The U.S. and Mexico share pressing national security concerns, but they were largely addressed off of the official agenda and behind closed doors at the White House during Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s visit on Tuesday. With violence, poverty and migration overwhelming the region to the point of a U.S. military commander calling the combination an existential threat to the U.S., the sidelining of security issues reflected the delicate balance President Barack Obama must strike between cajoling and compelling the Mexican president to get his own house in order.
Beyond close economic ties, Obama needs Peña Nieto’s cooperation on counternarcotics, immigration and Cuba. At home, however, Peña Nieto faces accusations of corruption and human rights abuses committed by his security forces, which Human Rights Watch and other groups say undermine the extensive U.S.-Mexico security partnership.
In brief remarks Tuesday, Obama referenced the September disappearance of 43 students that has served as the catalyst for tens of thousands of Mexicans to take to the streets in protest against Peña Nieto’s government and continued violence committed by drug cartels and Mexican security forces. As more protesters were heard outside the White House Tuesday, Obama was careful to stress U.S. support.
“Our commitment is to be a friend and supporter of Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and the drug cartels that are responsible for so much tragedy inside of Mexico,” Obama said. “And we want to be a good partner in that process, recognizing that ultimately it will be up to Mexico and its law enforcement to carry out the decisions that need to be made.”
Peña Nieto thanked Obama for the extensive U.S. collaboration on security, from exchanges of information to logistics support. “I want to thank you, President Obama, for offering to continue these very efficient actions, first, to fight insecurity and especially organized crime.”
Obama has pressed Peña Nieto for support on several major issues, including the spike in unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border this past summer and Obama’s recent executive action on immigration, over which the new GOP-controlled Congress is threatening to try and withhold federal funds.
Mexico is also an important ally for Obama’s historic decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, which many Republicans and some Democrats have also opposed. U.S. officials are encouraging other countries in the region to push Cuba toward democratization and political and human rights reforms. The Mexican president praised Obama for both steps.
Peña Nieto is facing intense criticism for his response to the disappearance of the 43 students, now presumed dead, and the June killing of 22 people by Mexican soldiers. Federal prosecutors have made arrests, but the investigations have been tainted by accusations of delays and the use of torture, according to Human Rights Watch. The group notes that during his tenure, Peña Nieto has initiated some reforms, but says he has failed to follow through.
Troubling even by Mexico’s standards of violence, the incidents have raised questions about Mexican security forces’ credibility as a partner in joint-security initiatives, which are extensive and include the Defense Department, DEA, FBI and CIA and their Mexican counterparts. Since 2008, lawmakers have appropriated some $2.4 billion to Mexico under the Merida Initiative, a major vehicle for assistance to improve the security capabilities of countries in Central America. Congress has also approved the sale of more than a dozen Blackhawk helicopters to Mexico.
U.S. Southern Command’s Gen. John Kelly told Defense One in July that the flow of people, illegal drugs and weapons from Central America should be a national security priority. At the time, border officials were grappling with an influx of thousands of migrant children, most of whom journeyed thousands of miles north from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, through Mexico to the U.S.
“In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance,” Kelly told Defense One. “Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.”
Peña Nieto has taken steps to improve enforcement at Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, increasing its own rate of deportations and establishing new border control stations, and the Mexican government has partnered with the U.S. government in a public messaging campaign to educate citizens about U.S. immigration law. Obama’s recent action on immigration could grant reprieve from deportation to some 4 million people in the U.S., roughly two-thirds from Mexico, according to a senior administration official.
But these joint-security efforts heavily subsidized by the U.S. require Mexico to meet certain criteria. The Merida Initiative mandates that allegations of abuse by Mexican security forces be investigated and prosecuted. Despite documentation of a number of such incidents, the State Department has consistently certified that Mexico is meeting the requirements, according to Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing editor at Human Rights Watch. On Monday, Human Rights Watch sent Obama a letter urging him to use Peña Nieto’s visit to speak out on the Mexican government’s failure to address “a broader pattern of abuse and impunity” reflected by the recent incidents.
While the U.S. recognizes its shared responsibility in Mexico’s security problems, Wilkinson said, “What the Obama administration — like the Bush administration before it — has been entirely silent about is the terrible human rights record of the police and military security forces the U.S. supports and cooperates with.”
“Some of the [Merida] funding is supposed to professionalize the justice system so it works, to help the police and military do their job in a way that’s professional and not abusive. But if you don’t address the central problem, which is impunity, it’s hard to make any progress. You can give people training courses and hardware and share information, but as long as the people who engage in abusive practices know that they’re going to get away with it, it’s very hard to end those practices.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest confirmed that the two presidents spoke “generally” about the students’ disappearance and other security issues on Tuesday. “We want to see the President of Mexico, President Peña Nieto, live up to our view — and a view that I think that both countries share — about the importance of the rule of law, and that peace and justice are ultimately necessary to fully achieve inclusive economic growth,” Earnest said.
“The President stands with [Peña Nieto] as he tries to put in place the important reforms that are necessary to try to address the situation,” he continued. “But it’s clear that the work on this continues.”