Human-rights groups are calling on the United States to hold back millions of dollars in counternarcotics assistance to Mexico's military, concerned about what they say is a rise in abuse cases in conjunction with Mexico's drug war.
President Obama has so far resisted the demand, but the advocates' campaign threatens to revive old tensions between the US and Mexico over American influence south of the border. Moreover, it could become a cause of embarrassment for Mr. Obama, who is scheduled to attend a North American summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, next month.
"The Mexican Army is one of the most nationalist institutions in a hyper-nationalist country, so any attempt by the US to influence its actions by threatening a cut in aid would be seen as a gross intervention in Mexican internal affairs," says George Grayson, an expert on Mexico at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va. "I'd expect it would put a chill on bilateral relations."
At stake are tens of millions of dollars the US has promised to Mexico by this fall. The money is part of the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion counternarcotics pact negotiated with Mexico in 2008.
Before approving the plan, however, the US Congress imposed a requirement that 15 percent of annual funding be withheld until the State Department certified that the Mexican government is meeting key human-rights obligations.
Holding back that 15 percent would help enhance cross-border cooperation in the field of human rights, advocates have said.
"The Merida Initiative provides the Obama administration with an important opportunity to strengthen US-Mexico drug enforcement and human-rights cooperation," said Kenneth Roth, director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In particular, Mr. Roth says the US should enforce a requirement that alleged military abuses be tried in civilian rather than military courts.
Mexico's National Human Rights Commission reports a huge jump in reported human-rights violations by Mexican security forces: from 182 in 2006 to 1,230 last year. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) notes that such cases continue to be transferred to Mexico's "notoriously opaque military justice system."
WOLA, as well as several Mexican rights groups, is also calling for a withholding of the Merida funding.
Obama Administration officials say the White House wants to see Mexico's counternarcotics efforts under the Merida plan certified and the remainder of this year's funding released.
Publicly, US officials praise the efforts of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who has deployed more than 45,000 soldiers and thousands of national police. The drug war has cost more than 11,000 lives since Mr. Calderón took office in late 2006.
"President Calderón has taken some very courageous steps in fighting back against this scourge of the drug cartels, which have terrorized the Mexican people and have attacked Mexican law-enforcement personnel," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said last week in response to the calls for holding back US aid.
Calderón, he added, has assured the US that he takes particularly seriously allegations of abuses by security forces.
Still, the calls for restricting aid have led some Mexican politicians to accuse the US of hypocrisy, especially in light of high-profile cases of abuse by the US military and intelligence services in Iraq and at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.
Professor Grayson says Calderón has "no choice" but to employ the military in a "gruesome war with ruthless drug cartels," since "Mexico has no reliable police force."
At the same time, he adds, the military is "secretive, extremely jealous of its image as the nation's only reliable defender, and it recoils at the idea of answering to foreign accusations of abuse."