By Ramon Bracamontes
El Paso Times
El Paso -- In the mid-1990s, the United States began training Mexico's soldiers in hopes of stopping the flow of drugs through Mexico and ending corruption.
Some of those trained by U.S. forces formed the Zetas, a criminal organization that works as assassins for one of the drug cartels fighting in Juárez, Mexican law enforcement officials said.
Today, the United States is again trying to help Mexico with its drug-cartel problem, and part of the solution could include training Mexico's military and law enforcement officers.
Money for training Mexican soldiers is in the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative that was approved by Congress in 2008. The second phase of the initiative, which is being formed right now, will also include money for training Mexican soldiers and police, according to two public-policy groups that monitor U.S.-Mexico relations.
Given the history of the program, some question the effectiveness of that policy.
"You can train someone, but that still doesn't affect their morals," said Richard Newton, a former federal customs agent in El Paso, now a member of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which favors legalization of some drugs.
"I don't care how good the training is. The problem is that these people can be bribed and they may go to work for the cartels."
Others agree, and as a prime example of training gone wrong, they point to the Zetas. The group was founded by Mexican army deserters, including officers trained by the United States at the military School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. The Zetas, according to the Chihuahua attorney general's office, are thought to be behind some of the brutal killings in Juárez, which have surpassed 4,700 in two years.
An international human- rights organization that monitors the former U.S. military School of the Americas, which is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, says that training foreign soldiers has worked against the United States in the past, so it may in the future. The human-rights group is called School of the Americas Watch, and its mission is to stop the training of international soldiers and law enforcement at the former School of the Americas.
U.S. officials counter by saying that this time they would be doing more than just training soldiers. According to the latest proposals of phase two of the Merida Initiative, the United States would vet the Mexican soldiers who are to be trained. Previously, in the 1990s, the Mexican army chose those who came to the United States to train.
"I think both the U.S. and Mexican governments are starting to see the limitations of militaryÐpolice solutions to the problems of drug trafficking and related crime and violence," said
Howard Campbell, a University of Texas at El Paso professor who specializes in Mexican cartel research.
"Training new officers better might help, though it has not done much good in the past. But perhaps what is needed more, as many analysts now realize, is greater attention and money to improve the Mexican judicial system, more oversight and control of cops and the military."
The United States also has to help Mexico with more social programs and educational opportunities for youths, and a stronger economy, Campbell said. Money for those programs is also included in the Merida Initiative.
"The U.S. can help support such initiatives with funds, expertise and political backing," Campbell said.
Aurolyn Luykx, a UTEP associate professor of anthropology and education, said she opposed U.S. forces training Mexico soldiers or police officers.
"I don't see it as a good idea because I don't see that there is a military solution to the drug violence," she said. "They've been trying that for a long time, and it hasn't helped."
If training occurs, she said, she hopes it does not involve the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
"That place has been implicated with human-rights abuses, and the Mexican military has already been accused of human-rights abuses," Luykx said.
Luykx was a panelist last week at UTEP conference that focused on the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980. He was killed by people who had been trained at the School of the Americas after speaking out against military abuses, according to a 1993 United Nations report.
The School of the Americas opened in Fort Benning in 1984 and has trained more than 61,000 Latin American soldiers and policemen, according to the U.S. Department of State. Among those trained at the Department of Defense school was Manuel Noriega, the commander of the army in Panama and its former dictator, who was later indicted in the United States on drug charges.
In 1999, Congress stopped funding the School of the Americas.
The school's name was changed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, and international training continues there.