For the teacher-trainee students of the Escuela Normal Raúl Isidro Burgos in Ayotzinapa, south-western Mexico, Oct. 2 is a fixture on their protest calendar. The date commemorates the night in 1968 when police and paramilitaries opened fire on pro-democracy protesters on Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square, killing anywhere between 30 and 200 people.
Last year, around 100 Ayotzinapa students commandeered three buses on the Tixtla-Iguala highway, intending to drive to Mexico City for the Tlatelolco commemoration. Locals usually tolerate the practice, since the buses are usually returned with full gas-tanks.
But that didn’t happen last Sept. 26.
What happened instead has swept the Ayotzinapa students, or the “normalistas,” into events which have become as notorious as those of 1968.
Three buses were crossing the city of Iguala when uniformed men in police trucks fired on them with automatic weapons. When the men caught up, they forced 25-30 students to lie on the roadside at gunpoint, before driving them away in police trucks.
As witnesses, reporters and other Ayotzinapa students began to gather, another group of masked men opened fire, killing two people and leading a manhunt that abducted another 13 to 20 of the students. The following morning, one was found dead, his face and ears cut off and his eyes gouged out. Another 43 have not been seen since.
Mexico’s Attorney General’s office (PGR) insisted from the beginning that corrupt municipal police elements —sent by Iguala’s former mayor, Jorge Luis Abarca— handed over the 43 students to members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, who then massacred them and burned their bodies at a rubbish dump in Cocula, where the Mexican government says that human remains belonging to two of the students have been found.
Other reports, however, implicate the Mexican armed forces, state and federal police, adding Iguala to a litany of events which raise questions about the United States’ decision to bankroll Mexico’s war on drugs.
Since 2008, when former U.S. and Mexican presidents George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón signed the bilateral crime-fighting strategy known as the Mérida Initiative, Mexico has received $2.3 billion in aid from its northern neighbor.
The idea was for U.S. and Mexican forces to target mid- and high-level cartel operators, explains Alejandro Madrazo, Coordinator on the Drugs Policy Program at Mexico's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), while also increasing respect for human rights.
But the Mérida Initiative helped to fund the deployment of 96,000 Mexican troops in a war on the country's major organized syndicates — a war which left at least 70,000 people dead and 26,000 disappeared at the hands of security forces, according to Human Rights Watch. “Calderón’s war left a carpet of bodies,” says Madrazo.
While eye-catching items such as 11 Black Hawk helicopters have appeared on Mexico’s shopping list, little has been done to strengthen institutions against human rights abuses.
Between 2006 and 2013, Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights registered 8,150 complaints against the Mexican armed forces alone — only 38 of which ended in sentences for military personnel, according to 2013 report by a human rights organization.
In theory, the Mérida Initiative should prevent such lapses, as it includes a proviso to withhold 15 percent of funds unless Mexico bolsters its rule of law.
Some U.S. lawmakers, however, do not believe this requirement is being taken seriously. The 1997 “Leahy Law”, written by Sen. Patrick Leahy, requires the State Department to suspend assistance to foreign security forces where there is suspicion of "gross human rights abuses."
Leahy himself called for Mérida Initiative funding to be suspended for this reason in 2010, and did so again after Iguala.
Survivors of that attack have indicated that state and federal police were involved in the first ambush.
Moreover, nine entries in the country’s C4 surveillance system —which monitors the country's municipal, state and federal security forces from the Interior Ministry (Segob)— show that both the 27th Army Infantry Battalion and federal police in the area were aware of the whereabouts of the buses at the time of the attack, as well as mentioning gunfire in Iguala at 21:40 local time on the night of Sept. 26.
Meanwhile, a 550-page report issued by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) on Sept. 6 reveals that the government's narrative rests on contradictory witness statements extracted under torture. What’s more, a fire of the kind described by the PGR —fed on car-tires for 12 hours, by three people— would not have been sufficient to incinerate 43 bodies. A fire big enough to do so would have turned the surrounding scrubland into an inferno. “The event as described,” one of the report’s authors states flatly, “never took place.”
Despite the UN’s calls on Sept. 10 to investigate “each and every level of the security forces” stationed in Iguala that night, Attorney General Arely Gómez’ announcement of a new inquiry into the events of Sept. 26 appears to be following much the same line as before, arresting the apparent leader of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, Gilberdo “El Gil” López Astudillo, on Sept. 17, instead of asking questions of state and federal security forces.
Ayotzinapa is the most notorious of a number of high-profile cases of human rights abuse to take place within the last eighteen months. In July 2014, the Mexican army’s 102nd Battalion reportedly massacred 22 alleged gang members in cold blood, at a warehouse in Tlatlaya, Mexico State, with human rights NGO ProDH revealing a document signed by the battalion’s commander that ordered troops to "take down the criminals in the dark”.
In May of this year, federal police and army units allegedly massacred 42 members of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación in Michoacán. Two months later, the 97th Army Battalion kidnapped and executed seven day-laborers in Zacatecas.
Despite mounting evidence that Mérida money is effectively funding the abuse of human rights, critical voices remain isolated within U.S. policy-making.
At a conference in February of this year, William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, insisted that cases like Ayotzinapa “(did) not mean that bilateral cooperation has failed.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress recently spent $680 million buying a fleet of Black Hawk helicopters for Mexican security forces.
In Mexico, however, Plan Mérida has been blamed for worsening the country’s security situation. Over 43,000 people died by homicide during Peña Nieto’s first two years in charge, compared with 14,000 during Calderón’s first two years. Disappearances have doubled from six per day under Calderón to 13 per day under Peña Nieto, according to the government’s Register on Missing Persons.
For many experts, a rethink is overdue.
According Gustavo Gil, director of political analysis at Integralia, a Mexico City consultancy firm, the rule of law should replace military aid as the central pillar of the Mérida Initiative.
“As long as Mexico’s institutions are unable to impose the rule of law,” he says, “the routine violation of human rights will continue.”
Gil cites a 2013 study by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), which indicates that 94 percent of all crimes committed in Mexico go unpunished — “a damning indictment” of the country’s security policies, he says.
Mexico’s failure to hold its own security forces to account is costing lives — but so, too, is the failure of the U.S. policy-makers to ask quite where Mérida Initiative money is going.
Despite reports from Mexico’s National Secretary on Security that 10,000 people died violently in the first half of 2015, President Obama has requested a further $116 million in spending from Congress, for handover in 2016.
The bill for the Mérida Initiative —in terms of U.S. spending and lost human lives— looks set to rise, with no upward limit in sight.