Mexico: federal police fire on Oaxaca protesters

Mexican Federal Police allegedly shot radio journalist Gilardo Mota Figueroa as he covered a protest Feb. 15 against President Felipe Calderón’s visit to Oaxaca City. Mota Figueroa told Crónica de Oaxaca that during clashes with Oaxaca’s teachers union, a Federal Police officer opened fire on the crowd from a distance of about six meters. One of the bullets struck Mota Figueroa in the leg. Another 2-4 bullets were embedded in an armored SUV that authorities had left parked on the street.

During the protest, Federal Police also fired teargas canisters directly at demonstrators at point-blank range, severely injuring at least two people. According to the teachers union, middle school teacher Raymundo Servando Santiago Sánchez was hospitalized with a bruised lung after a teargas canister struck him in the chest. Another canister—this one allegedly fired by state police—struck protester Marcelino Coache in the face, fracturing his skull and causing brain trauma. Additionally, two reporters filed charges with the State Attorney General’s Office for physical injuries and damage to their equipment from teargas canisters that struck them during the protest.

In order to be considered a “less-than-lethal weapon,” teargas canisters must be fired into the air or onto the ground. Teargas canisters manufactured by Combined Tactical Systems Inc., which produces the teargas launchers used by Federal Police, carry a warning label that states: “Danger: Do not fire directly at person(s). Severe injury or death may result.”

The Federal Police are fully aware that a direct hit from a teargas canister can be lethal. In 2006, during a joint operation by state and federal police in San Salvador Atenco, a teargas canister killed 23-year-old protester Alexis Benhumea when it struck him in the head. As a result of the police’s “illegitimate use” of their weapons during the Atenco operation, the Mexican government’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) recommended that the Federal Preventative Police (later renamed simply the Federal Police) and state police undergo training in “proper use” of their weapons. The head of the PFP rejected the CNDH’s recommendation, and five years later the Federal Police are still shooting teargas canisters at protesters’ heads.

Maureen Meyers of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) argues that the police’s violent response to this weeks protests “underscores the lack of any real accountability mechanisms within the Federal Police.” She notes that the Federal Police currently rank third in the number of human rights complaints filed against government agencies, with 595 complaints filed with the CNDH against the Federal Police in 2010. “There’s been more and more accounts of abuses committed by the Federal Police,” Meyers says. On Oct. 29, 2010, Federal Police shot a young protester in the stomach with live ammunition as he painted graffiti during the 11th “Walk Against Death” in Ciudad Juárez.

More Merida Initiative Funding
The day before Federal Police opened fire on protesters and the press in Oaxaca, US President Barack Obama unveiled his 2012 budget request. The budget includes $291.5 million for Merida Initiative programs in Mexico.

Mexico’s Ministry of Public Security (SSP in its Spanish abbreviation) is in charge of the Federal Police, and it is one of the biggest recipients of Merida Initiative funding. Through the Merida Initiative, the Federal Police receive equipment, training (from US and Colombian police, as well as private contractors), and even Black Hawk helicopters. While Obama’s 2012 budget request reduces Mexico’s Merida funding by about $250 million from the previous year, it increased International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) funding by $500,000. INCLE funding is what funds most—if not all—aid to the Federal Police.

Some Merida Initiative funds are designed to reduce corruption within the Federal Police. That aid, notes Meyers, “focuses more on centros de control de confianza [police recruiting and vetting centers] and polygraph tests. That obviously doesn’t attend to this widespread pattern of abuse.”

Meyer notes that there are three accountability mechanisms that would, in theory, assure that Merida Intiative assistance doesn’t fall into the hands of human rights abusers like Federal Police officers who open fire on unarmed demonstrators. The first is the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits any US foreign assistance from funding “any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights” and hasn’t punished the offender(s). The US embassy tracks individual human rights abusers in a database, but Meyers points out that the strength of the database depends on the amount of information the US embassy enters into it. Kent Patterson from the Americas Program has criticized the United States’ enforcement of the Leahy Amendment: “Mexico, like Colombia, sidesteps the question by selecting for training only individuals from tainted units instead of having entire units trained.”

The other two accountability mechanisms that apply to US drug war assistance to Mexico are attached to the Merida Initiative itself. A mere 15% of Merida Initative assistance is conditioned upon Mexico improving accountability and transparency in the Federal Police and military. Additionally, in order to receive the conditioned funds, Mexico must demonstrate that it is investigating and trying soldiers and Federal Police who are credibly accused of human rights violations. “The latter is where we really haven’t seen any cases that we’re aware of where Federal Police who have been implicated in abuses have been effectively investigated and sanctioned,” says Meyers.

Despite the rampant impunity for security forces’ human rights abuses, Merida’s human rights conditions have not significantly affected the flow of drug war aid to Mexico. The US Congress has symbolically withheld some of the funds, but thus far the human rights conditions haven’t delayed Merida Initiative money for much longer than standard bureaucratic red tape has held up the other 85% of unconditioned funds.

Kristin Bricker for Upside Down World, Feb. 17

See our last posts on Mexico and the struggle in Oaxaca.

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