A year and a half ago, Nansi Cisneros moved to Mexico to look for her brother. She was 32, and she’d lived in Los Angeles almost her entire life. Her brother Javier, however, had been deported to Mexico about seven years earlier. He'd made a new life there as a tattoo artist in Tala, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
Then one day, men with guns plucked Javier off the street. His family hasn’t heard from him since.
“He was taken by men dressed as municipal police, driving similar trucks,” Cisneros told The Huffington Post. “We know because my mom was there when it happened… They pointed a shotgun at her and told her it was better for her to just go home and be quiet.”
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto won election in 2012 by campaigning on economic issues and pivoting away from emphasizing the security problems that had plagued his predecessor, President Felipe Calderón. Ahead of Peña Nieto's visit to the White House on Tuesday, issues like international trade and energy cooperation were at the top of his agenda for discussion with President Barack Obama.
But Cisneros, along with many others whose lives have been upended by Mexico’s out-of-control violence, was hoping to see something else on Tuesday: a rebuke from Obama over the thousands of disappearances and deaths that have occurred in Mexico in recent years. By supporting the Mexican government, critics like Cisneros say, the United States has become complicit in the crimes committed by the country’s security forces.
“We have both American citizens and Mexican citizens dying and disappearing in Mexico,” Cisneros told HuffPost. “And yet [Peña Nieto] is here, being welcomed by our president with open arms. It’s not OK.”
Obama and Peña Nieto did discuss Mexico’s security situation at Tuesday’s meeting, with the White House pledging to continue supporting Mexico’s efforts to crack down on organized crime, according to press reports.
“Our commitment is to be a friend and partner with Mexico in its efforts to eliminate the scourge of violence and drug cartels,” Obama told reporters Tuesday after meeting with Pena Nieto.
But that statement wasn't exactly a condemnation of the way Peña Nieto has handled Mexico's security crisis, and advocates like Human Rights Watch were hoping to hear Obama express stronger sentiments.
“Mexico is facing its worst human rights crisis in years, with security forces committing horrific abuses that are rarely punished,” said Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, in a statement posted to the organization’s website Monday. “The Peña Nieto administration has so far failed to take this crisis seriously, and President Obama has been unwilling to call them on it.”
The White House is aware of the criticism leveled by groups like Human Rights Watch, and intends to continue a "long-running conversation" about security issues, a senior administration official said Monday on a conference call with reporters.
"The core of our cooperation with Mexico has been working to improve the performance of law enforcement institutions and judicial institutions," the official said. "Those are areas that President Peña Nieto has signaled are important to him as well, so we’re going to continue to look for ways to work with them on that."
An attack on a group of students in September that left six people dead and another 43 missing has prompted months of mass protests and calls for Peña Nieto’s resignation. His approval rating had plunged to 39 percent by December, according to a poll by Grupo Reforma -- the lowest approval rating for a Mexican president since 1995.
The Obama administration official expressed sorrow at the abduction of the 43 students during Monday's call, saying that "our thoughts and sympathies are with the families of the victims."
Since 2008, the United States has spent about $2.5 billion on a security assistance plan called the “Merida Initiative," under which the U.S. government helps train and equip Mexican security forces to fight drug traffickers and other criminal groups. In recent years, the program has expanded its focus to help Mexico improve its criminal justice system more generally.
But John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says that funneling U.S. money to Mexico’s security forces will do little to contain the violence, because the Mexican government is itself part of the problem.
“Mexico doesn’t need technical, financial or security support from the United States,” Ackerman told HuffPost. “In terms of technical capacity, in terms of funding for police, military and courts, Mexico has more than enough financial and material resources to solve these problems if they really wanted to. The problem is not a lack of resources -- the problem is a lack of political will and accountability.”
Cisneros says she’s sensed a lack of political will during her visits to local authorities to press for answers about her brother. “They just tell you ‘Yeah, we’re working on the case, we’re working on the case,’” she said. “You go back a few weeks later and they tell you the same thing, but you don’t get any news. Nothing.”
On one occasion, an investigator visited Cisneros’ mother to discuss Javier's disappearance and mistakenly referred to Javier as Nansi’s father -- an error that she feels indicates a fundamental indifference on the part of local police.
“People dressed in police uniforms took my brother,” Cisneros said. “What does that tell you? People that work for the state took the 43 students. There’s been a lot of crimes committed by the state that Obama’s funding.”
José Luis Avila, of Seattle, told HuffPost something similar, expressing his concern over U.S. funding that he said “doesn’t go to fight drug trafficking, but rather to massacre civilians.”
In 2013, Mexican authorities arrested Avila's wife, Nestora Salgado. Salgado, a U.S. citizen, had helped start a legally recognized civilian police force to defend the Mexican city of Olinala from a drug gang, but she was later jailed on charges of kidnapping for carrying out arrests. Her supporters view her as a political prisoner.
Since Salgado's arrest, Avila has lobbied politicians and gone on a hunger strike to advocate for his wife’s release. While she is his principal reason for protesting Peña Nieto’s visit to Washington, he said he’s also concerned about what he calls the United States' role in enabling Mexican violence.
“We have thousands of deaths and thousands of disappearances, and the U.S. government has become an accomplice to the Mexican government because the U.S. hardly says anything about the violence,” Avila told HuffPost. “Things can’t go on like this. The United States can’t keep maintaining this silence.”