The 43 Elephants in the Room During Obama's Meeting with Mexico's President

The 43 Elephants in the Room During Obama's Meeting with Mexico's President

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama received Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto at the White House to discuss immigration, Cuba and the "scourge" of drug gangs, which have laid bloody waste to large stretches of the country.

As Obama pledged renewed support for Mexican anti-drug forces, there were 43 elephants in the room — namely, the 43 student protesters massacred by a police-backed drug gang in the town of Iguala in September and whose deaths have not been avenged. 

When the topic was brought up, Obama simply said that the situation was the responsibility of the Mexican police to investigate. But he's convincing no one, given that American money continues to prop up the corrupt authorities committing these terrible crimes in the first place.

The background: Police and government corruption in Mexico is rampant. When the news broke that Maria de los Angeles Pineda, the wife of Iguala's ex-mayor, likely masterminded the 43 students' mass-murder, it hardly came as a surprise. Sadly, neither did the news that federal police were likely deeply involved in the killings.

Despite a veneer of progress, the New Republic pointed out in October that "[Nieto's] administration has failed to put in place even the most modest reform" of Mexico's fantastically crooked security forces, which commit human rights violations and atrocities on a daily basis with near-total impunity. Since the War on Drugs began in 2006, at least 100,000 people have been murdered or gone missing in Mexico and tens of thousands more are missing.

Six women are murdered daily in the country, with less than a quarter of the deaths ever investigated and just 1.6% resulting in a conviction.

The U.S. has done little to help reign in the corruption south of the border. Instead, under a 2007 agreement called the Merida Initiative, the U.S. has directed over $2.3 billion in funding to the very same out-of-control police agencies helping the cartels turn Mexico into a nightmare. At the same time, it's failed to do anything to pressure Mexico into reforming them.

The result was a predictable pattern of escalating violence, which has led to the arrests of some high-profile cartel leaders but hasn't resulted in much improvement of the security situation. As a consequence, corrupt cops and officials in Mexico who collude with drug gangs have access to greater firepower and resources without any oversight. In November, Mexican troops shot and killed 22 civilians during a drug war-related shootout.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch issued an open letter to Obama relating the incidents to a "broader pattern of abuse and impunity ... in large part the consequence of the government's failure to address it." It noted that the White House has done virtually nothing to enforce provisions in the Merida Initiative designed to withhold 15% of anti-drug funding if Mexico's government failed to adhere to "basic human rights requirements." HRW also accused Obama of failing to hold Nieto to his end of the bargain. It claims to have documented 149 forced disappearances by Mexican authorities.

Why you should care: Obama is doubling down on American support of Mexico's War on Drugs. But without actual efforts on Nieto's part to reform the security apparatus, the U.S. will only be funneling more money into an unwinnable conflict. Polling has demonstrated 67% of Americans would prefer the U.S. government prioritize drug treatment over military-style interdiction of drug shipments, while in May five Nobel Prize-winning economists recommended ending the war on drugs as it has been practiced entirely.

"Are Mexico's mass graves going be a part of the Obama legacy?" #USTired2 organizer Roberto Lavato asked Al-Jazeera. "Or will putting an end to the mass graves be part of the Obama legacy?"

Forty-three dead students and 100,000 others deserve an answer to that question.