Can Mexico Criticize Killings of Migrants in the U.S.?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

Two recent killings of Mexican immigrants by American police have sparked outrage in both the U.S. and Mexico. Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an undocumented agricultural worker, was allegedly throwing rocks at police before he was shot and killed last month in Pasco, Washington. Rubén García Villalpando, another unarmed, undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was shot and killed by police in Grapevine, Texas following a short car chase just weeks after Zambrano-Montes’ violent death.

In both cases, the Mexican government condemned the men’s killings, describing them as incidents of “disproportionate use of lethal force” by U.S. authorities. However, for many, the condemnations immediately raised the question of whether the Mexican government’s denunciations are hypocritical given the widespread criticism leveled against Mexico’s notoriously abusive security forces.

Last July, a group of Mexican soldiers were accused of assassinating innocent civilians in the town of Tlatlaya. Three of the soldiers have been charged with murder and several others were charged with abusing their authority as members of the armed forces. In September, local and federal security forces allegedly orchestrated an attack on a group of local students in the town of Iguala, which left several of the students dead and at least 43 missing, or “disappeared.” Although the government’s investigation of the incident has been roundly described as insufficient, some of the alleged participants have been arrested and charged.

Additionally, accusations of abuse of migrants in Mexico by criminals and security forces alike have been numerous and consistent for years. Last month, the Mexican news website Animal Politico investigated widespread abuses reported by civil society organizations, including physical harm and financial extortion, occurring at security checkpoints funded by U.S. taxpayer money provided to Mexico under the Merida Initiative.

This begs the question: How can a country like Mexico, whose security forces have such an atrocious human rights record, possibly criticize U.S. police with any semblance of credibility?

The answer is that Mexico does not fund, train and equip American police forces. Mexico does not pressure the U.S. to adopt policies that criminalize immigrants. In fact, Mexico has long been consistently critical of harsh U.S. immigration measures that have been used to disproportionately target Latino populations.

On the other hand, the U.S. has been providing Mexico with well over $100 million per year in military and police assistance, including world-class weapons, training and intelligence. The Obama administration has also ramped up pressure on the Mexican government to detain and deport record numbers of migrants and refugees before they even have the chance to reach the U.S. southern border.

This doesn’t mean that Mexico’s security forces are generally better-behaved than their U.S. counterparts, but despite superficial appearances to the contrary, it seems Mexico actually has more standing to criticize U.S. policing policies than vice versa.

If the U.S. wants to see changes in Mexico’s policing practices, it could withhold some of the massive amounts of funding it gives the country, or at the very least make further aid conditional upon improvements in Mexican security forces’ respect for citizen’s civil and human rights. If Mexico wants U.S. cops to stop shooting its citizens, its only real recourse is public diplomacy.

Argentina Struggles with How to Respond to Increased Drug-Related Violence

Argentina, a country not commonly associated with the “drug war” in the same way as countries like Mexico or Colombia, is increasingly experiencing violence and corruption linked to drug trafficking. As with other countries, this crime and violence is not just the work of feuding criminal organizations, but also security forces that have been implicated in drug running, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. Although U.S.-Argentina relations have been rocky recently, this uptick in violence has provided an impetus for law enforcement cooperation between the two countries…

Read this piece in its entirety at Security Assistance Monitor.

Ferguson protests highlight drawbacks of militarized policing tactics

Within hours of his untimely death, Michael Brown’s name was popping up in news reports and social media networks around the United States. At the time, Brown was known primarily as the most recent of an ever-increasing number of young, unarmed African-American men killed by white police officers around the country. But before long, Brown’s hometown of Ferguson, Missouri was front-page news around the world.

The situation in the days that followed Brown’s death were somewhat familiar in a global context; large, mostly peaceful public demonstrations centering on a legitimate community grievance, repressed by security forces armored and armed to the teeth, ready to move in with heavy force at the slightest hint of disorder. The news website GlobalPost even updated its list of “photos that suggest tear gas unites us all” to include pictures from Ferguson alongside similar images from protests in Bahrain, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere. Only this time, it wasn’t happening in some far-away, “developing” nation. It was happening right in the heartland of America.

On August 19, Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the officer in charge of operations in Ferguson, defended the police response under his command, which has included the widespread use of tear gas (banned under international law in military combat scenarios) and other “non-lethal” weapons such as “stun grenades,” “LRADs” and “rubber bullets.” “These are not acts of protesters,” Johnson said, referring to scattered reports of property destruction as well as gunfire, rocks and molotov cocktails aimed at police from the crowd. “These are acts of violent criminals.”

As police attempted to disperse various groups of demonstrators amidst sporadic looting on the night of August 15, reports surfaced of local residents taking it upon themselves to protect the properties being menaced during the chaos. In many cases, protesters have reportedly helped protect each other from the police, whom many journalists and community leaders have accused of using intimidation and excessive force. Rather than helping the community police itself, the security forces in Ferguson appear to have assumed an adversarial stance toward the people they are meant to protect.

Some of the most interesting criticism of the police response in Ferguson has come from former and current US military personnel. One veteran tweeted, “In the [US Air Force], we did crowd control and riot training every year. Lesson 1: Your mere presence has the potential to escalate the situation.” Another noted, “A few people have pointed it out, but our [rules of engagement] regarding who we could point weapons at in Afghanistan was more restrictive than cops in MO.”

The militarized police presence has likely contributed to the unrest. Ferguson local Miller Gardner told the Daily Beast “It’s messed up [that the police are] suited for war against civilians…I’m not on that side and I’m in the military. They need to come on this side of the line.” “I don’t know why they hate us so much,” an 11 year-old boy told a local reporter. “It seems like police are about to go to war with the people.” In fact, the only peaceful night of the protests was the evening of August 14, when Capt. Johnson, on his first day in command, walked the protest route with fellow officers and local residents and ordered the police to leave behind their gas masks and “MRAPs.”

The Defense Department has defended the so-called “1033” program, by which some $4.3 billion worth of “excess” military equipment has been transferred to local police departments around the country since the mid-1990s. In St. Louis County, which includes Ferguson, the program has provided the police with six pistols, 12 rifles, 15 weapon sights, a bomb disposal robot, three helicopters, seven humvees and two night vision devices since 2007, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby.

President Obama has hinted that the 1033 program may need to be reviewed in light of recent events, but civil rights organizations have been warning about the dangers of police militarization in the United States for years. In June 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union released an extensive report documenting the “unnecessarily and dangerously militarized” practices of modern American policing and detailing the prominent role played by the War on Drugs in this development.

Some commentators have pointed out a correlation between campaign donations from military contractors and congressional votes in favor of the 1033 program. In June 2014, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted down an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act to prevent the sale of heavy-duty military equipment to local police forces, despite extensive polling data showing Americans are increasingly weary and wary of war in general.

Private prison companies, police and correctional officers unions, weapons manufacturers, and companies in the alcohol and pharmaceutical industry all have an interest in maintaining prohibitive drug policies and the high crime and incarceration rates that accompany them. As a recent headline at the Open Secrets blog put it, “Money, not morals drives [the] prohibition movement.”

The ACLU report mentioned above is aptly titled “The War Comes Home.” The War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism have melded into a sort of Forever War being waged virtually everywhere – even within the United States. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011 that the Department of Homeland Security spends tens of billions of dollars annually on domestic security. As this handy government map makes clear, the United States gives billions in foreign aid, much of it for security assistance, to nearly every country on earth.

The United States has also played a critical role in training, arming and diplomatically supporting many countries’ security forces, including some that have been credibly and repeatedly accused of serious human rights abuses, corruption and impunity throughout its history. It seems only logical that the issues faced in those countries would be mirrored by similar issues within the US domestic police forces.

For example, Customs and Border Protection (as it describes itself “one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the world”) has grown rapidly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011. Many agents have been accused of human rights violations, extrajudicial killings and even ties to organized crime. James F. Tomsheck, the recently ousted chief of internal affairs for the agency, said that Border Patrol suffers from an “institutional narcissism” that engenders widespread impunity for violations of rules and laws. A report from the American Immigration Council released in May 2014 found that 97 percent of internal investigations into detainee abuse complaints lodged against CBP agents ended with no disciplinary action taken.

On the evening of August 19, Amnesty International deployed a group of human rights observers to Ferguson. The Washington Post described it as “the first of its kind…in the United States.” Later that night, Amnesty’s Twitter account sent out a message that read: “US can’t tell other countries to improve their records on policing and peaceful assembly if it won’t clean up its own human rights record.” Earlier that day, another young black man had been shot by police in the St. Louis area. A graphic video of the incident was released the following afternoon, essentially confirming the account given by the police but raising questions about the appropriateness of the two officers’ use of deadly force.

In media interviews and raw video footage being posted online, the frustration and tension in Ferguson has been increasingly apparent. The desire of the majority of residents to lawfully demonstrate and express their grievances – not to mention simply going about their daily lives – has been interrupted by police all too eager to treat large groups of mostly peaceful civilians according to the behavior of the most belligerent individuals among them. And they have plenty of equipment with which to quell any and all resistance.

In March 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry called on the Venezuelan government to end what he described as a “terror campaign” against its citizens. Dozens of police and civilians, some of them innocent bystanders, were killed during the following two months of  protests, with many anti-government factions overtly calling for and carrying out acts of violence. In April, Secretary Kerry again criticized President Maduro for “us[ing] security forces to disrupt peaceful protests and limit freedoms of expression and assembly.”

Yet Secretary Kerry and other prominent US political figures have generally refrained from condemning the use of militarized tactics and force in Ferguson too strongly in public, if at all. It is easy to criticize a country like Venezuela, which receives virtually no security assistance from the United States, for inappropriate behavior by its security forces, but the United States provides billions of dollars worth of direct and indirect aid to countries, counties and cities whose militaries and police have similarly poor if not even worse human rights records.

The tweet from Amnesty International hits on an important point: if the United States government lacks sufficient mechanisms to ensure accountability for the funding it provides to its own domestic police forces, this raises questions about how effectively it can monitor and evaluate the vast multitude of programs and large amounts of funding that go into security assistance abroad.

Quick thoughts on the end of the World Cup

The scene at the World Cup final today could serve as a slightly absurd metaphor for the tournament as a whole. The crowd at Maracanã stadium, the site of Brazil’s infamous 1950 defeat to Uruguay, shouted crude insults at the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Dilma, grimacing, handed the trophy to the victorious German team “like a hot potato.” The song “Happy” by American musician Pharrell Williams played over the loudspeakers while the losing Argentine squad sulked in defeat.

Germans were partying hard. Their team had humiliated Brazil in the semi-final and managed to pull off the feat of becoming the first European team to win a World Cup hosted in South America. In a way, it was symbolic. The victor; Germany – the state most responsible for the pains that post-global financial crisis “austerity” brought to its European neighbors. The loser; Argentina – a country that has been demonized and attacked by Wall Street “vulture funds.” Brazil was left with a big, fat nothing.

The popular slogan “não vai ter Copa!” (“there will be no Cup”) became the quasi-official mantra of demonstrators who took to the streets to protest the waste and corruption FIFA and the World Cup came to represent for many Brazilians. Of course, almost nothing could have stopped the multi-billion dollar event from going forward. “Gringo” tourists and wealthy Brazilians were always going to get their Cup, and quite an exciting and well-managed one at that.

But “não vai ter Copa” was not meant literally (although it turned to be true in that sense as well). For the anti-Cup protesters, it meant that they knew the Cup was not meant for them. Many middle-income Brazilians chose to avoid the high prices and large crowds of tourists at the live matches, watching instead from their homes and local hangouts. The working classes were not even allowed sell beer near the stadiums. That privilege was reserved for FIFA sponsors like the Budweiser corporation.

While FIFA chief Sepp Blatter gleefully pointed to the lack of widespread protests during the Cup, he neglected to mention that state violence and repression played a major role in deterring dissent. As author Dave Zirin recently wrote, the international media largely ignored the story of “a population angry about the Cup, but terrorized into compliance.” In fact, there were various reports of police harassing and beating demonstrators and even journalists during anti-Cup protests on the day of the final match.

“FIFA go home” was another popular mantra of the anti-Cup crowd. The organization will go home, albeit with about $4.5 billion in untaxed profits. Economic growth forecasts for Brazil have fallen from a meager 1.7 percent earlier in the year to less than 1 percent recently. Some economists estimate that the World Cup and the Olympic Games planned for 2016 in Rio de Janeiro will only boost growth by about 0.2 percent in 2014.

The impoverished favelas will be left under militarized occupation – whether by security forces, drug gangs, or both – often without basic facilities like water and sewage. Giant “FIFA-quality” stadiums, like Manaus’s “spaceship in the jungle,” will host games played in front of half-filled stands. If this is the legacy of the World Cup in Brazil, one cannot help but wonder what the Olympics will bring. More over-budget, past-schedule projects? More workers’ deaths? More strikes and protests? More arrests and police brutality?

The answer is likely to be “all of the above.” The world may have stopped watching the Cup, but it should not stop watching Brazil.

Translation: Boos at Dilma, fights in the Maracanã and police brutality outside. It was a beautiful Cup but let’s not ignore problems. 

Mexico: Arrival of UN Special Rapporteur puts spotlight on torture and impunity

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 20 April to 26 April 2014.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Juan Méndez, arrived in Mexico to begin an investigation into the country’s penal reforms and other aspects of the country’s law enforcement and justice systems. His visit is expected to last until May 2.

Despite thousands of reports of torture committed by Mexican security forces over the past decade, not a single person has been found guilty of the crime. A report presented to Méndez claimed that “despite [the Attorney General’s office] having found evidence of torture in 128 cases, there were no convictions.” The Attorney General’s office confirmed that from 2002 to 2012 there were only 39 preliminary investigations into torture and that no criminal proceedings or warrants were issued.

Earlier this month, Enrique Hernández, the leader of an autodefensa in Yrécaro, Michoacán was arrested along with 18 others on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Gustavo Garibay, the Mayor of Tanhuato. The State Human Rights Commission in Michoacán said that Hernández had sustained injuries consistent with his claims that he was tortured by the police.

Mexico’s Senate unanimously approved legislation that would allow military personnel accused of crimes against civilians to be tried in civilian rather than military courts. The legislation still has to be approved by the lower house, but it is widely considered a step in the right direction. A study from the Wilson Center released last month concluded that 90% of Mexican citizens feel they cannot trust the police. This lack of trust likely contributed to the rise of vigilante self-defense groups known as autodefensas, which are proving to be a major security challenge for the government.

Michoacán Federal Safety Commissioner Alfredo Castillo said that 44 “pseudoautodefensas” were arrested. Those who were detained were allegedly linked to organized crime groups, but were attempting to pass themselves off as members of the self-defense forces.

Federal police and military intelligence documents obtained by Proceso show that the government believes many autodefensas are infiltrated by criminal groups, something a number of observers have long suspected. Documents the magazine reported on last week indicated that the low-profile leader of a self-defense force in Michoacán, Miguel Ángel Gallegos Godoy (alias “El Migueladas”), is “the real boss” of the Knights Templar organization.

Following an agreement reached by leaders of the self-defense groups and the government last week, Castillo announced that the process of disarming unregistered autodefensas in Michoacán will begin on Monday. For more on the agreement, see our previous post.


97 police in Michoacán were fired this week for failing confidence exams.

Mexico’s public safety agency reported a continuation in an upward trend of serious crimes, including homicides, kidnappings and violent robberies. A new report from the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security modified homicide statistics from Veracruz state to account for 299 previously-unreported murders. The report also noted that kidnappings in Veracruz increased by 51% over the first quarter of 2013.

According to business groups in Monterrey, extortion in the area rose by 49% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2014.

Mexico has experienced a dramatic increase in domestic heroin consumption, likely due to increased production of the drug in that country. Farmers who previously grew marijuana appear to be replacing cannabis crops with opium poppies, potentially in response to a price drop in the marijuana market.

The Director General of Mexico’s National System for the Comprehensive Development of the Family, Laura Vargas, said that according to a study by the UN, nearly 70,000 children in Mexico have been victims of sex trafficking.

The government closed a saw mill and a steel plant in Michoacán that allegedly belonged to organized criminal groups.

The arrests of the two highest-level members of the Los Rojos gang, Antonio Reina Castillo and Ismael Castillo Marino, earlier this month probably won’t ameliorate the ongoing violence in Guerrero state, where the group is based. Los Rojos are one of several groups that grew out of the Beltran Leyva Organization and have been vying for dominance in an increasingly bloody turf war.

An attack by armed civilians on security forces in Mier, Tamaulipas left one civilian dead. Government troops seized various weapons and tactical gear and arrested two people in connection with the attack.

Federal and regional forces, working off of an anonymous tip, rescued 60 migrants who were captured by organized crime groups in Tamaulipas, near the Texas border. According to the National Commission on Human Rights, some 10,000 migrants have been kidnapped in Mexico over the last six months.

Seven people were killed in separate shootouts between police and armed gunmen in Tamaulipas.

Arturo Gallegos Castrellón, alias “El Farmero,” was handed 10 life sentences by an El Paso court for his role in the murders of three people associated with the US consulate in Juarez in 2010.

According to the Institute of Social Security for the Mexican Armed Forces, the government spent roughly $110,000,000 on life insurance for military personnel between 2008 and 2012, putting a strain on finances.

The Gulf Cartel launched a campaign in the streets of Mexico City to recruit youths to join their group.

To Watch:

Mexico’s National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia said that the newly formed Gendarmerie will not be infiltrated by organized crime groups, claiming that the selection process for cadets was “very careful.”

In the wake of anti-censorship protests, Mexico’s ruling party appears to be stepping back from proposed legislation that would have given authorities the power to “temporarily block, inhibit or annul telecommunications signals at events and places deemed critical for the public safety.”

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed a desire to expand defense cooperation between the US and Mexico during a visit to the later country. The US  State Department announced the planned sale of 18 Black Hawk transport helicopters to Mexico.

The Council of the European Union is mulling an agreement between the European police agency Europol and Mexican authorities to cooperate on issues of organized crime and violent radical groups. However, the European Parliament recently rejected such a proposal due to concerns about the security of information that would potentially be shared with Mexican law enforcement, which has a reputation for corruption and infiltration by criminal elements.


Two articles this week highlighted the dangers facing migrants traveling on “La Bestia” (“The Beast”), a freight train that many migrants from Mexico and Central America ride illegally in an attempt to reach the United States. Fusion and Vocativ both take a look at some of the migrants’ stories, which often include injury, kidnapping, robbery, rape and even death. Migrants from Central America marched to the presidential residence in Mexico this week and requested a meeting with President Peñã Nieto to demand that the government “ensure the right to free passage across the country without humiliation or violence, on our way to the northern border.”