Britain has stepped up arms exports to one of the worst human rights abusers on the American continent, figures reveal.
Since 2006, Mexico has engaged in a brutal “dirty war” against its people, killing 120,000, disappearing over 23,000, and displacing as many as 1.6 million. Yet in 2015, British arms sales to the country skyrocketed.
Britain sold Mexico £2.6 million of military equipment in 2014. This shot up to £157 million in the first three quarters of 2015 – a rise of almost 6,000 percent.
In September, Mexican delegates attended a London arms fair – where the same weapons Mexican police used in the notorious disappearance of 43 students were on sale.
Britain has armed Mexico throughout its new dirty war, directly exporting £12 million of arms between 2008 and 2014.
Items sold include aircraft, ammunition, armoured vehicles, warships and small arms.
The UK also releases a more detailed, itemised list of export licenses. This shows it has sent Mexico aircraft cannons, assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, silencers, naval guns, revolvers, rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and weapon sights.
“We are always being told how rigorous and robust UK arms export control is, but nothing could be further from the truth,” said Andrew Smith of Britain’s Campaign Against the Arms Trade. “Right now UK fighter jets are flying overhead in Yemen and dropping UK bombs as part of a war that has killed over 5000 civilians. For decades now, successive governments have sold arms into danger zones and to some of the most oppressive governments in the world.”
In August, Amnesty reported that torture was “out of control” in Mexico, with perpetrators facing almost “total impunity”. The group’s Americas Director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, has said the country faces “one of the worst human rights crises” in decades.
Former Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched Mexico’s new dirty war in 2006, claiming to target drug cartels. Under his administration, 80,000 people were murdered and 20,000 disappeared. His successor, President Enrique Peña Nieto, took office in 2012 promising to sort out abuses by security forces.
Yet by 2015, human rights monitors found soldiers and police were still engaged in widespread killing, disappearances and torture.
Security forces sometimes work with criminal gangs to “disappear” people, Human Rights Watch found, yet none have been punished. Many victims are held in secret at military bases or illegal “black sites”, and forced to give up intelligence or confessions through beatings, death threats, waterboarding and sexual violence.
Government attacks also target human rights defenders and journalists.
One US Senatorial aide has stated: “Clearly elements within the Army believed that they had nothing to fear by slaughtering innocent people execution-style, which indicates a pervasiveness of impunity.”
Étienne Von Bertrab of University College London says Mexico is the victim of “democracy interrupted – a democratic transition that never really happened.” Atrocities are driven by resource conflict between powerful economic interests and poor rural communities. “There’s been a sequence of dispossession of land, water and resources – then when people mobilise against them they become targets, and you get human rights abuses.”
Many analysts don’t make the connection, he says. “We’re a very fragmented, divided country. You can live in Mexico City and not suffer anything. But two hours or so away things change dramatically. There are deep class divisions: it’s one way if you have power, influence, economic power. But things are very different on the margins.”
In 2015, the British and Mexican Governments declared a Dual Year of Mexico and the UK – a “year-long celebration of cultural, educational and business exchange”. The move prompted angry protests at the Mexican Embassy and British Museum.
In Parliament in January 2015, Jeremy Corbyn told Europe Minister David Lidington the Dual Year should “provide not simply a jamboree for trade and investment, but a serious look at the endemic, systemic human rights problems that exist in Mexico.”
“The sense of anger in Mexico is palpable. I was there in November,” he told MPs, “and although I have been to Mexico many times, I have never seen so many people on the streets”.
The 2014 disappearances of 43 students in Iguala have become a potent symbol of Mexico’s human rights crisis, and galvanised outrage against the government. Protesters now use the slogan “fue el estado” – “it was the state” – to place the blame on Nieto.
The disappearances happened on 26 September 2014, after police attacked a bus convoy carrying students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College to a protest. The group were fundraising to commemorate a 1968 massacre of students carried out by the state in Tlatelolco Plaza. The police opened fire, killing students and bystanders, before abducting and “disappearing” the 43.
One student, Julio César Mondragón, was found dead the next morning with his eyes gouged out and his face flayed to a bare skull. The Mexican government blamed corrupt local officials and police working with drug cartels, but evidence of state complicity and official cover-up has continued to surface.
Corbyn, who chairs Parliament’s all-party group on Mexico, said: “The disappearance of the 43 students at Ayotzinapa in Guerrero state was shocking because it was so brazen; it was shocking because they were taken off a bus and disappeared. The more the investigation goes on, the worse it gets. Every time the investigators look, they find another unmarked grave.”
Survivor Omar García Velazquez has been in London this January, where he met with Corbyn. “The UK government legitimises human rights abuses in Mexico”, García told an audience of solidarity campaigners.
A few months earlier, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade found a military delegation from Mexico had attended London’s DSEi arms fair, where companies promoted the same weapons used by the Iguala police. Twenty British companies that have applied for licenses to export to Mexico were also selling arms.
The latest figures show 2015’s spike in arms sales came from a single £155,000,000 temporary export of military support aircraft.
Mexico’s was one of five identical deals signed off on a single day. Another recipient was Turkey – currently bombing its Kurdish population and attacking Kurdish groups facing down ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Mexico is upgrading its aging air fleet, reequipping and replacing planes and helicopters. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, the country want infrared-equipped aircraft for “tracking and interception operations in direct support of ground troops.”
Adam Isaacson of NGO the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) recently said Mexico wants new planes for surveillance, transport and “counter-narcotics” – official euphemism for the state’s dirty war.
Mexican security and defense specialist Iñigo Guevara reports that the air force is now shifting from transport to spying and “lower-end” air combat.