A Blackhawk helicopter used by the Mexican military

Mexico's spending on defense equipment -- much of which is intended for use in combating organized crime -- via a US military assistance program has skyrocketed the past year, raising doubts about the Mexican government's willingness to scale back militarization of the country's drug war.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 12, Navy Admiral and Senior Commander of the US Northern Command, William Gortney, testified that Mexico has spent over $1 billion on military equipment over the past year through the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.

According to Gortney, this figure represents a 100-fold increase from previous years; until last year, Mexico primarily purchased US military equipment through direct commercial sales. This spike in military sales via the FMS played a key role in what Gortney labeled "a historical milestone in [the US] security relationship with Mexico."

Many of Mexico's purchases through the FMS are intended to strengthen drug interdiction efforts. In May 2014, the United States provisionally sold Mexico 2,000 Humvees priced at $245 million meant to be used in the fight against drug trafficking organizations, reported NACLA. Just last week, the US agreed to sell three Blackhawk helicopters for $110 million, to be used by the Mexican military in anti-drug operations. This purchase comes less than one year after Mexico arranged to add 18 Blackhawks to its helicopter fleet. 

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The FMS is a security assistance program in which the United States sells defense equipment and services "to foreign countries and international organizations when the President formally finds that to do so will strengthen the security of the US and promote world peace," according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency's website.

InSight Crime Analysis

The dramatic increase in FMS spending suggests Mexico will continue to rely heavily on militarized security forces in its so-called war on drugs. Sarah Kinosian, the lead Latin America researcher at the Center for International Policy, told InSight Crime the surge in FMS weapon sales is "an indication that the militarization of the drug war [in Mexico] is here to stay." 

Recent data on direct commercial sales -- the other avenue through which Mexico purchases weapons from the United States -- provides further indication of the country's continued militarization. After a tripling in direct commercial sales between 2011 and 2012, from under $400,000 to more than $1.2 billion, spending remained above $1 billion in 2013, President Enrique Peña Nieto's first year in office. (Information on direct commercial sales for 2014 has yet to be released.) 

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Ongoing militarization is an unsettling prospect, considering human rights watchdog groups have linked Mexico's military build-up under former President Felipe Calderon to a sharp rise in reports of torture and abuse by security personnel. While the military has said the reports of abuse are going down, other incidents suggest authorities are struggling to reign in human rights abuses  --  such as last year's Army massacre of at least 15 people, and recent revelations that the Army knew about police attacks against student protestors in Guerrero, yet did nothing. 

The recent splurge on military spending is also disappointing given President Peña Nieto has previously hinted at a new approach towards security. After taking office in December 2012, Peña Nieto withdrew the military from some parts of the country, and signaled that his government intended to further reduce the military's role in domestic security by deploying a specialized police unit, known as the gendarmarie. In practice, however, Peña Nieto's security approach has differed only slightly from that of his predecessor, and the gendarmarie has been dramatically scaled back.