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Human Rights and the American Drug War

Yet another cost to conducting the war on drugs has recently surfaced: the "disappearances." While disappearances are not a new phenomenon in Latin America, what is going on in Mexico is a drug war twist different than what transpired in Argentina, Chile and other South American countries in the 1970s. It is different than the disappearances that occurred in Guatemala and Honduras, too, because it is not a rebel element or suspected dissident leftist being taken out and tortured, raped and shot, then buried in a mass grave in some hidden jungle, but suspected drug dealers, associates and, in many cases, innocent bystanders. In the Mexican city of Juarez alone nearly three hundred people have vanished, swept up by Mexican police officers, soldiers and federal anti-drug agents, sometimes accompanied by their American counterparts in the DEA, never to be heard from again.

In May of 1994, Saul Sanchez, a 35 year old U.S. Navy veteran and his wife Abigail disappeared while selling microwave communications equipment to the Mexican federales. Ivan Horacio Castado was last seen in the hands of Mexican and anti-narcotics agents from the U.S. in June of 1996. Shortly after his family began searching for him, his truck was seen in a shopping mall with two Mexican and two U.S. anti-narcotics agents aboard. The DEA is apparently taking the place of their CIA forerunners in the advisory role to state sponsored terror. In Baja California and Sinaloa, Mexico, over 20 people have vanished after official arrest and detention.

The United States government backed the coup that removed Salvador Allende from power in Chile and it backed the military dictatorship that subsequently took power. A reign of terror ensued against dissidents, especially those with leftist sympathies. People vanished by the thousands and rumors circulated of many of them being thrown out of military cargo planes far out into the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. government backed the right wing elements in Guatemala and Honduras, too, with CIA trained, equipped and led death squads running rampant, killing and disappearing well over 130,000 civilians: men, women, children. It didn't matter-the end justified the means.

Now we have a similar threat rearing its ugly head in Mexico whereby people are summarily rounded up by a hodgepodge of local, military and federal police, taken to mysterious detention facilities, and then never seen again. American policy is pushing this and American agents are aiding and abetting it. The United States is once again underwriting murder and once again everyone is looking the other way. As we increasingly militarize the drug war, we supply helicopter gunships to the Mexican government along with massive infusions of taxpayer dollars, the idea being that it is all right for people of other countries to bleed and suffer and die for the continuum of drug war politics, the deadly consequences of self-righteous North American policy makers.

The surprising thing is the silence of the American clergy-perhaps particularly the Catholic church which has seen this horror story evolve repeatedly, the church apparently endorses this wasteful enterprise called the war on drugs no matter the cost: the criminalization of millions of Americans, the devastation to marriages and families by arrest and overly punitive sentences, the turf and gang wars, the search and seizure where innocent people are harassed and sometimes even killed, the endless prison construction that drains localities of educational funding. And now this, people disappearing in government custody to prop up demands by the U.S. on Mexico to get tough. The United States is so besotted with get tough it has lost the ability to get smart.

Amnesty International, a London-based human rights group, issued an unusually strong letter to President Ernesto Zedillo in October that the rising number of forced disappearances is leading to a serious deterioration of Mexico's human rights record; but make no mistake, it is American pressure which is responsible for these tactics. Amnesty International needs to make a statement in opposition to this country's drug war strategy. The militarization of the Mexican anti-drug forces is the latest threat to human rights throughout the region and requires addressing by all human rights organizations in concert with the American clergy.

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