for a long time. Essentially, the idea was to push the borders out of the United States and create a North American security perimeter that would include Canada and Mexico. In this way, the Bush government, what it sought to do was to apply the radical national security doctrine to Mexican territory as well. This is a big problem for Mexico, because it not only violates national sovereignty, but it also imposes on Mexico the security priorities of the United States government at a time when those are very belligerent and aggressive priorities throughout the world.
In the case of Plan Mexico, it’s a perfect example of the result of those policies. Essentially, it’s very important what Avi says, that it’s not just a counter-narcotics program, it’s a regional cooperation security initiative that includes counter-narcotics, counterterrorism and border security. So it lumps these together and basically gets a greater military presence for the United States within Mexico, not actual troops, but in terms of its intervention in the Mexican national security apparatus, and imposes the agenda of the United States government on that country.
AVI LEWIS: [inaudible] Sorry, just to jump in. There’s a fellow named Thomas Shannon, who’s a senior State Department official —-
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Avi Lewis.
AVI LEWIS: A senior State Department official named Thomas Shannon, who’s deeply involved in the Security and Prosperity Partnership, I think kind of let the cat out of the bag in a speech this past spring, when he was talking about the SPP and North America as a shared economic space, which is the current lingo for this worldview. And he said explicitly, “What we’re doing, in some way, in a certain respect, is armoring NAFTA.” And I think when you look at the intersection of the economic agenda, the cover of the war on drugs, the immigration and border hysteria underneath it, Plan Mexico represents exactly that, the armoring of NAFTA. And, of course, it’s not talked about in those ways when it’s approved by Congress, when Democrats and Republicans reach across the aisle to support it.
ANJALI KAMAT: Laura Carlsen, I -—
LAURA CARLSEN: I think that’s correct.
ANJALI KAMAT: Go ahead.
LAURA CARLSEN: I was going to say that it’s no coincidence that this is coming up right at the time in which Mexico’s involved in another very important debate, which relates to the privatization of the oil company. By having a militarized society, you are assuring a certain amount of social control. We know in Mexico that there will be mass opposition to the privatization of oil. And yet, access to Mexico’s oil resources have been another major objective of the SPP, the Security and Prosperity Partnership under NAFTA. So, by having the army in the streets, you’re in a position to quell social uprisings that may be coming up that have to do with control over natural resources, as well.
ANJALI KAMAT: Laura Carlsen, I wanted to ask you to break down Plan Mexico for us. Where is the money going? What is it going into? And what are these human rights conditions that were supposed to be in it? How effective would they have been?
LAURA CARLSEN: There is $116 million going directly to the army in what they call military-to-military support. There’s another major chunk — and some of these figures, we’ll have to wait until the Secretary of State submits its spending report to Congress, because they were changed in the long process of getting it approved within Congress — but the other huge chunk goes to the security forces, to the police, on all levels within Mexico.
There’s another part called institution building. And there are some groups that have stated that this is supposedly the good part of the bill, because it has to do with human rights training and development of the judicial systems, both of which are big needs within Mexico. However, there are a lot of suspicions among the Mexican people that this will not be an effective part of the package, because, first of all, the United States government has little moral authority to carry out human rights training, with Abu Ghraib, with the situation in Guantanamo, as well as a government that formally justifies torture. There’s a lot of suspicion about how it’s going to come into Mexico and do that kind of training. Another aspect is that much of the money will go to private security firms. We recently had the case of the torture tapes, that were mentioned, where a private security firm that has an office in the United States was involved in pain Mexican police forces precisely in torture.
The conditions that were placed originally on this packet were rejected by the Mexican government as a violation of national sovereignty. They included a vetting of police forces and the approval by the State Department that Mexico was indeed following its laws. They were, in the end, weakened after the Mexican government rejected them. And the final conditions have basically no impact whatsoever on the way that this money is supplied. The State Department is allowed to withhold up to 15 percent, which is somewhat absurd, if it’s found that Mexico is not applying its laws in regard to how this money should be spent and how security forces are operating. There’s a stricture that they must maintain the prohibition on torture as a way of getting testimony. I just recently returned from a human rights delegation, in which we were in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Atenco, and we saw numerous cases where torture is routinely used to get confessions. And as long as it can be done with impunity, which it can be, it will be continued to be used.
So I don’t think these human rights conditions will have any impact whatsoever. And the overall impact of the plan will be negative, in militarizing the society, as well as empowering military and police forces who are the worst violators of human rights within the country.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We have to take a break for sixty seconds. When we come back, we’ll continue this discussion. We’re talking with Laura Carlsen. She’s the director of the Mexico City-based Americas Policy Program of the Center for International Policy. Avi Lewis is in Washington, D.C. He’s the host of Inside USA on Al Jazeera English. And when we come back, we’ll also bring in John Gibler, on the phone from Mexico. Stay with us.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re talking about Plan Mexico. We want to turn now to John Gibler. He joins us on the line from Mexico. He’s an independent journalist and Global Exchange Human Rights Fellow based in Mexico. His forthcoming book is Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt. John Gibler, your most recent article is titled “Mexico’s Ghost Towns: The Other Side of the Immigration Debate.” Can you talk about it, please?
JOHN GIBLER: Good morning. Yes, thank you. I think it’s essential to understand the link between the so-called free trade regime embodied in NAFTA and migration. NAFTA’s economically structuring of Mexico’s economy has forced millions of small farmers from their countryside, and in so doing, shattered local food production and shattered local economies. That’s forcing people to move across the border, looking for work.
Analysts that I interviewed at the University of Zacatecas said to me, Mexico, under this new economic regime, is exporting the factory of migrants. Also, they said Mexico is mortgaging its future with remittances, the money that migrants send back. And what, they argue, is taking place is that the United States, through NAFTA, is holding Mexico at bay as a kind of reserve army of workers for its own industrial restructuring, thus all the benefits and the luxuries absent in Mexico’s own countryside are being built and constructed and elaborated inside the United States by migrant labor, largely Mexican.
ANJALI KAMAT: Laura Carlsen, I wanted to ask you a question. Can you talk about the impact of Plan Mexico on social movements in Mexico?
LAURA CARLSEN: Yes, Well, already with the Mexican army in the streets, which is something that began as soon as Felipe Calderon became president and will be reinforced through Plan Mexico, what we’re seeing is attacks, basically, on social movements. Within Chiapas, this has been particularly seen in the Zapatista autonomous communities, where the army has gone in, often with the pretense of looking for drug production, which they’ve not found, but they’ve used it to harass those communities, in which major battles over natural resources and the right to autonomy have been taking place. So, indigenous peoples are one group that is at risk.
Another — and this is cases that we’ve seen in the northern state of Chihuahua — has to do with opposition leaders, in general. When Operation Chihuahua started, which is one of the major operations of the drug war, the army came in, and they immediately rounded up several social leaders that had been — had warrants out for their arrest since 2003 for blocking an international bridge in a protest over NAFTA. They were just routinely rounded up as part of these drug war operations. This is another group that we’re going to be looking very carefully at, because we believe that this will be happening in a widespread way throughout the country as the drug war is expanded.
Other groups that are at risk include women, where the military has been responsible for a number of rapes and sexual abuse against women in different parts of the country, and also the opposition leaders and indigenous people and migrants, that were mentioned before, who have become a criminal group under this particular model of a drug war and a fight against organized crime.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Laura Carlsen, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Laura Carlsen is director of the Mexico City-based Americas Policy Program of the Center for International Policy. Her report, “A Primer on Plan Mexico,” we’ll link to that on our website at democracynow.org. And John Gibler, joining us on the line from Mexico, he’s an independent journalist and Global Exchange Human Rights Fellow based in Mexico. His forthcoming book is Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt. Avi Lewis, I want you to stay with us.