John McCain’s great timing

John McCain, the presumptive U.S Republican presidential candidate, couldn’t have timed his trip to Latin America better. Not only does he fly into Colombia a day before 6-year hostage of the FARC Ingrid Betancourt is liberated, he then rides into Mexico City this morning days after the Merida Initiative gets approved in El Norte.

Some of that great timing is pure coincidence – some not.

The liberation of 15 hostages in Colombia couldn’t have been predicted by McCain during the planning of the trip, but perhaps the timing as concerns the passing of the Merida bill, which will see President Calderon’s government receive a US$400 million cash boost from the United States Government to help in its heavily-militarized fight against the country’s powerful drug cartels and organized crime networks, was intended.

On the one hand, Mexico has never needed more help with its notoriously crooked and corrupt legal branches.

At the start of this week, videos were leaked onto the internet that showed an elite brand of the Mexican police apparently in torture training class. Although dismissed by officials as training procedures aimed at helping police deal with extreme situations in which THEY might have been kidnapped by the country’s big, bad narcos, their emergence was unpleasant but not surprising to anyone with any knowledge of Mexico’s law enforcement agencies. I should add that the source and authenticity of the tapes hasn’t really been questioned.

Then, on the same day that McCain strides around Mexico City’s Basilica de Guadalupe, four decapitated bodies turn up in the northern city of Coulican. Their severed heads were left a few blocks away. The deaths were drug-related, according to the Associated Press this morning.

Three of the beheaded bodies were found inside black, plastic bags on Wednesday, while the fourth was wrapped in a blanket, according to the prosecutor’s office in Sinaloa state, where Culiacan is located. Authorities said they believe the killings were drug gang-related.

Police found the heads inside separate white bags on a nearby street in Culiacan, a center for the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel.

“You’re next Chapo. You ungrateful traitor,” read a note found on a piece of cardboard nearby.

Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman is head of the Sinaloa cartel. He escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 and is among the most wanted drug lords in the United States and Mexico.

So, there’s no doubt that Mexico has a problem with its drug cartels and that the drug cartels are horrifically violent people. But are they any more violent and corrupt than the Mexican army and police forces, who themselves are wanted for a catalog of human rights violations against the country’s civilian population. Just take a glance at the U.S State Department’s human rights report for Mexico 2007:

The following human rights problems were reported: unlawful killings by security forces; kidnappings, including by police; physical abuse; poor and overcrowded prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detention; corruption, inefficiency, and lack of transparency in the judicial system; confessions coerced through physical abuse permitted as evidence in trials; criminal intimidation of journalists leading to self-censorship; corruption at all levels of government; domestic violence against women, often perpetrated with impunity; violence, including killings, against women; trafficking in persons, sometimes allegedly with official involvement; social and economic discrimination against indigenous people; and child labor.

As a first step, in efforts to reform and professionalize the police, the government relieved 284 federal police commanders, including all 34 regional police commanders, and rigorously trained and evaluated their replacements. Source: U.S State Department.

The only things which really seem certain when looking at the Merida Initiative is that firstly, such a small amount of money will probably make very little difference to Mexico’s drug war. The original budget for Plan Colombia, conceived in the late 90’s to help Colombia deal with its drug cartel problem, was more than US$7 BILLION.

Secondly, how that money is spent – by whom and on what – will of course define its worth in helping Calderon fight the drug baddies. For a country in which the notion of transparency is little more than idealism, one can’t help but expect little. Not only does  the Mexican Government lack transparency, but only 15% of the aid given the green light by the United States will be conditioned on Mexico’s efforts to make police more transparent, accountable and responsive to complaints, and ensure investigation of reports of abuse by police or soldiers, according to this Dallas Morning News report.

That means Mexico’s heads aren’t really accountable to anyone.

It’s only realistic to have low expectations for Merida.

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