US to withhold "Plan Mexico" funds over rights abuses?

In a report issued Sept. 3, the US State Department determined that Mexico can receive $36 million in backed-up drug war aid under the Merida Initiative—but that $26 million, or 15% of an upcoming $175 million allocation, should be withheld for failure to meet human rights standards. The report especially cited the failure to try soldiers accused of abuses in civilian courts. It is the first time the State Department has called for withholding 15%, as permitted by the Merida Initiative's founding legislation, although the Department's backlog in approving previously allocated funds under the $1.3 billion program is responsible for the delay in releasing the $36 million. The Mexican government, in a statement, called the State Department findings an affront to its sovereignty: "The Merida Initiative is based on shared responsibility, mutual trust and respect for each country's jurisdiction."

Nik Steinberg, Mexico researcher for Human Rights Watch, said, "Any withholding of funds would be a step in the right direction, but given the total impunity for military abuses and widespread cases of torture, none of the funds tied to human rights should be released." Of course, only 15% of the funds are "tied to human rights," and Human Rights Watch will certainly be accused of loaning an imprimatur of legitimacy to the Merida Initiative through such comments.

Reportage on this development was a mishmash of confusion. The Washington Post headline read "State Dept. approves $36M in anti-drug funds for Mexico despite human-rights record", while the New York Times stated "U.S. Withholds Millions in Mexico Antidrug Aid." You'd almost think they'd planned it that way just to confuse people. Just to make it even better, the Times writes, "It is the first time that the United States, citing human rights concerns, has held back a portion of the financing for Mexico under the Merida Initiative..." while AP refers to the $36 million as "previously withheld funds." USA Today is slightly clearer, referring to the $36 million as "previously budgeted funds" (our emphasis). In fact, the funds had not been "withheld," there was just a backlog in approving them.

The Economist on Aug. 22, noted that only 9% of the Merida Initiative's total $1.3 billion has been spent. It als