Carlos Jasso / Reuters

Rights groups push Obama to withdraw support for Mexico’s president

As Peña Nieto visits the White House, activists say US aid for drug war is fueling human rights abuses in Mexico

WASHINGTON — Coinciding with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s trip to Washington, activists ramped up pressure Tuesday on the United States to withdraw its support from an administration that they allege is riven with corruption and frequently colludes with the drug cartels it is supposed to be fighting.

Demonstrations are planned in 11 cities across the U.S. as Peña Nieto travels to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama and Cabinet secretaries for a day that is meant to focus on economic cooperation.

Peña Nieto vowed in a Sunday address to combat corruption and impunity and to strengthen transparency. In late November he announced a 10-point package of reforms to address corruption at the municipal level, but his critics appear far from satisfied. 

“Mexico cannot continue like this … After Iguala, Mexico has to change,” he said, referring to a rural town where 43 students disappeared last year in an incident blamed on local corruption.

The protesters, many of whom are Mexican-Americans, say they want the U.S. to halt aid to the Mexican government, particularly through the Merida Initiative, a 2007 agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that has funneled $2.3 billion to the Mexican government to combat drug cartels and organized crime as part of the United States’ decades-long war on drugs.

Critics say the initiative has instead militarized security forces in Mexico and funded widespread human rights abuses by the government against its people, despite specific conditions pertaining to human rights in the initiative. Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy organization, says it has documented numerous examples of these abuses, “including 149 cases of enforced disappearances.”

Despite the criticism, Obama has said he plans to continue the project “indefinitely.” 

“Our government is the primary backer of a government that’s killing and disappearing its own people,” said Roberto Lovato, one of the co-founders of the #USTired2 campaign, which is organizing the protests Tuesday and attempting to galvanize U.S. residents on the issue. “It’s actually disgraceful that our president is meeting with Enrique Peña Nieto. His hands are bloodied by guns and disappearances and killings that have been funded with our tax dollars.”

Anger over corruption and continued gang violence in Mexico has boiled over in recent months, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets to protest the abduction and disappearance of the 43 students from a left-leaning teacher’s college in Iguala who were planning to attend a local protest. Many believe the town’s mayor had his police force detain the students before handing them off to drug traffickers, who murdered the students and burned their bodies, according to Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam. The mayor and his wife have been arrested on charges related to kidnapping and having links to organized crime. 

Widespread public frustration has been focused on Peña Nieto for being in charge of a corrupt system and for doing too little to put an end to the collusion between the government and drug cartels. Other scandals have erupted during his administration, derailing an agenda that was supposed to focus on economic revitalization and government reform. In November, Mexican soldiers killed 22 civilians in a shootout as part of the war on drugs. Revelations that the president and his treasury secretary live in luxury homes financed by a favored government contractor have damaged his image.

Human Rights Watch asked Obama in an open letter to pressure the Mexican government to address the crisis. “Mr. President, in light of the Mexican government’s failure to address the problem of abuse and impunity, we believe the best thing the United States could do now to be a good partner would be to press President Peña Nieto to take this crisis more seriously,” wrote José Miguel Vivanco, the organization’s executive director for the Americas. “Concretely, in your upcoming meeting with President Peña Nieto, you should ask him to explain exactly what steps he is taking to ensure that Mexico prosecutes abuses.”

Lovato said few other nations get a free pass to commit such atrocities with support from the United States. “Are Mexico’s mass graves going be a part of the Obama legacy?” Lovato asked. “Or will putting an end to the mass graves be part of the Obama legacy?”

Senior administration officials said in a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon that although the official agenda for Tuesday’s meeting includes only issues of economic cooperation, the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of the students and whether Mexican security forces are most effectively using Merida Initiative funds would be “part of the conversation.”

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