February 29, 2008

Activists Take Aim at Merida Initiative, Trade Pacts

Special Report from Frontera NorteSur

Promising $1.4 billion in new funding to fight the drug war over the next three years, the Bush White House’s Merida Initiative is a strategic cornerstone of the outgoing administration’s envisioned future relationship with Mexico and Central America. Thomas Shannon, US assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, has called the assistance package a “new paradigm” of regional security cooperation.

Still awaiting approval by the US Congress, the Merida Initiative, which some compare with Plan Colombia, would significantly increase assistance to the Mexican military, aid Mexico with high-tech communications and surveillance equipment and increase the training of Mexican security forces. According to US State Department anti-narcotics official David Johnson, Washington trained 4,627 Mexican police in 2007 and plans to train an additional 5,800 in 2008.

The Merida Initiative is expected to be a major topic of discussion when US Department of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff and Mexican Interior Minister Juan Camilo Maurino meet in Los Cabos, Baja California Sur, this week.

Politically, the Merida Initiative is under consideration at a time when the Mexican army, the principal force in President Felipe Calderon’s offensive against organized crime, is coming under renewed fire for alleged human rights abuses.

In the United States, meanwhile, labor and human rights activists demand that the Bush Administration’s proposed security aid program for Mexico and Central America be rejected outright or at least have stringent rights guarantees placed on it.

Helping galvanize the opposition is the still-unpunished murder of US journalist Brad Will in Oaxaca during the 2006 uprising against the state government of Ulises Ruiz. Although Mexican police were clearly identified in photos and by witnesses as the shooters who killed Will, none of the perpetrators has been arrested for the crime. Twice since last fall, the activist group Friends of Brad Will has disrupted US congressional hearings on the Merida Initiative.

Although some of Will’s supporters were removed from the sessions by police, the group took credit for broadening the security debate to encompass human rights issues. On Friday, February 23, Friends of Brad Will helped organize a forum and cultural event on the Merida Initiative at the City University of New York. Last week, the group also relayed its concerns to New York Senator Charles Schumer.

Another big issue spurring opposition to the Merida Initiative is the Mexican gover-nment’s breaking of a strike over safety conditions at the Cananea copper mine near the Arizona border last month. Armed with an order from the country’s Labor Ministry that declared the strike illegal, Mexican federal police-reportedly aided by soldiers-forcibly removed strikers from the Grupo Mexico-owned mine. However, the Mexican Union of Mine, Metal and Allied Workers, which is led by the exiled Napoleon Gomez, quickly won a legal victory when a court ruled the strike was indeed legal.

An important ally of the Mexican miners, the United Steelworkers (USW) of the United States and Canada, demanded this month that the Merida Initiative be suspended until US congressional hearings are held on the Cananea strike. In mid-February, a group of USW and Mexican union leaders met with members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Hispanic Caucus on Capitol Hill.

“Mexico cannot be permitted to violate the rights of workers with impunity under the pretext of securing the borders and combating drug trafficking,” said USW President Leo Gerard.

The USW’s demands surrounding the Merida Initiative should be viewed as part of a bigger challenge that the union is launching against other existing or proposed international agreements. For instance, the USW is lobbying the US Congress to reject the proposed US-Colombia free trade agreement due to massive labor and human rights violations allegedly committed by the Colombian government. According to the USW, 2,283 labor leaders have been killed in Colombia since 1991; more than four hundred of the murders have occurred during the six-year-old administration of current President Alvaro Uribe.

In a recent statement, the USW criticized the Uribe government‘s Peace and Justice Law for opening the legal door to light prison sentences for paramilitary gunmen convicted of killing trade unionists. “In the meantime, death threats against trade unionists in Colombia persist, with more than 200 occurring last year,” the union said.

The USW formed part of a delegation of international trade unionists from North America, the United Kingdom and Ireland that traveled to Colombia to meet with Colombian union and political leaders this month. Claiming 850,000 members in the US and Canada, the USW is certain to have an influential voice during a US election year, especially one in which Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are stating that trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), deserve a second look.

Not all the activists’ fire is directed at governments in the south. Some US-based immigrant rights activists, for example, are urging the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon to forego signing any new security, anti-drug or economic development agreements with Washington until the United States implements an immigration reform that benefits undocumented workers and their families.

On his US tour this month, President Calderon was read a letter from activist Flor Crisostomo that proposed conditioning Mexico-US cooperation on a satisfactory resolution of the immigration question. Taking the torch from Elvira Arellano, Crisostomo, an undocumented immigrant, is defying deportation from the sanctuary of a Methodist church in Chicago, Illinois.

In her letter, Crisostomo also urged Calderon to revisit NAFTA.

“We call on the Mexican government to renegotiate NAFTA, because for 14 years it has been the principal propeller of migration and the separation of families in Mexico,” Crisostomo wrote the Mexican president. “And we are seen and treated like criminals in this country,” she added.

Taken together, the emerging waves of activism that link trade and security agreements to outstanding immigration, labor and human rights issues are not all that surprising in view of the parameters which were laid down for NAFTA and other bilateral agreements between Mexico and the US. In the run-up to NAFTA more than 15 years ago, labor and human rights advocates unsuccessfully appealed for the inclusion of strong human rights and immigration provisions in the trade pact. But unlike the European Union’s trade regime, which includes democratic, human rights and immigration guarantees, broader social concerns were largely excluded from the deal hatched by NAFTA’s negotiators.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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