Drug war south of the border

The Baltimore Sun

As if our military didn't have its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan, the head of the Minuteman Project border security group, Jim Gilchrist, suggested in recent radio interviews that the U.S. give Mexico 12 months to corral its criminal drug cartels and rising violence, particularly in border towns, or deploy the Army to do the job.

That's the Minutemen. Their remedies for the drug war next-door sound simplistic, but at least they're paying attention.

While most of us north of the border have been absorbed with our presidential sweepstakes and other happenings, our southern neighbor has exploded into the full-scale drug violence previously associated with Colombia or Peru.

For now, we're not sending troops, just money. The Senate last Thursday approved a $1.6 billion, three-year package of anti-drug assistance to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. It includes $400 million for military equipment and technical assistance for Mexico's anti-drug fight. The bill was passed earlier by the House, and President Bush is expected to sign it.

Mexico's government cheered the bill because it waters down proposed restrictions that would have required Mexico to change the way it handles allegations of human rights abuses by its military. Mexican leaders threatened to reject the money if there were too many restrictions on their sovereignty.

But the omission brought jeers from human rights organizations, such as the Friends of Brad Will, founded in the name of a freelance New York journalist who was shot and killed while shooting video of a teachers strike in Oaxaca two years ago. He was 36.

His final video shows protesters hurling rocks and captures the sounds of gunshots, along with a shout: "Stop taking photos!" A shot is heard whizzing toward Mr. Will. He was struck in the abdomen and once in the right side.

Within days, state authorities took two men into custody, a local town councilor and his security chief. But they were released less than two months later. A state judge ruled that they were not close enough to have shot Mr. Will.

No further suspects were brought in. Publicity eventually helped nudge federal authorities into taking the case over, but they have not made much more progress.

Twenty-one journalists have been killed in Mexico, seven of them in direct reprisal for their work, since 2000, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member. Seven others have disappeared in the last three years. "Mexico is not at war," said Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ. "And yet it is one of the world's most dangerous countries for the press."

This led to a meeting between President Felipe Calderon and CPJ board members, including me, in Mexico City on June 9. Among other press freedom reforms, Mr. Calderon agreed to work toward laws that would protect speech and press freedoms at the federal level, not just the states, where corruption is more rampant.

By various counts, more than 4,000 people - including some 500 local, state and federal police officers - have been killed in the 18 months since Mr. Calderon launched his campaign against the drug gangs. With hundreds of millions of Washington anti-drug dollars still pending at the time, he had ample reason to speak in glowing terms about human rights reforms. Now he needs to follow his talk with action - and Americans need to keep an eye on how well our money is being used.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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