Many countries prohibit deploying their military for domestic law enforcement: it’s a recipe for violent authoritarian abuse.
But the Obama administration’s prohibitionist drug war is funding and encouraging abuse and brutal, corrupt, mass-grave-level murders throughout Mexico and Central America – enough that even drug-war apologists admit that the appalling increase in human-rights abuses are a result of sending the military and police into communities in the name of anti-trafficking.
In just nine years, the drug war waged by the US and Mexico has created a climate of violence that has claimed more than 100,000 lives throughout the country, many young people – including two horrific massacres and a mass disappearance in the last six months connected to law enforcement nominally tasked with battling the spread of drugs.
An ambush on 26 September, begun by uniformed local police and finished off by an armed commando, left six young people dead and 43 students missing, nearly half of whom were last seen in police custody. Others are battling for their lives in local hospitals (where the possibility of a new attack is considered so high that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered precautionary measures for the wounded and the missing). This week, 28 semi-burned bodies were discovered in a mass grave, which authorities say could be the bodies of th e missing students. Politicians allied with cartels are blamed for the atrocity.
The mayor of Iguala, Guerrero, where the attacks took place, has gone into hiding, and the city’s head of security is charged with ordering the ambush. A state judge has charged 22 policemen with the crime and accused them of being hit men for the “Guerreros Unidos” gang.
This latest massacre followed the massacre of 22 young people in Tlatlaya, Mexico State, on 30 June in what was originally said to be a confrontation between the 102nd army battalion and a local gang. But evidence from eyewitnesses and forensics now indicates that the soldiers executed the kids, and eight army personnel are under indictment.
The collusion of government and organized crime is so frequent in Mexico that it forms part of the structure and operations of both in many parts of the country. And the lack of justice for crimes committed by members of this alliance is nothing new. But rarely – if ever – have so-called public servants so openly attacked civilians.
The dead and missing students in the latest massacre come from poor, farming families and attended the Ayotzinapa teacher-training college, which provides rural areas with needed teachers and young people with education and careers. The revolutionary-era schools are rooted in the government’s commitment to education and social equality, and continue to sustain the dreams of poor, often indigenous, young people to forge a better future for themselves, their families and their country. In the wake of economic reforms and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), though, the federal government has targeted the schools for elimination (and a clash between protesting students and the police in 2011 resulted in the death of two students).
Officials stated that the Guerreros Unidos gang was angry with those students for hurting their local businesses and used corrupt government authorities to teach them a lesson – but state actors also had reason to wipe out a focal point of resistance to unpopular national reforms and a school with a reputation as a protest leader. The earlier massacre seems to be the result of the extrajudicial execution of alleged “delinquents” in an operation resembling social cleansing. A recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur found “an alarmingly high rate” of summary executions of supposed cartel or gang members by Mexican security forces.
A nation that murders dissident or disaffected youth destroys its future.
Mexico’s young people have been targeted by the very people who are supposed to protect them at a moment in national history when their future is at stake. The government’s economic reforms, widely hailed as progress in the United States, puts the nation’s development and resources in the hands of a transnational private sector that does not exactly have a reputation for providing for the poor and disadvantaged.
Meanwhile, militarizing Mexico in the name of narcotics control has worked against the peace and democracy the US claims that it promotes. Not only has the drug war made the already-lucrative drug trade more violent by increasing competition among the cartels, it also has established a network of state-crime alliances that can – and are – being used for political purposes.
The war on drugs has never controlled drug trafficking and has always been about social control. Now it’s Mexico’s youth that are paying the price of that duplicity.
Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .
This essay originally ran in the Guardian.