When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto arrives at the White House on Tuesday for a meeting with President Barack Obama, it will occasion the pomp and circumstance one would expect of the meeting of two world leaders. There will be friendly photo ops and polite exchanges as they talk about “common goals” and a “strategic partnership.”
This summit needs some straight talk as well. Obama should use the occasion to put Peña Nieto on the spot about his plans to root out corruption in local government and bring justice to 43 students presumably murdered in September in Iguala by a drug cartel working with the local authorities.
Obama has the right, and even the duty, to press Peña Nieto on this topic. Since 2008, the U.S. has spent $2.3 billion in aid to fight the cartels under the Mérida Initiative. As part of that, the U.S. has provided equipment to Mexican law enforcement, including helicopters and X-ray scanners. It has provided money to pay for private security forces, and it has trained police officers and criminal justice professionals to develop a better system of law and order.
This War on Drugs II has had some big successes, notably the arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera last February. But they have been overshadowed by the kidnapping and slaughter of the 43 students from a teachers college.
Mexico’s attorney general says the crimes were coordinated between Iguala’s mayor, his police department and a local drug cartel that killed the students and burned their bodies. During the initial searches for the students, several other mass graves were discovered, indicating deeply entrenched corruption.
Though the mayor and his wife were arrested, and cops in that city continue to be arrested for the killings, the incident sparked national discontent with Peña Nieto because of the delay in investigating the students’ disappearance. That sentiment was only exacerbated by news reports that a government contractor built a multimillion-dollar mansion for his actress wife, Angelica Rivera.
In response, Peña Nieto in November proposed an ambitious crime-fighting plan that would disband the nation’s 1,800 municipal police departments and put the officers under the control of the state. He also proposed such basic public safety measures as a national 911 system.
Those measures sound promising but are just stage dressing until the public can trust the police to protect, not kill, them.
There are troubling indications that Mexican authorities have become as brutal as the cartels they are fighting. According to Human Rights Watch, Mexican security forces regularly disappear people and use torture as a regular law enforcement tool.
This is not behavior that American taxpayers ought to support, and that’s a message Obama ought to make sure comes through loud and clear.