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Earlier this month in Juarez, hundreds of local police rioted against four commanders they accused of taking part in cartel-related kidnappings and executions. Federal police intervened, hauling the commanders down to Mexico City.
The U.S.-funded Merida Initiative, a broad, multiyear plan to support the war on drug-runners in Mexico (and a handful of other Latin American nations) with helicopters, SUVs, boats, drug treatment and public education campaigns, has swelled to $1.6 billion since its Bush-era roots in 2008. In Mexico, that money—$400 million in 2008 and $300 million in 2009, with a $450 million request by Congress for 2010—is going to the 80,000 troops and federal police Calderon has dispatched to fight the cartels.
In a Merida Initiative fact sheet published in June 2009, the State Department stressed that the project is not about fixing broken Mexican institutions from the outside or meddling in another country's affairs: "The Merida Initiative is a partnership, and the United States respects its individual partners' sovereign decisions and their different legal authorities." As another department memo on the program puts it, "They are doing their part; we must do ours."
Especially true, given that it's the demand for drugs in the United States and our ready supply of weapons headed back across the border that keep the violence burning so hot. Lumping Mexico in with Cuba, Haiti and other nations with high asylum-acceptance rates, then, would be a slap in the face to our closest drug-war ally and a tacit acknowledgment that our efforts are failing, too.
"Recognition by the U.S. government of persecution by the Mexican military and the state goes counter to the Merida Plan because we're funding the biggest persecutor, the military," Spector says. "And there's lots of evidence of their involvement in the drug trade. The corruption is so endemic, and the U.S does everything to deny it."
Complaints to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission jumped sixfold from 2006 to 2008. Human Rights Watch, citing kidnappings, rapes and murders that have all gone unpunished—or even tried in civil courts, as required by the Merida Initiative—has called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to recognize Mexico's poor human-rights record.
But official State Department memos and Congressional testimony, the documents immigration judges rely on most for background in asylum cases, paint a very different picture. In an update to Congress on the Merida Initiative last May, Deputy Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson said, "The U.S.-Mexican bilateral relationship has never been stronger than it is right now." While acknowledging the "unprecedented levels of violence in Mexico," Jacobson's statement avoided mentioning abuse by federal police.
For Steve Spurgin, a Marfa defense attorney and a former West Texas county prosecutor who represents Mexican asylum applicants, the lack of security in Mexico's institutions couldn't be clearer. "There's a complete breakdown in the Republic of Mexico, a complete breakdown of law enforcement. It's about as close to anarchy as I think you can be," Spurgin says. "Our government refuses to acknowledge these problems. If they did, they'd realize that the millions of millions of dollars we're giving the government is increasing the violence."
Spurgin's clients aren't usually journalists or police, but rather business owners who run after being shaken down and threatened by the cartels. He recalls one client who was detained along the border after fleeing Juarez, before he was able to interview with an asylum officer and establish he had credible fear. The day he was released on bond, his house in Juarez was burned to the ground.
"These folks aren't coming to the U.S. to work. These folks are coming to the U.S. to escape," Spurgin says. "I suspect these folks would want to go back home if they could do so safely."
That distinction is easily lost when any kind of immigration across our southern border is such an explosive issue. "Given the controversy that currently exists over Arizona and the absence of the federal government to really take charge of immigration policy," Spurgin says, "I'm not optimistic that the [asylum] law is going to change."
Opening the floodgates to a humanitarian onslaught is the last thing Obama needs while he's trying to stand tough against Rick Perry and other Republicans barking at him to "secure the border" once and for all.
Mexican officials say they expect the violence to continue to escalate, and Spector agrees it is only a matter of time until things get even worse.
"The U.S. government knows what is happening in Mexico and in the immigration courts—and what is coming down the line," he says.
A visible refugee crisis along the border—a wave of legal, documented Mexicans running for their lives—would shatter the government's illusion that, together with Calderon, the United States is keeping the violence under control or limited to infighting among drug-runners.
"It's very clear they don't want to establish a precedent of granting asylum to a lot of people because it'll create a flood," Campbell says. "The fact is, these cases are being lost, even though they have very strong cases."
Spurgin doesn't expect major change will come from risk-averse immigration judges—nor is he holding his breath for Congress to help accommodate Mexican drug-war refugees. Asylum law may not, in fact, be the ideal answer.