POLICY ANALYSIS: Mexican Family Tragedy at the Epicenter of U.S. Aid and Military Abuse
May 5th, 2011
Josefina Reyes was assassinated with a
gunshot to the head outside her
barbeque stand last January. Her
crime? Protesting the U.S.-backed war
on drugs that has killed almost 35,000
Mexicans since 2006.
A long-time women’s rights advocate,
Josefina never imagined that she would
lose five family members and her own
life for her activism. Then thousands of
military troops were sent to Chihuahua.
It was 2008, and U.S. funding was
unleashing the Mexican Army on drug
traffickers throughout the country.
The consequences of the heightened
military presence prohibited Josefina
from staying silent. When the military
placed thirteen of her neighbors under
pre-charge detention, Josefina
petitioned for their release. Then she
spoke at a conference titled “Forum
Against Militarization and Repression.”
That was about all it took: her son was
disappeared several days later.
“There are powerful interests that want
to silence the Reyes family,” says
Josefina's sister Marisela.
After Josefina's murder, the family
continued speaking out. And as a
result, they’ve buried six murdered
loved ones, despite the fact that they
were granted protection by the
Interamerican Commission on
It’s “because we don't shut up,” says
Olga Reyes Salazar.
With the help of U.S. aid through the
Mérida Initiative, Mexican President
Calderón has sent 50,000 soldiers and
federal police to the streets of Mexican
cities and towns. The deployment has
corresponded to an increase in human
rights violations: the military has been
named in over 4,200 formal human
rights accusations since 2007.
However, U.S. military aid to Mexico
has failed to reduce illicit drug flows,
assure public safety or significantly
weaken cartels. Now people on both
sides of the border are clamoring for a
change in direction.
Failures of the U.S. Drug War Model
Until now, the U.S. strategy for
combating drug trafficking throughout
the continent has centered on military
The Mérida Initiative, modeled
after Plan Colombia, designated $1.5
billion for military and police aid to
This money puts Mexican soldiers on
the frontlines of the war on drugs.
With 50,000 troops deployed
throughout the country, the Mexican
Army has been implicated in murders,
rapes and other abuses—the vast
majority of which have never been
Almost 35,000 people have died and
over 5,397 people have been reported
missing since 2006. According to
UNICEF, more people have died in the Mexican drug war than in the entire 10-year Afghan war. Yet only 5% of all murders in 2010 were investigated by Mexican authorities.
And even though the U.S. withheld $26 million in 2010 Mérida funding because of human rights concerns, the State Department still plans to fund Mérida past 2012.
Two decades of counter-narcotics assistance in Latin America have shown that military aid does little to reduce drug production and trafficking. At best, it shifts
production centers and trafficking corridors, spurring drug-related violence with deadly consequences.
But as the drug war moves south to Central America, it’s met with the same one-size-fits-all military strategies—at the insistence of the U.S.
Realistic Solutions for the Drug Crisis
The Mérida Initiative is a military strategy focused on Mexico, the gateway for drugs produced mostly in South America. But with over 20 million drug users, the U.S. drives the drug trade in the first place—an issue that current policies don’t adequately address. In fact, the Obama administration provides even less
funding to prevention programs than the Bush administration did.
Meanwhile, trade policies like NAFTA exacerbate the poverty, displacement and social inequalities that give cartels nearly endless opportunities for recruitment and influence.
It’s a perfect storm for human suffering. But is military aid the solution?
“Our politicians see Mexico in flames, and their knee-jerk response is to throw water on the fire by increasing military aid,” says Witness for Peace board member and drug policy expert Sanho Tree.
But to more and more public figures, civil society organizations and international bodies, it’s become clear that the U.S. must rethink its drug war strategy to end the violence and corruption associated with drug trafficking.
Even President Obama recently admitted that drug legalization was a valid subject for debate—the most daring admission made so far by a sitting U.S. president.
Last month a United Nations working group urged the Mexican government to stop using the Army in anti-drug operations. And on April 6, massive demonstrations erupted throughout Mexico. From coast to coast, the
unified call was for the Army to leave the streets and return to their barracks.
Keeping the Faith
Despite all that’s happened to them, the Reyes Salazar family remains dedicated to speaking out against military abuse and impunity.
“We will continue fighting so that other families won’t suffer and live what we are going through now,” says Marisela.
To support their work, Witness for Peace supporters call on the U.S. government to reduce demand fordrugs stateside, work with Mexico to develop a strategy that prioritizes human rights, eliminate aid to Mexican security forces, and redirect Mérida funding to programs that address social and economic inequalities in Mexico.