For much of his life, President Enrique Peña Nieto dismissed Mexico’s destructive blight, corruption, as “a cultural phenomenon.” An unfortunate one, but so commonplace that Mexican business people – those citizens that evidently count – are blasé about it. The less well-off tend to be angry about having to silently endure being robbed.
Numerous recent demonstrations surprisingly and unkindly aimed at those who run the republic have changed Peña Nieto’s mind – so he seems to indicate.
The most blatant example: The “disappearance” of the 43 student teachers from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college in Iguala, Guerrero, last September, and a wide scattering of other, anonymous graves.
Prior to that, the previous June, Mexican soldiers killed 22 people in Tlatlaya in the State of Mexico. Next, Mexican journalists reported that federal police had massacred 16 people in January of this year in Apatzingan, Michoacan.
In each instance authorities “allegedly” tried to cover up the killings.
In less than a year, these three incidents have implicated local, federal and military authorities, providing bitter examples of the state-sponsored violence that has become something of hallmark of loathsome government behavior in Mexico.
Yet on the other hand, U.S. cooperation with the Mexican government – including billions in American financial backing for its war on drugs – is receiving renewed scrutiny.
U.S. government documents, obtained by the National Security Archive, via the Freedom of Information Act, demonstrate that the United States is well aware that its support is going to Mexican authorities connected to death-dealing abuses. And yet, with few exceptions, the money keeps flowing.
New evidence provides an unusually candid glimpse of the way the U.S. authorities have learned that the Mexican security apparatus has been implicated in specific abuses, and how they have responded. After the students were kidnapped in Iguala, the search for the disappeared turned up 28 more bodies in nearby mass graves. They had been killed and buried in apparently separate circumstances. An October 2014 internal report from the U.S. Army’s Northern Command noted the discovery of the extra bodies, and said the preponderance of mass graves raised “alarming questions” about the widespread nation of cartel violence and a startling level of government complicity.
The Northern Command report also highlighted the case of Tlatlaya. Some of the 22 killed there, who the government alleged were cartel members, died during a firefight. Meanwhile others had been summarily executed. A Mexican Army officer and seven soldiers had recently been arrested for the killings and the subsequent cover up. The U.S. Northern Command “assessed that as more facts come to light there is greater acceptance that the military was involved in wrongdoing.”
The commander of the military zone overseeing the battalion responsible for the Tlatlaya killings was also put under investigation by the Mexican Army. If he were to be implicated in “a gross human rights violation,” the report notes, “the entire military zone and 10,000 personnel will be ineligible for U.S. security assistance.”
At least the battalion directly involved was soon cut off. In January, another Northern Command cable reported that the State Department “has suspended U.S. assistance to this unit pending the results of this investigation.”
It is said that the Tlatlaya incident, “unfortunately” is a rare example of the U.S. government actually cutting off funding for security forces.
The case of the missing Ayotzinapa students prompted a series of apt and hard questions: Has the State Department received any requests for funding to train security forces or investigative agencies in Guerrero? Has either the State Department or Department of Defense suspended training or aid to Mexican security forces? Answer: No.
On the Mexican side, no officials have been suspended as a result of the investigations stemming from the disappearances.
The State Department’s piecemeal response to these events underlines the conundrum that Mexico now presents for the United States as it tries to help its hard-put neighbor battle drug cartels.
A vast slew of Mexican mass graves have been discovered in recent years. Despite that, Mexico’s federal prosecutors report opening only 15 investigations in the past four years, according to documents obtained by the human rights organization Article 19.
Since 2008, the United States has sent about three billion dollars in security aid to Mexico, mostly through the Merida Initiative. Mexico has now become the largest customer of U.S. weapons in Latin America.