By February 2010, US consulate officials in Monterrey, Mexico, had long connected Héctor Santos Saucedo, then head of Coahuila’s state investigations, to the Zetas. This was at a time when the Zetas—the notorious criminal drug organization formed by soldiers who had defected from an elite army unit—had consolidated control over much of the political and security apparatus in Mexico’s northern region. According to internal US government reports from around that time, Zeta influence was “longstanding and widespread throughout local and state government,” and cartels were operating “with near total impunity in the face of compromised local security forces.” Despite US knowledge that Santos was part of the Zetas’ sphere of influence, he continued to hold central positions in the counter-drug effort; he was named director general of investigations in the State of Coahuila in January 2010 after being dismissed from his post as head of the state investigative unit in Nuevo León. The following year, the town of Allende, Coahuila, became the site of one of the drug war’s worst massacres—one that is just now coming to light after years of cover-up.
Between March 18 and 21, 2011, the Zetas conducted an operation in the town of Allende, kidnapping and executing a reported 300 family members, friends and others associated with three Zetas believed to be informants for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Even though Coahuila state government officials, as well as the federal attorney general’s office, received complaints of the attack as it was being carried out, no security forces intervened to prevent the killings. Neither state nor federal officials investigated the attack afterward, and Coahuila’s governor did not publicly acknowledge the killings until over a year later.
It wasn’t until January 2014 that authorities began searching for the remains of those disappeared and announced the exhumation of mass graves in the area. In a chilling depiction reminiscent of the case of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa who were disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero, last September, some of the hundreds of remains showed signs of burning from attempted incineration. It still is not clear what prompted the search for the remains three years after the massacre, or who is behind the cover-up, but the close links between local and state authorities and the Zetas could likely provide some clues.
The Allende massacre is just one of many atrocities that have been carried out in recent years in Mexico. While Ayotzinapa was the crime that shocked global consciousness, focusing the world’s attention on the country’s human rights crisis, the case of the forty-three students follows a pattern, one characterized by state secrecy, state links to criminal organizations and official cover-up. The Coahuila case also exposes how US officials in Mexico regularly receive information on Mexican government links to organized crime and abuse, while at the same time Washington provides equipment, assistance and training to compromised agencies. This assistance is delivered as part of the Mérida Initiative—the ongoing counter-drug aid package signed in 2006, which was originally proposed as a three-year program but continues to this day; Washington has spent roughly $2.5 billion on Mérida since 2008. While US laws explicitly prohibit the delivery of aid to foreign individuals and units implicated in systematic human rights violations, internal reporting on the implementation of Mérida programs reveals that institutional connections to organized crime are consistently overlooked, ignored or kept hidden from public scrutiny as counter-drug money continues to flow.
Around the time of the Allende massacre, there was a blackout of information in Mexico’s northern region, both because of threats that silenced journalists and because killings were kept off the records by public authorities. Officials in the US government were, however, able to obtain internal information kept from the public during this time through informants and because of close collaboration with their Mexican counterparts. In November 2010, for example, FBI authorities in Mexico reported secretly on information connecting police officials in Saltillo, Coahuila, to the Zetas and to drug trafficking and homicides. A year later, DEA officials in Monterrey reported internally on the arrest of a Zeta plaza boss who had formerly worked as a police officer in two different municipalities of Nuevo León. The latter message was transmitted from Monterrey to the US Embassy and the other DEA field office in Mexico. (The DEA maintains the largest US law enforcement presence in Mexico, with 23 percent of the agency’s special agents assigned to Southwest border field office in the United States and Mexico, and carries out joint operations with Mexican counterparts.) The information on the federal police arrests came following a visit by DEA special agents to the San Luis Potosí police academy in July 2009 to provide instruction on police intelligence to officials from the northern states, including from Nuevo León.
According to the State Department, one of the objectives of the Mérida Initiative is to bolster the capacity of Mexico’s security forces and legal institutions to “fight organized crime and associated violence.” But the US programs often seem to undermine this objective, as in many instances they bolster government agencies linked to organized criminal groups. As the US consulate was receiving information connecting Coahuila’s officials to the Zetas, for example, DEA agents in Coahuila were training dozens of police investigators and officials from Coahuila’s state attorney general’s office (in October and November 2009). The DEA was also training federal security agents (SSP officials), including individuals from Coahuila and Monterrey. This was part of a national effort—DEA special agents trained 2,735 federal police officers in 2010 alone through its international training section. Officials from the US Embassy’s Narcotics Affairs Section were also training mid-level federal police officers from Coahuila and Nuevo León at this time. These programs were carried out even as US consulate officials were reporting that the security apparatus in Nuevo León had been compromised, with the governor admitting that some state and police officials had been co-opted by the Zetas. The programs also continued even while DEA officials reported on the arrests of thirteen active-duty and retired law enforcement officials in the state of Nuevo León, including directors of the SSP, for providing protection and assistance to drug-trafficking organizations.
The traditional US government response to reports of Mexican government involvement in abuses has been to ratchet up training and assistance programs. Embassy officials traveled to Tamaulipas in May 2011 to conduct an assessment of state police officials just as Mexican authorities were unearthing mass graves in the region. In the lead-up to the visit, the US consulate in Matamoros had reported on the discovery of the mass graves and on the arrests of municipal police officials in connection with massacres of migrants in the region. As far as US officials were concerned, the solution was to expand Mérida Initiative assistance, as embassy officials recommended training Tamaulipas police at the San Luis Potosí regional police academy. At this time, embassy officials were already carrying out a “Culture of Lawfulness” initiative in San Luis Potosí that included coursework for federal police to train regional police forces from Baja California, Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas and Coahuila.
The archival orbit of documents produced by US agencies implementing Mérida programs also shows that the state links to abuse are not the product of a few corrupt officials at the local level but extend to all levels of the Mexican government, including military officials and federal investigators. The US embassy reported in June 2009 on the arrests of three officers from the Attorney General’s Organized Crime Investigations Unit (SIEDO) along with ten soldiers, eight of whom were junior officers, for links to organized crime. The embassy stated that the arrests and Zeta infiltration of government at the highest levels “suggest that there [sic] cartel infiltration of federal security forces remains an ongoing problem.”
US officials were well aware of the effect that reports of abuse could have on Mérida assistance. After the killing of a family by the military at a checkpoint in Monterrey in September 2010, for example, consular officials commented that the shooting could have “powerful repercussions,” as it occurred the same day the State Department decided to withhold $26 million of Mérida funds due to human rights concerns. The consular cable went on to note that Mexican military sources confided to US officials that the army was “very probably at fault and bore responsibility for this ‘mistake.’” The comment from US officials adds that unfortunately, highly publicized “mistakes” like this have happened before.
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Washington’s security assistance to Mexico is facing more criticism and scrutiny today than at any time since the advent of the Mérida Initiative. The disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students has heightened calls to cut off US funding. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Washington to defend spending billions in support of Mexico’s security apparatus in the face of growing evidence of federal-level complicity and direct involvement in flagrant human rights violations.
The version of events of the students’ disappearances given by the federal authorities has been questioned and contradicted at every turn. Attorney General Jesús Murillo first indicated that the students were intercepted by local police acting on orders from the corrupt mayor of Iguala and then turned over to a local drug gang that buried the bodies in clandestine graves. Following the discovery of mass graves in the region, the attorney general claimed the students could not be found there, as the bodies had been incinerated beyond the point of identification. This point has been refuted by scientist who determined that the culprits could not have burned the bodies with the materials available to them.
While the federal government still blames local actors for the attack, information continues to surface that directly counters this narrative. The Guerrero newspaper El Sur reported on witness testimonies indicating that the Mexican army and federal police were aware of the incident when it was taking place but failed to protect the students. Further, investigative journalists Anabel Hernández and Steve Fisher reported in the Mexican weekly Proceso that federal police were following the movements of the students the night they were kidnapped and were directly involved in the attack. They based their account on eyewitness testimonies, videos and internal documents from the Guerrero state investigations. Revelations reported by La Jornada that army bases contain crematoriums have also heightened claims of military involvement in disappearing the students. As Greg Grandin noted before Obama’s January meeting with Mexico’s president, “Peña Nieto’s alibi regarding the disappearance of the forty-three seems to be unraveling.”
It is not surprising that federal authorities have tried to deflect attention from federal government responsibility and depict the disappearances as a local act. In other cases of human rights violations, such as the San Fernando massacres carried out in Tamaulipas in 2010-11, federal authorities have taken similar measures to cover up the state’s role. After discovering mass graves of an estimated 200 victims in April 2011, US officials reported that Mexican authorities were removing bodies in order “to make the numbers less obvious and thus less alarming,” and commented that Tamaulipas officials were trying to downplay the mass graves and “state responsibility for them.” Federal officials also withheld official information and obstructed investigations by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) into the massacres by blocking CNDH access to crucial files on the case. Years later, in December 2014 in response to a freedom of information request, the public prosecutor released a document from the investigative files, that revealed new details on direct links between the San Fernando police, the Zetas and the San Fernando killings.
Last June, after members of the army’s 102nd Battalion executed twenty-two people in Tlatlaya, Mexico State, the military attempted to cover up the crime by claiming the victims were connected to criminal drug activity and killed during a shootout. Last October, the CNDH released its report on the case, finding that the army manipulated evidence at the site of the killing. The CNDH also reported that state prosecutors threatened three female witnesses with rape, and beat two of them, to force them to sign statements exonerating the soldiers implicated in the killings. Further investigative reporting by Daniel Lizárraga and Sebastián Barragán has revealed that military officials from other units, including generals and Navy forces, were present at the crime scene in the wake of the killings.
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Criticisms of the Mérida Initiative are longstanding, particularly from rights groups that followed the impact of Plan Colombia on human rights in that country and predicted the same for Mexico. Such groups have documented impunity in Mexico for years, and have drawn attention to US security assistance to compromised units tied to abuses. Amnesty International argued back in 2008 that the Mérida Initiative’s human rights provisions did little to address the high levels of corruption that had “essentially penetrated all political parties and most institutions” in Mexico.
Some on Capitol Hill, notably Senator Patrick Leahy, have at times called for withholding Mérida funding because of Mexican state complicity in human rights abuses. Leahy has also challenged the State Department’s claims that Mexico is meeting human rights conditions, despite clear evidence of abuses. In 2010, Leahy pointed out that “arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings by the armed forces, had not been addressed.” Leahy released a statement in the wake of last fall’s Ayotzinapa disappearances, noting, “The Mexican Army and police have a long history of violating human rights with impunity, and no one in Congress has worked harder than I have to keep our aid to Mexico from going to those who commit such crimes.” He pointed out that Ayotzinapa is one of many cases in Mexico where the Leahy Law could come into play, but “it is up to the State Department to implement the Leahy Law and Senator Leahy hopes and expects that they will.”
Despite the mounting evidence of government cover-up and inconsistencies in the official explanation for human rights crimes, the White House remains steadfast in its support for the Mexican government and Mérida assistance. When questioned about Ayotzinapa in January after his meeting with Peña Nieto, President Obama said that Mexico is a strong partner and praised the efforts of federal authorities to bring those responsible to justice. Since then, medical reports obtained by journalists Hernández and Fisher have shown that over two dozen municipal police officers arrested for their alleged involvement in the disappearances were tortured into confessing, including one of the prosecution’s key witnesses. The reports of torture have raised alarms that the prosecutions have been compromised and cast further doubt on the official explanation of who is responsible.
William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, continues to defend Mérida, even as he describes Ayotzinapa as one of the most repugnant crimes in history. Brownfield claims that US support has helped to reduce homicides and drug trafficking, and has led to more professionalized police. It is clear that millions will continue to pour into the security programs. In March 2014 Washington agreed to send over $300 million in new aid, and this February, Obama asked Congress for an additional $80 million for fiscal year 2016.
In the wake of cases such as Ayotzinapa and the Tlatlaya killings, calls have grown louder for cutting all funding, not just the 15 percent subject to withholding based on human rights conditions as stipulated through the Mérida framework. Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy sensibly argues that Congress should immediately stop funding the Mérida Initiative—and should instead “look closely and responsibly at what U.S. aid to Mexican security forces is actually supporting: namely, human rights abuses.”
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Efforts to deflect criticism of security assistance have been dubbed “public diplomacy.” The Obama administration has moved away from “drug war” nomenclature to language that suggests economic development and justice reform as justifications for US intervention. In response to negative attention over escalating violence in 2011, for example, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed with the Calderón administration ways to, as Clinton put it, “explain to Congress why foreign assistance money under ‘Beyond Merida’ should continue.”
Branding and marketing US-Mexico relations have taken a prominent role under the Peña Nieto government. The first high-level interagency meeting on Mérida between Peña Nieto’s administration and US officials in 2013 focused on coordinating “strategic communications.” During that meeting, US representatives agreed to take Mexico’s lead on “media and public messaging, but cautioned that too passive a stance on media would mean ceding the public space to those who seek to characterize U.S.-Mexico security cooperation negatively.”
This follows the trend of Peña Nieto using public relations to deflect attention from human rights violations. In January the Mexican president published an article in Politico to coincide with his visit with Obama, arguing for continued US support. The piece demonstrated that public image, and corresponding US support, is a high priority for the Mexican and US governments. It also showed that continuing the status quo in US-Mexico relations is a higher priority than the fate of the forty-three missing students and other atrocities committed behind the veil of the drug war.
Many of the documents this report is based on were obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by researchers with the National Security Archive and published by the same organization. Visit the Migration Declassified project site for more, and for access to more of the document collection, see Mike Evans’s briefing book publication, Mexico: Los Zetas Drug Cartel Linked San Fernando Police to Migrant Massacres. See also Mike Evans and Jesse Franzblau’s Mexico’s San Fernando Massacres: A Declassified History.