The drug war just across the border

Clarence Page
Chicago Tribune
June 29, 2008

As if our military didn’t have its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, the head of the Minuteman Project border security group seems to think Minutemen might make good narcotics cops.

Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist suggested in recent radio interviews that the U.S. give Mexico 12 months to corral its criminal drug cartels and rising violence, particularly in border towns such as Juarez and Tijuana—or deploy the U.S. Army to do the job.

That’s the Minutemen. Their remedies for the drug war next door sound simplistic, but at least they’re paying attention.

While most of us north of the border have been absorbed with our presidential sweepstakes and other happenings, our southern neighbor has exploded into the full-scale drug violence previously associated with Colombia or Peru.

For now, we’re not sending troops, just money. The Senate last Thursday approved a $1.6 billion, three-year package of anti-drug assistance to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Known as the “Merida Initiative,” it includes $400 million for military equipment and technical assistance for Mexico’s anti-drug fight. The bill was passed earlier by the House and President Bush is expected to sign it.

Mexico’s government cheered the bill because it waters down proposed restrictions that would have required Mexico to change the way it handles allegations of human rights abuses by its military. Mexican leaders threatened to reject the money if there were too many restrictions on their sovereignty.

But the omission brought jeers from Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, such as the Friends of Brad Will, founded in the name of a freelance New York journalist who was shot and killed while shooting video of a teachers strike in Oaxaca two years ago. A native of Chicago’s North Shore, Will was 36.

His final video shows protesters hurling rocks and captures the sounds of gunshots, along with a shout: “Stop taking photos!” A shot is heard whizzing toward Will. He was struck in the abdomen and once in the right side.

vWithin days, state authorities took two men into custody, a local town councilor and his security chief. But they were released less than two months later. A state judge ruled that they were not close enough to have shot Will.

No further suspects were brought in. Publicity eventually helped nudge federal authorities into taking the case over, but they have not made much more progress. Capturing his own killing on video did not save Will from becoming one of thousands of casualties related to drugs or politics in Mexico in recent years.

Twenty-one journalists have been killed in Mexico, seven of them in direct reprisal for their work, since 2000, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member. Seven others have disappeared in the last three years.

“Mexico is not at war,” said Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ. “And yet it is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press.”

But that’s only a sliver of the thousands of drug-related murders of non-journalists in Mexico. By various counts, more than 4,000 people—including some 500 local, state and federal police officers—have been killed in the 18 months since President Felipe Calderon launched his campaign against the drug gangs.

Gang wars have escalated in recent years over smuggling routes to the United States and over control of local police forces. Among other particularly grisly touches, drug gangs in the northern state of Durango recently have left severed heads with warning notes attached in coolers by the side of the road.

Journalists such as Francisco Ortiz Franco, co-editor of the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta, have been killed for aggressively covering corruption and drug trafficking. At age 50, Franco was fatally shot in front of his children on a downtown Tijuana street.

Cases like his led to a meeting between President Calderon, who has sent federal troops in to bring peace to some towns, and CPJ board members, including me, in Mexico City June 9. Among other press freedom reforms, Calderon agreed to work toward laws that would protect speech and press freedoms at the federal level, not just the states, where corruption is more rampant.

With hundreds of millions of Washington anti-drug dollars still pending at the time, Calderon had ample reason to speak in glowing terms about human rights reforms. Now he needs to follow his talk with action—and Americans need to keep an eye on how well our money is being used.

Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune’s editorial board. E-mail: [email protected]

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