Toward the 'Normalization' of US-Mexico Relations

President Barack Obama hosts a bilateral meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in the Ova
President Barack Obama hosts a bilateral meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The president is looking to his southern neighbor for help implementing the changing policies on immigration and Cuba. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The escape of Mexico's most dangerous criminal, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, from the most secure wing of the country's highest security prison this weekend is a wake-up call for those who insist on ignoring the explosive situation south of the border. The blind support of the Barack Obama administration for the increasingly corrupt, violent and untrustworthy Mexican government has facilitated a downward spiral of institutional decay which must be urgently stopped.

Donald Trump is wrong. The best response to the Mexican disaster is not to build new walls, but to tear them down. It is time for Washington to escape from the propagandists and lobbyists on the payroll of the Mexican government and international oil companies, in order to open its doors and listen directly to Mexico's powerful and dynamic civil society.

During his first presidential campaign in 2008, Obama publicly condemned George W. Bush's approach to Latin America as "clumsy, disinterested and, above all, distracted by the war in Iraq." Obama pledged that he would give high priority to Mexico in particular. He committed himself to organizing annual summits which would be "conducted with transparency" and grounded in "active and open involvement of citizens, labor, the private sector and non-governmental organizations in setting the agenda and making progress."

Seven years later, the Mexican people continue to wait for the promised democratic openness to come to fruition. Obama has met frequently with the Mexican presidents, first Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and then Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-present). He has also listened carefully behind closed doors to the private sector on both sides of the border. But transparency and citizen participation have been totally absent. Specifically, the voice of the Mexican people and of U.S.-based human rights organizations have been entirely shut out of the discussion.

The secretive and exclusionary nature of the bilateral relationship has fueled the climate of impunity which is today ripping apart the very fabric of Mexican society. The protection top Mexican officials receive from the U.S. government against the scrutiny of civil society on both sides of the border has allowed the situation to get entirely out of control.

The escape of Guzmán Loera is highly suspicious. The digging of a mile-long tunnel under a federal maximum security prison could only have taken place with the highest level of government complicity and support. But this is only the most recent example of institutionalized corruption and irresponsibility in Mexico.

Over the last year, law enforcement officials have directly participated in four separate massacres of civilians. On June 30, 2014, 22 youths were mowed down by a military battalion at a warehouse in the State of Mexico. The following September 26, three student activists were killed and another 43 disappeared in the State of Guerrero. On January 6, 2015, at least 16 protesters and members of community police forces were killed by federal forces in the State of Michoacán, many in cold blood. And this past May, over 40 civilians were shot down in what looks to be another case of a massive extra-judicial execution on the border between Michoacán and the State of Jalisco.

Since the return to power of the old-guard authoritarian Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) with Peña Nieto on December 1st, 2012, Mexico has experienced a systematic unravelling of the rule of law and human rights. Mexico is today one of the most dangerous country's in the world for the press, with frequent assassinations and threats against journalists. Freedom of assembly is also systematically under attack, with the number of political prisoners and arbitrary detentions of activists skyrocketing in recent years. Plurality in the media has also been significantly reduced with the recent arbitrary firing of Mexico's leading independent news anchor, Carmen Aristegui, apparently on direct orders from the office of the President.

The U.S. State Department's 2014 report on human rights explicitly states that there are "significant human rights-related problems" in Mexico. Nevertheless, the report erroneously places the blame on local and state instead of on federal officials. It also inexplicably gives Mexico a clean slate in the area of political prisoners and political detentions, when local and international observers have documented dozens of cases during the Peña Nieto administration.

On June 30, a group of over 80 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, led by Alan Lowenthal, sent an important letter to Secretary of State John Kerry in which they condemn the U.S. government and "urge [the Secretary] to make the defense of human rights a fundamental part of our bilateral agenda with Mexico". And this past July 9, a group of leading NGOs from both sides of the border sent a letter to both Kerry and the U.S. Congress which provides a full analysis of the incompliance of Mexico with the basic human rights standards included in the Merida Initiative. The NGOs explicitly call for the U.S. government to suspend all support for the Mexican armed forces since "this reinforces and sustains the inappropriate and dangerous open-ended role of the armed forces in domestic law enforcement".

Obama's nomination of Roberta Jacobson to be the new Ambassador of the United States to Mexico provides an opportunity to shift gears in the bilateral relationship. As Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, Jacobson successfully negotiated the historic normalization of relations with Cuba.

U.S.-Mexico relations are also in desperate need of "normalization." In order to best support the rule of law and democratic development south of the Rio Grande, the U.S. should break with the silent pact of impunity with corrupt Mexican officials and open up the bilateral agenda to active bottom-up citizen participation.