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Human Rights Implications Of Mexico’s Drug Violence


Reports of human rights violations in Mexico have risen sharply since 2006. We talk to Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, about the Merida Initiative and how the U.S. can help stop human rights abuses in Mexico.

Event Info

Tequila Talk with Ken Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

June 28, 2010

6:30 p.m. – 7:45 pm

Institute of the Americas, University of California, San Diego

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Fighting fire with fire is a dangerous business. Mexican authorities are engaged in a war against violent, lawless drug cartels that have virtually taken over parts of the country. In the process of fighting these criminals who have tortured and beheaded many of their victims, the Mexican Army has apparently begun to use violent tactics of its own. The number of human rights abuse allegations has skyrocketed over the past two years with the army itself being accused of unlawful detention, torture and even murder. Human rights advocates say these tactics are not only wrong, but, they are counterproductive and the United States is not doing enough to discourage them. I’d like to welcome my guest. Ken Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. Mr. Roth will be speaking at the Institute of the Americas at UCSD about the human rights implications of Mexico’s drug violence. And, Ken Roth, welcome to These Days.

KEN ROTH (Executive Director, Human Rights Watch): Maureen, thanks so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. How do you think Mexico can battle drug cartel violence without violating its citizens’ rights? Have you heard of human rights abuses being committed by Mexican authorities in the drug war? Give us your calls with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Ken, what are we talking about when we refer to human rights abuses in Mexico, specifically involving Mexican authorities?

ROTH: Well, unfortunately, this is nothing subtle at all. What we have found out is that as President Calderon has deployed the army, a choice that he really couldn’t avoid in the first instance because the local and the state police have been so corrupted by the drug cartels and there is no real federal police, no strong equivalent like the FBI, and so if he was looking for a national institution that was, you know, a bit apart from the local officials that were corrupted, he needed the army. The problem is that the army isn’t trained to do law enforcement and it also has a long history of being an institution unto itself. So when a soldier commits an abuse, it’s never prosecuted by the civilian courts. The military looks at its own. And as a result, they basically never convict anyone. There has been actually one conviction in the entire three and a half years of the Calderon administration for a soldier who has committed a serious human rights abuse, and there have been many. I mean, if you look even at Mexico’s own national Human Rights Commission, they report, as you just said, that the number of abuses are skyrocketing. So you have instances of summary executions, of torture, of suspects disappearing, of people detained, you know, without any real charges or trial. And this – it has become typical. I mean, it’s almost predictable when you have a force that is not subject to the rule of law.

CAVANAUGH: Now are the people who are victims of this abuse, are they largely involved in the drug business?

ROTH: Well, you never know because there is no trial for the most part. People are picked up and tortured. And so, you know, undoubtedly the army thinks that these people are involved in trafficking but without being formally charged with a crime, without appearing before a judge, without having a free confession rather than a coerced confession, you just don’t know. And if you look at the way that the Mexican people are responding to this kind of highly abusive method of fighting the cartels, the Mexican Army is losing the Mexican public, and that comes to the point that you made in the introduction that this is a very counterproductive approach because if you’re going to fight something as secretive and violent as the drug cartels, you need public confidence. You need the public to see this as their war rather than simply some distant war being fought by the army. And you need the public to actively cooperation with law enforcement officials so that if they see something suspicious, if they see a drug deal going down, you want them to report that to the police or to the army rather than just sort of sit on their hands. And the consequence – one of the consequences of this rise in violent abuse is that the army has really lost that public confidence. There was a recent poll done and something like 47% of the Mexican people felt that the drug war was someone else’s war, the army’s war. A mere 17% felt that it was their war. And so that demonstrates sort of a lack of identity with the war effort. And more to the point, we find that people are unwilling to report any kind of criminal activity to the police or the army for fear of implicating themselves, facing torture themselves. If they’ve had family members who’ve been arrested, they’re afraid of making things worse for them. There’s just no confidence that this is a lawless effort. And those circumstances, it’s not surprising, that the people are turning against the war and that the war is being lost.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. We are talking about alleged abuses of human rights by the Mexican Army in the ongoing drug cartel war. And we are taking your calls, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Now, during your talk tonight at UCSD, you’ll be speaking about the Merida Initiative between the U.S. and Mexico. Tell us what that is.

ROTH: Well, this is an unprecedented infusion of U.S. security assistance into the Mexican drug effort, and it’s unprecedented in the sense that traditionally the Mexican Army has really stood apart from any kind of cooperative relationship with the U.S. government. It was, you know, the longstanding fears of American imperialism. It was, you know, a nationalistic reaction. That has changed. And for the first time, the U.S. finds itself cooperating with the army and the U.S. government is rightfully excited about that development. But the problem is, you know, what should the U.S. government be doing about the army’s human rights abuses. If the U.S. wants an effective counter-cartel strategy, it clearly needs to do something to reduce these abuses, to assure that the military is subject to the rule of law and to ensure that the basic training is in place so that soldiers do not commit torture or execution. Now, the Merida Initiative had a mechanism built into it that would allow the U.S. to put pressure on the Mexican military to respect the rule of law, to respect human rights. 15% of the Merida funds were supposed to be withheld unless the Mexican security forces met four very concrete human rights conditions including stopping torture, or subjecting their abuses to civilian courts rather than to military prosecutors. The State Department, in the first report that they did under Merida this past August, admitted that these conditions had not been met but the money went forward anyhow. The 15% was not held aside. And that signaled to the Mexican military that despite Congress’ insistence as a matter of law that respect for human rights was an essential component of the drug war, they didn’t really mean it.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’m interested in – That’s quite a statement. So basically you are not expecting the Merida Initiative, that aspect of it that requires some human – human rights to be respected in this drug war, you don’t ever expect that that – to be enforced by the United States?

ROTH: Well, no, I do expect it to be but they didn’t.


ROTH: The Obama administration had a first chance, and they blew it. Now it’s only a first chance. The Merida Initiative envisions several tranches of aid going forward. And, indeed, the next report and the next decision will come up in a couple of months.


ROTH: And so we hope that a better job will be done. But, frankly, when we stand back, and even apart from the Merida Initiative, look at the overall approach of the Obama administration toward the – Mexico’s drug war, we’ve been disappointed. President Obama has never publicly spoken about the importance of the drug war being one that is fought within the limits of respect for human rights. He is – We’ve been told that he talks privately with President Calderon about this but there’s a big difference between a private conversation and a public statement because it’s only the public statement that’s going to reach the military. There have been many, many opportunities. President Obama and President Calderon met in Guadalajara a few months ago and President Obama talked about the cartels being the worst abusers of human rights, never mentioned the military. Now the cartels may well be the worst but that shouldn’t be the standard. It’s not as if the military can do anything short of the cartels and get away with it. So it was a real lost opportunity there. One interesting thing is there even was an opportunity for sort of positive reinforcement which President Obama squandered and that is that because of this problem with impunity, because the military courts essentially never hold abusive soldiers to account, the Interamerican Court on Human Rights, a product of – or a part of the Organization of American States, issued a ruling a year ago saying that it is never appropriate for military abuses to be judged under military jurisdiction. And the Mexican government, to its credit, said, okay, we accept that, we’ll change it. They’ve promised to do it by this coming September. But this is so far just talk, there’s been no action. Now President Obama could have used this opportunity to applaud President Calderon’s willingness, at least in theory, to embrace the rule of law over the military, I mean, he could’ve done this entirely through positive reinforcement, not risked alienating anyone and he didn’t do it. So what we fear is that there really isn’t a good strategy in place in Washington to ensure that the drug war is fought effectively. The U.S. seems to be so enamored of this new cooperation that they have found with the Mexican military that it’s not willing to do anything that might jeopardize that relationship even to the point of building the relationship on a counterproductive abusive approach to fighting the cartels.

CAVANAUGH: Now people who have an opposite view of this would say perhaps that Mexico is fighting for its life. There was a State Department report that came out a year or so ago that said Mexico was teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state, that, therefore, the idea of using every weapon that you can when you come across suspects of the drug cartel not being – having your hands tied with initiatives and so forth is something that’s regrettable but it is a necessity in this hour of Mexico’s troubles. And I’m wondering, what is your answer to that?

ROTH: Well, let me make three quick points there. I mean, first of all, the argument that Mexico’s a failed state is a gross exaggeration. Yes, the cartels are incredibly powerful, yes, they’re responsible for massive violence in the border areas. But Mexico is nowhere near being a failed state, and we shouldn’t allow rhetoric like that to blind ourselves to the reality. Second, even granted that the cartels are so powerful in military terms that in many ways battling them does look at times more like a war than it does like a law enforcement initiative, nonetheless, even in war, there’s certain things you can’t do. That’s what the Geneva Conventions are all about. Even in war, you can’t summarily execute somebody who’s in custody, even in war you can’t torture people, even in war you can’t disappear people. Those are basic rules that Mexico has agreed to be bound by. You don’t make an exception for that just because the warring faction on the other side happens to be a drug cartel. The final, and perhaps most important point, is that even granted that Mexico faces enormous public security problems, using these kind of violent abuses is counterproductive for the reasons we’ve just discussed. They are alienating the public, they are losing the kind of trust that any law enforcement official needs in order to defeat secretive, violent cartels. And so if the aim is really to win the war, if the aim is to curtail the power of the cartels, a lawful approach, one that respects human rights, is much more likely to succeed. That’s what experience shows.

CAVANAUGH: How does Human Rights Watch find out about the abuses in Mexico?

ROTH: Well Human Rights Watch works in Mexico the same way we work in the other 90 countries around the world where we operate, which is that we have people on the ground who conduct very detailed investigations. We speak to the victims of abuse, to eyewitnesses, to public officials, and we try to put together as concrete and accurate a picture as we can of the human rights conditions, in this case, say, in Northern Mexico. And, frankly, our findings are, in a sense, reinforced by the Mexican National Human Rights Commission. I don’t think there’s a real dispute about the level of violent abuse either by the cartels or by the military, nor is there a real dispute about the impunity for military abuses that is fueling this kind of counterproductive approach to fighting the cartels. The only real dispute is, you know, is this smart policy or not? And there are those in Washington who think that, you know, if they just kind of cozy up to the Mexican military today, maybe there’ll be some victories that will justify things in the future and then, you know, down the road the U.S. can insist on respect for human rights. That down the road isn’t going to come. These kind of violent abuses are making things worse not better. And I hope Washington recognizes that before too long.

CAVANAUGH: What does – If, indeed, the Mexican government and the Mexican Army don’t really deny that these incidents are going on, what do they say in order to try to explain them?

ROTH: Well, the – I’ve spoken with very senior Mexican government officials, including President Calderon and the Interior Minister Gómez Mont, and they basically say, you know, we recognize the problem, we’re dealing with it, but they are very reluctant to rock the boat, frankly, for the same reason that the Obama administration is. President Calderon has essentially staked his presidency on the success of this drug war. He declared it really in the first days in office three and a half years ago. And he has no institution to fight the war but the army. There is a long tradition in Mexico of the army being a force unto itself even though, you know, Mexico is not a country that has been plagued by military coups, nonetheless, you cannot say that Mexico is a country where the civilian government has really exerted authority over the army. These have been two parallel institutions which, for the many years under the PRI just existed fine. Now that the PAN has been in office since President Fox, there’s a slightly different relationship but still President Calderon is very reluctant to raise the difficult subject of human rights abuses let alone really challenge the military by exerting the civilian judicial jurisdiction over military abuses. Now, finally, because he was forced to from the outside because the Interamerican Court insisted that he do so, he kind of used that excuse to promise to do so. We’ll have to see whether that pans out. But one lesson I draw from that is that President Calderon actually benefits from external pressure, that he probably wants to do the right thing. I can’t imagine he wants military abuses to be existing because he sees that they’re wrong in and of themselves and they’re counterproductive but he has a hard time insisting on that and so external pressure can actually help the man. That’s what happened when the Interamerican system stepped in, and that could happen if President Obama stepped in and did what the Merida Initiative insists upon and that is, you know, condition the aid on respect for human rights. But the Obama administration has not seen this as actually helping their ally in Mexico City but rather is just worried about somehow alienating the military despite the fact that this attitude has been so counterproductive.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Ken Roth. He’s executive director of Human Rights Watch. We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue our discussion and take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is Ken Roth. He’s executive director of Human Rights Watch. Ken will be speaking at the Institute of the Americas at UCSD about the human rights implications of Mexico’s drug violence, that’s tonight at 6:30. And we’re taking your calls on the violence in Mexico and the apparent allegations against the Mexican Army using violent tactics and violating the human rights of Mexican citizens. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Let’s take a call right now. Robert is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Robert, and welcome to These Days.

ROBERT (Caller, San Diego): Good morning and thank you, and I want to emphasize that I do not advocate the use of what are currently illegal drugs but both countries need to learn the lesson from the U.S. attempt at the drug war known as Prohibition. And both countries need to greatly decriminalize drugs. I’ll stay on the line for feedback.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Robert. I’m wondering, does Human Rights Watch have any position on that? What, indeed, the war against drugs has done in terms of ratcheting up the potential abuse of people in Mexico and the United States?

ROTH: Well, one point that Mexicans often make which is accurate is that the drug problem really begins north of the border with the massive demand for drugs in this country. So that’s one element and, clearly, there are educational efforts that could go toward trying to reduce that demand. But, second, even given that demand, many people point out that the violence associated with the drug trade, the thing that really is the trademark of the cartels is very much a product of the illegality of the drug trade. And that if, through a kind of harm reduction approach, there were greater emphasis put on simply regulating drug use and in trying to move it through legitimate channels and perhaps treating it more like alcohol or cigarettes that would be one way of reducing the violence. Now, obviously, on the other side people argue, oh, will that increase drug use? And there’s evidence it really cuts both ways coming out of Europe where efforts like this have been tried. But there is no question that the combination of the large demand and prohibitory approach, the fact that drug use is criminal in the United States, has pushed the whole thing underground, has driven up profits, and has contributed to the violence. I think we have to recognize that and as we look forward, as we try to, you know, eradicate the evil associated with the drug trade, we have to recognize that often it’s simply not the trade itself. Part of it is the policies that have led to the trade.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as I say, you’ll be speaking at UCSD at the School of the Americas tonight. And I wonder if you bring with you any information about human rights abuses that are really very close to San Diego, maybe in Tijuana or in Imperial County in Mexicali. Have you gotten any reports from those locations?

ROTH: Well, yes. I mean, interestingly, the Calderon government often trumpets Tijuana as an illustration of the success of its current war on the cartels. And they like to cite a reduction in violence that took place particularly in 2009 as evidence of that. And so we looked a little more closely at that and what we found was actually quite disturbing. I mean, first of all, just taking the violence on the side of the army, we found more than 100 cases of serious army abuse just in 2009. And these, you know, were not minor infractions, these were cases of torture and rape and disappearance and the like. In fact, we found that, you know, typically people were being blindfolded, you know, taken to military barracks, interrogated violently with overt forms of torture. And so, you know, this is nothing to be proud of at all. Then you say, well, what was the effect of all of this on the violence by the cartels or between competing factions of the cartels because, in fact, what had happened in Tijuana is that a kingpin had been knocked off and there was then a fight for control of the cartel. And there was a period where instead of the cartel moving to the next logical inheritor, there was a rogue individual, El Payo was his name, who broke off and tried to sort of create his own counter-cartel. And that led not only to an increase in violence but also to some quite spectacular violence with bodies being decapitated and left on the street and the like. And that, of course, is what left people with the sense, particularly, say, in 2008 that things were really getting out of control. That spectacular nation of the violence ended when El Payo was – I believe he was killed. I forget whether he was killed or arrested, but where he was no longer, you know, an independent…

CAVANAUGH: He’s out of business.

ROTH: He’s out of business, yes. And so in that sense, the spectacular violence has gone down but what we’ve found is that if you just look at homicides, you know, the Tijuana official homicide records, that the number of killings in 2010 is roughly tracking the height of the killings in 2008 so the violence actually isn’t down. Its spectacular nature is down but the drug cartel is strong and is still using the same violent means. And so even this supposed success story isn’t what the Calderon government claims it to be and is yet one more reason to ask whether this high level of army abuse is either necessary or useful in dealing with the cartel.

CAVANAUGH: Is this level of violent tactics by the Mexican military and, in some places, the police, does it draw any of the cartel violence towards the authorities rather than the populous?

ROTH: Well, I don’t think violence is a zero sum game, you know, so, yes, of course there are shootouts between the cartels and the military. But – And, indeed, I think by most accounts, the vast majority of the killings are really between cartel factions or different people who are vying for the cartels’ business. But the general public inevitably gets caught in that either by mistake or it’s a crossfire or what have you. It’s not as if the cartels are routinely preying on just random people but as they move more into kidnapping and extortion, you know, as they try to enforce their dominance by attacking people who they perceive as being informants for the police or the security officers, all of this violence does tend to harm the general public. And so it is important – it’s not as if the victims are simply drug traffickers to begin with. The victims very often are the ordinary, unfortunate residents of these cities. And that’s all the more reason why an effective approach to fighting the drug cartels is important.

CAVANAUGH: My guest is Ken Roth. He’s executive director of Human Rights Watch. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Bob is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Bob. Welcome to These Days.

BOB (Caller, San Diego): Thank you. (audio dropout) fascinating (audio dropout)…

CAVANAUGH: I think we can’t take Bob. His cell phone was wigging out. But his question, if I understand it correctly is sort of, if Mexico is not a failed state, what is the definition of a failed state?

ROTH: Well, you know, it’s interesting. Let me – I mean, first of all, what is a failed state.


ROTH: I mean, Somalia is a failed state.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, right.

ROTH: I mean, there are real…

CAVANAUGH: No government whatsoever.

ROTH: There are real failed states out there. And if you just, you know, if you visit Mexico City, it’s anything but a failed state. I mean, Mexico’s a vast country. It has a, you know, well developed government and security forces. I mean, this is nowhere near a failed state. It is a state with a serious security threat. But let’s not confuse the two. Now, you know, one analogy that is useful is with Columbia in the 1980s because, I mean, Columbia even then wasn’t a failed state but it was a lot closer than Mexico is today. At that stage, you may remember that, you know, the Calle and the Medellin cartels were incredibly powerful. They were aided at that point by the FARC, by the Communist rebel group. The Mexican Army was engaged in very violent abuses to try to counter this effort and it was going nowhere. So that, I mean, troublesome as Mexico is today, Columbia was arguably much worse in the 1980s. And one interesting lesson to be drawn from this, in fact, there’s an article in the current Foreign Affairs magazine making some of these points, is that it was actually pressure from the U.S. government through real conditionality and the assistance, the equivalent at that point of the Merida Initiative which had similar kinds of human rights conditions attached to the aid. In that case, the U.S. government meant it, and it had real consequences. You saw many, many cases where abusive generals were fired, where abusive officials were turned over from military to civilian jurisdictions so that there would be real accountability. Columbia even established a vibrant protection program where human rights defenders, journalists, ordinary citizens, people who were facing threat because they were perceived as somehow reporting on the abuses of the cartels or the abuses of the rebels or even the abuses of the government aligned paramilitaries, they could receive genuine government protection. And if it happened very quickly, if the Interamerican Commission called up and said so-and-so was in trouble, within 24 hours they would have police protection. And it worked. And that is an example of positive conditionality, of, you know, a combination of the conditions written into the law and an administration in Washington that was determined to use them to improve human rights, respect for human rights, and thereby to get a more viable and effective strategy for fighting the cartels. It worked in Columbia and it could easily work in Mexico, which is not as dire but it’s going to require the insight and political will on the part of those in Washington and those in Mexico City, which so far has been lacking.

CAVANAUGH: Ken Roth, I’d like ask you how you became involved in human rights work.

ROTH: Well, that’s a long story but give a short answer.


ROTH: I think I was inspired to a large degree by the experience of my father. He grew up as a young boy in Nazi Germany, and he fled to the United States in July of 1938. And I grew up, you know, listening to his stories of what it was like to be a young boy, a young Jewish boy, forced to live under the Nazis. And it was, you know, very moving. It gave me a sense of the evil that governments could succumb to and set me on a path to try to eradicate that, to try to fight back against it.

CAVANAUGH: And how effective is Human Rights Watch? I mean, I would imagine that this is an ongoing struggle. Do you ever win?

ROTH: We win all the time.


ROTH: And what’s interesting is that, I mean, we tend to operate in countries where it’s not possible to go to court to vindicate your rights. You know, if the local version of the ACLU can handle the case, we leave it to the ACLU. But in many countries, the courts don’t really function because they’ve been corrupted or the judges have been killed or threatened, and there we need other forms of pressure on the government to respect human rights. And the way we generate that pressure, we always conduct these very detailed investigations and issue reports on our findings. We use those reports to put pressure, in part by embarrassing the government through the press. Everyone finds it shameful to have their human rights abuses exposed. We also will go to powerful western governments and say, would you condition some aspect of your relationship with the target government on their improved respect for human rights? And so what we’re able to do is, through a combination of harm to the government’s reputation and a threat to its wallet, we’re able to put quite intense pressure on them to respect human rights. And so time and time again we see improvements and we enter into a dialogue with governments to push them in the right direction and they often move in the right direction.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, as you speak in areas of the United States about the Merida Initiative and human rights abuses in Mexico, do you think there’s an attitude in America that we don’t care about what human rights abuses go on in Mexico as long as the drug cartel war doesn’t spill over into the United States?

ROTH: Well, I mean, obviously you find that kind of narrow perspective everyplace but that has not been the dominant view that I have seen. People recognize that the violence in Mexico is going to spill over unless it’s curtailed. They’re eager to find an effective approach. And, in any event, they don’t want the U.S. government to be underwriting a massively repressive abusive approach to fighting the drug war. And just as in the 1980s, Americans didn’t want the U.S. government backing the Contras or the abuse of Salvadoran military, so today they don’t want sort of the latest security initiative south of the border to be going to a force that is engaged in torture and rape and summary executions. We don’t want to be complicit in that kind of abuse. And so, you know, quite apart from what works or doesn’t work and I think, as I’ve indicated, I think the abuse doesn’t work, but Americans just don’t want to be part of that kind of violent abuse and don’t want their governments funding it.

CAVANAUGH: Now when is the next time the Obama administration has a chance to say that these abuses must stop or else we won’t be giving you all the money that we could give you to help you fight the drug war?

ROTH: The next State Department report under the Merida Initiative is probably going to be out in August with the decision then on whether the aid goes forward taken in August or September. So it’s coming up in the next two or three months.

CAVANAUGH: And that’s an entirely executive level decision? The president says yes or no?

ROTH: It is. Congress could push back. They’re not doing a very good job of pushing back. So I think there’s congressional complicity in this as well. But, yes, this is essentially an executive decision at this stage, and I hope that this time around the president takes the right decision.

CAVANAUGH: Ken Roth, I want to thank you so much.

ROTH: Maureen, thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Ken Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. He will be speaking tonight at the Institute of the Americas at UCSD about the human rights implications of Mexico’s drug violence. That takes place at 6:30 this evening. If you’d like to comment on what you’ve heard, go online, You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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