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Country Profile

Largely because of the Mexican government's desire to remain independent from its northern neighbor, the United States and Mexico have historically not maintained close military ties. This relationship is currently changing, however, as Mexico has become a principal drug-transit route to the United States, and drug-traffickers are gaining tremendous power in Mexico. Authorities now estimate that up to three-quarters of the cocaine entering the United States comes through Mexico, as do tons of marijuana annually. Mexican narco-traffickers are believed to take in as much as $30 billion per year for their role in this trade, and in March 1996, Thomas Constantine, the chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency testified that the Mexican drug cartels were so wealthy and powerful that they now rival the government for influence and control in many regions.

As a result, the U.S. government has stepped up military assistance to the Mexican military and police, mostly through transfers of free military equipment. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director, traveled to Mexico in March 1996 smoothing the way for an agreement between the two governments which has resulted in Mexican soldiers beginning to train at Ft. Bragg and other American bases, and in the gift of 73 "surplus" helicopters, four C-26 surveillance planes, night vision goggles, radios and other military equipment. In addition, the White House has requested $9 million in military aid for Mexico for fiscal year 1998 (up from $3 million in fiscal year 1996) for the purchase of new weapons from U.S. arms manufacturers.

The principal issue of concern regarding U.S. weapons transfers to Mexico for counter-drug purposes are the diversion of these weapons to repress leftist political movements. The Mexican government's human rights and democracy record, while improving recently, is also of concern.

Leftist Insurgencies and human rights abuses

In January 1994 the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) burst onto the scene in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, attacking government posts and pressing demands for land reform and economic justice. The Mexican military responded to the EZLN militants with overwhelming force, killing many people. In a 1994 hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Alexander Watson said:

The insurgents took several hostages, including a former governor of Chiapas, and retreated to remote hamlets and rural areas. Security forces pursued them with helicopter gunships and other aircraft, strafing and firing rockets at suspected rebel positions. It was during this period of stepped-up military action that other human rights abuses are reported to have occurred.
According to the State Department's 1997 report on Mexico:
According to statistics compiled by the District Attorney's office for Chiapas state, approximately 500 peasants have been killed in the last 3 years as a result of violence in the northern municipalities of Tila, Sabanilla, Salto de Agua, and Tumbala. The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Center for Human Rights reported that at least 2,000 indigenous families have abandoned their lands for fear of violent attacks by the Peace and Justice group. Human Rights Watch/Americas similarly reported expulsions of peasants from Miguel Aleman, Nuevo Limar, Susuchumil, Tzaquil, and Usipa on account of the fact that they were supporters of the national Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).
Beginning in 1995, largely in response to world-wide media focus on Chiapas, the government entered into peace negotiations with the Zapatistas. The negotiations continue intermittently today.

In 1996, another militant anti-government group called the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) emerged in the southern state of Oaxaca. According to the State Department, in the Mexican government's efforts first against the EZLN and now against the EPR, the security forces have committed numerous human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture. Click here to see the State Department's report on Mexico's human rights record in 1997.

In April 1996 the Defense Department notified Congress of its intention to transfer 20 older model UH-1 Huey helicopters to Mexico. Congress, led by Senator Jesse Helms, blocked the transfer because of concerns that the helicopters would be used in missions other than counter- narcotics missions. In September, Helms removed his hold on the transfer, but delayed the transfer of an additional 53 helicopters until the Mexican government demonstrates clearly how it plans to use them.

Ironically, the U.S. domestic gun market is the principal source of weapons for the drug traffickers. The result is that both sides are dependent upon the United States for guns, and as both sides try to outgun each other, the cycle continues. For more information on this, click here to read a project authored article "Arming Both Sides of Mexico's Drug War."

Click here to see Peace Action's brochure "Fuelling Global Conflicts: U.S. Arms Sales to Latin America."

Background Information