Chinga las Armas

SOA, Plan Merida, and how the US funds gun violence in Mexico

by Leslie Benavides

Illustration by Julia Illana

published December 7, 2018

December 10 marks the 12th year anniversary of the War on Drugs in Mexico. As of November 2018, 250,000 people are dead and 37,400 are missing.

In 2008, two of my uncles were forcibly disappeared by the Mexican military. We still do not know where they are.

On Easter day 2012, while making our way back to the United States, my family and I were stopped by a group of armed people in Mexico near the Nuevo Leon-Tamaulipas state border. A young boy—16 at the oldest—pointed a gun at me and my father. He asked a man on the other side of our vehicle, “Que les hacemos, jefe?” (“What do we do with them, boss?”) I remember, at 14, thinking that he was very frail. A thin boy, voice still prepubescent. I could probably fight him, I thought. Instead, looking at the not-so-frail, not-so-prepubescent firearm in his hand, I looked at him silently, ready to obey any order he gave me. “Dejalos ir.” “Que dios los bendiga.” (“Let them go.” “May God bless you all.”) I knew it was our US state license plates that gave us God’s blessings.

In 2017, one of my cousins was disappeared. Days later, he was found blindfolded, several gunshots in his head, his back burned.

All of these events, I now see, are connected. The violence and disappearances in Mexico exist and persist due to a bi-national legislative agreement of violence funded and supplied by the United States—bought by Mexico.

In February of 2016, US President Trump threatened military intervention in Mexico: “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there. You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.” However, the reality is that US military influence is already in Mexico through the training the US provides in the School of the Americas and the arms we sell through the Merida Initiative.




The School of the Americas (SOA) is a US Army training facility for Latin American soldiers, cadets, and officers that was founded in 1946 in Fort Gulick on the Panama Canal Zone. The facility seeks to promote military professionalism and establish cooperation among Latin American and US military forces. Beginning in 1961, under the Kennedy administration, the facility was assigned an anti-communist agenda: military personnel of Latin American countries were given counterinsurgency training. In the 1980s, journalists and activists asked that the school be moved out of Panama, claiming it promoted repressive graduates—a Panamanian newspaper even called the school the “School of Coups.” In 1984, the SOA was relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia. Even after the move, many graduates of the SOA have been implicated in human rights violations in their countries. The SOA essentially graduates people who go back to Latin America to participate in repressive regimes. Reports in Panama claimed that the facility taught torture techniques practiced on the homeless people of Panama. These reports were echoed in the US and in 1996, human rights activism forced the Pentagon to release training manuals that were used at the school. According to the declassified documents, trainings advocated for “fear payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum” on insurgents. Students, refugees, priests, and people who claimed their government to be corrupt were considered “insurgents” and “guerillas.” Despite protests and public uproar, no independent investigation ever took place.

In 1999, as a result of public pressure by activists in the US and elsewhere, as well as the actions of  Representative Joseph Kennedy II, Congress supposedly stopped funding the SOA. But that same year, the Senate passed a version of the bill, which channeled the funding into the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), run by the United States Department of Defense. In an empty gesture towards reform, the SOA was merely renamed: the curriculum changed, but the teachers, the facility, and the human rights violations remain. Formerly known as the SOA, the Institute for Security Cooperation still exists today at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.

Since the establishment of SOA in 1946, more than 80,000 Latin American military and police officers have received training at the SOA and WHINSEC. Eleven Latin American dictators are among the list of graduates: Juan Melgar Castro, Policarpo Paz Garcia, Leopoldo Galtieri, Jose Efrain Rios Montt, Manuel Noriega, Guillermo Rodriguez, Hugo Banzer, Omar Torrijos, Roberto D’Aubuisson, and Juan Velasco Alvarado. Jose Efrain Rios Montt ordered the genocide of Ixil Indigenous peoples in Guatemala—wiping out 70-90% of the Ixil communities in Quiche. Roberto D’Aubuisson lead El Salvador’s death squads. Leopoldo Galtieri is responsible for disappearances in Argentina.

On November 16, 1989, during the country’s civil war, Salvadoran Army soldiers killed eight civilians at the Jose Simeon Canas Central American University (UCA El Salvador): Elba Ramos, her 16-year old daughter Celina Ramos, and six Jesuit priests: Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin Baro, Segundo Montes, Amando Lopez, Juan Ramon Moreno, and Joaquin Lopez y Lopez. The Jesuits had endorsed a plan to end civil conflict and were suspected of collaborating with the rebel forces (and not the Salvadoran government). A US Congressional task force investigation reported that those responsible had been trained at the School of the Americas— known at the time as the “School of the Assassins”  by journalists and activists.

In 1990, Father Roy Bourgeois, a US veteran and priest who had previously worked in Bolivia under the repressive rule of dictator and SOA graduate Hugo Banzer, founded the organization SOA Watch to condemn the massacre and call for the closure of the SOA military facility. SOA Watch strives to “expose, denounce, and end US militarization, oppressive US policies and other forms of state violence in the Americas.” In 1990, a year after the massacres in El Salvador, the SOA watch held a vigil at the gates of the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. For 25 years, the SOA Watch continued to gather at the gates of Ft. Benning and to this day, it has stood against US-sponsored violence. In 2016, the annual gatherings moved to the ‘two Nogales,’ the border between Arizona and Mexico, to “denounce militarized US foreign policy as a principal root cause of migration, as well as the devastating impact US security and immigration policy has on refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrant families, across all borders.” At this year’s Border Encuentro, which took place between November 16 and November 18, the SOA Watch demanded:

+    An end to US economic, military, and political intervention in Latin America, and the closure of SOA/WHINSEC

+    An end to Plan Merida and the Alliance for Prosperity

+    Demilitarization and divestment of borders

+    An end to the racist systems of oppression that criminalize and kill migrants, refugees, and communities of color

+    Respect, dignity, justice, and the right to self-determination of communities.”




I believe that the two last goals are not possible without the first two being accomplished. Both Plan Merida and the School of the Americas are racist systems of oppression that criminalize and kill migrants, refugees, and communities of color, depriving popular communities in Latin America from respect, dignity, justice, and the right to self-determination.

In  2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched Mexico’s War on Drugs, a multi-year state effort to stop the trafficking of drugs within Mexico. In 2007, US President George W. Bush and President Calderon met in Merida, Mexico to sign the Merida Initiative.

Plan Merida is a four pillar initiative: “1. Disrupt the Operational Capacity of Organized Crime 2. Institutionalize Reforms to Sustain the Rule of Law and Respect for Human Rights in Mexico 3. Create a 21st Century Border and 4. Build Strong and Resilient Communities.” The first pillar has enabled the selling of equipment to Mexico, the second has enabled the training of police officers, the third pillar has funded violence and xenophobia against Central American migrants at Mexico’s southern border, and the fourth pillar, aimed at supporting “at-risk-youth,” has been ignored and defunded for years. Really, the fourth pillar is a bullshit attempt at disguising the imperialistic other three pillars. Not a dime has been spent on drug rehabilitation, for example. Instead, funds have been largely allocated to the first and second pillar—the military received most of the funding in the form of equipment. In many ways, the Merida Initiative is a continuation of the School of the Americas: the US Department of Defense has led trainings for police and military in Mexico, as well as sent war equipment (including guns, over 20 military planes, and helicopters). Originally instituted in 2006 as a three-year program, Plan Merida continues today. In 2018, $145 million was appropriated from the US to the Merida Initiative—$60 million above the request.

The trainings funded by Plan Merida do not violate human rights any less than the trainings by the School of the Americas: in 2008, two videos of Risk Incorporated, a US security contractor, training the police force of Guanajuato, Mexico, in torture interrogation techniques were released. Moreover, the Merida Initiative is as imperialistic as it sounds; the US offers military-grade artillery, surveillance equipment, combat tactical training, and intelligence and database sharing to Mexico. The US cited the Merida Initiative a success, citing the extradition of El Chapo and “Mexico’s apprehension of more than 400,000 Central American migrants from 2015 to 2017.” In this sense, it does not only institute imperialism through the heavy militarization of Mexico, but also affects people beyond Mexico’s southern border.

Last summer, twelve members of Congress asked the US Department of Defense to “conduct a full and public evaluation of the Initiative, US security aid, and arms sales to Mexico to inform future funding decisions and ensure that US security aid and trade do not support further human rights violations and violence.” Despite this, and despite others—like Zapatistas, Indigenous peoples, and the parents of the 43 students whose 2014 disappearance was never accounted for by the Mexican government—asking for change in the Merida Initiative, Congress is considering the Trump Administration’s $76.3 million 2019 budget request for the Initiative.

The War on Drugs and Plan Merida have cost both the US and Mexico billions of dollars. Since the first year of the Merida Initiative, the US has exported more than $40 million annually in firearms, ammunition, explosives, and gun parts to Mexico. Yet,  largest  has been the human cost. Between December 2006, when the Mexican War on Drugs began (followed quickly by Plan Merida)  and June 2018, at least 37,435 people have been forcibly disappeared in Mexico, according to a report by the Stop US Arms to Mexico Project, a collaboration of Global Exchange in the US and the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights in Mexico. Since December 2006 through June 2018, the Stop US Arms to Mexico project reports 121,035 people murdered with firearms. Moreover, gun violence in Mexico reached a record-high in 2017 with 29,000 homicides—16,898 of which occurred with a gun.




Given these large numbers, it is no doubt Mexico has a gun problem. The US is the supplier of that crisis. There are more than 60,000 gun stores in the United States. In contrast, Mexico has only one gun store. In the entire country. One. The Mexican military is the only legal importer of firearms into Mexico. Moreover, only the Mexican army (SEDENA) can legally sell and distribute firearms in the country. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reported that of the 104,850 guns confiscated for tracing between 2009-2014, 73,684 or them were unlawfully smuggled into Mexico. In that same period, the lone Mexico gun store sold only 52,147 firearms.

As part of the initiative, the US pledged to address the illicit trafficking of firearms into Mexico. The Merida Initiative is largely one-sided: the US has not truly done this. On February 1, 2018, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson admitted to the lack of attention the US has paid to the border when guns are being trafficked into Mexico: “Regrettably, the cartels have become more powerful. They are extremely well armed. Most of those arms are coming from the United States... Interestingly, for about every 10 trucks that we inspect coming north, because we’re worried about what’s coming to see us, we only inspect one truck going south….”

The Mexican Constitution guarantees the right to keep arms. However, that right is very different from the second amendment in the US. In Mexico, arms may only be bared by those with a license to carry. The federal law determines the cases, conditions, requirements, and places of gun ownership. Mexico has very strict gun-buying laws, where only guns for home defense, hunting, target practice, shooting sport, and collection are permitted. To even apply to purchase a firearm and ammunition, civilians must provide: national military service card, a birth certificate or documentation of legal presence, proof of income, a criminal background check that shows NO convictions, proof of address, a government-issued photo ID,  a birth certificate and a unique key of population registry. If weapons are for shooting to hunting, the civilian must submit a valid copy of their hunting or shooting club membership card. Often, SEDENA does not sell arms to civilians, since the process is so time-consuming. More than half SEDENA's firearms are sold and distributed to law enforcement officials, such as the police. Most types of large and military-like guns and calibers are reserved for military and law enforcement.Generally, civilians are restricted to semi-automatic handguns. And, even then, a civilian must justify the need to own more than two guns and can own up to ten guns. For context, the gunman in the Las Vegas shooting, who killed 58 people and wounded 489 others, had legally purchased at least 55 guns within 12 months.

How can a country with only one gun store and strict gun laws have 16,898 homicides by arms in one year? The answer is in clear sight: the gun trade—legal and illegal.

Through the Merida Initiative, the US has spent more than $2.5 billion in training and exporting arms to Mexico since 2007. According to a report by Stop US Arms to Mexico Project, 70 percent of guns recovered by Mexican law enforcement officials from 2011 to 2016 were originally purchased from legal gun dealers in the US. Many of the arms are trafficked into Mexico by US citizens. More than 20,000 firearms purchased by state and federal police have gone missing or been stolen since 2006. Government-owned guns, in this way, find themselves onto a black market.

However, civilians with arms acquired unlawfully are not the only people committing homicides. Mexican drug cartels and Mexican military alike are receiving weapons from the United States—both legally and illegally­—to create violence in the country. Firearms legally imported from the US have been used in some of Mexico’s worst human rights violations. According to documents in the judicial record, the local police, responsible for the disappearances of 43 Ayotzinapa students in September 2014, were armed with AR-15 6530 rifles. These rifles, a model variant of the AR-15, were legally supplied through licensed shipments from Colt, a US manufacturer based in West Hartford, CT.

However, the militarization of Mexico goes beyond guns. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Arizona for this year’s SOA Watch Border Encuentro. During the recent SOA Watch Border Encuentro, we protested Milkor USA, a grenade-launching manufacturing facility in Arizona. The grenade multi-launchers are used by the Mexican Army Special Forces Group (GFE), and effectively contribute to violence. Mexican special forces that use the weapons produced by Milkor have been implicated in the torture and forced disappearances of civilians, as well as in collusion with drug cartels.

The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, the Stoneman Douglas Parkland shooter, and the Las Vegas shooter used a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle (the same one used in the disappearing of 43 Ayotzinapa students and 15 death squad murders in Veracruz). The Sandy Hook shooter used a Bushmaster XM-15 (the same arm used to kill the Chihuahua Mayor by the state federal police and in the Veracruz death squad murders). When, in the US, we honor the deaths of those who have fallen to men with AR-15s and other firearms, we must include and honor the deaths of those who have fallen to men with AR-15s manufactured in the US.

Blood is not only on the hands of the person who fires a gun, whether in the US or Mexico. Blood is on the hands of the US government, the Mexican military, the Mexican cartels, the US citizens who traffick guns into Mexico, the employees at Milkor and Colt and at the other US gun manufacturing plants, and US and Mexican presidents over the last decade.




December 10 marks the 12th year anniversary of the War on Drugs in Mexico. On Saturday, December 1, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) was inaugurated as the 58th President of Mexico. During his campaign, AMLO promised to end the War on Drugs. In an outlined plan, this would involve rewriting drug laws, offering reparations and support for drug war victims, and increasing social programs. Previously, AMLO has suggested taking the military off the streets in this plan. Unfortunately, during his inauguration he announced a new military-led law enforcement—the National Guard.

I do not think that ending the War of Drugs begins with a militarized police force in cities and towns without real reform. Still, I am hopeful. Earlier this year, AMLO announced that, as Mexico’s president, he would cancel the purchase of Seahawk multi-mission military helicopters.  Early November, the future Minister of Public Security (SSP) Alfonso Durazo announced the country will not acquire more arms, but will instead use the money to strengthen training and skills for security forces. On December 3, 2018, AMLO launched a Truth Commission to investigate the unsolved crime of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students—something Peña Nieto previously and actively ignored. These are all steps in the right direction. However, there is a long road ahead: President AMLO must end Plan Merida and cease to send law enforcement leaders to the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. If he fails to do that, blood very well may, too, be on the hands of President Lopez Obrador.


LESLIE BENAVIDES B’20  wants to scream.