Posted on: World Politics Review | February 1st, 2018


In the middle of the night on June 29, 2014, the Mexican army massacred 22 civilians in a grain warehouse in the small town of Tlatlaya in central Mexico. The government claimed the soldiers had been attacked by members of a drug cartel and had opened fire to protect themselves. But witnesses and journalists told a different story. There was little evidence of a prolonged shootout, and Clara Gomez, whose 15-year old daughter was one of the victims, testified in court that she and other survivors had been tortured into backing the government’s version of events.

A year later, the leak of a military document dated early June 2014 detailed how officers were ordered by “high command” to “take down” criminals in Tlatlaya on the night of the killings. Gomez’s testimony strengthened evidence against the army, and ultimately seven low- to mid-ranking military officers were tried by a military court. One served a year in jail, while the remaining six were acquitted.

The Tlatlaya case is just one of the more notorious examples of abuses committed by the Mexican military since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon announced a war on drug cartels, authorizing an unprecedented surge of military might onto the streets of Mexico. This included more sophisticated equipment, including tanks and Blackhawk helicopters, expanded surveillance capabilities and temporary authorization for the military to take charge of civil policing in some regions where drug cartels reigned.

As of 2015, Mexico had spent more than $79 billion on the initiative, in addition to nearly $3 billion in financial assistancefrom the United States. The dominant strategy consisted of efforts to capture the heads or “kingpins” of top drug cartels in order to decrease criminal activity and violence. Instead, this led to the splintering of many cartels, whose factions battled to gain control over newly disputed territories, leading to a spike in violence and human rights violations. Homicides and kidnappings tripled between 2006 and 2015. The Mexican military killed an estimated 3,600 civilians between 2006 and 2014.

Nevertheless, late last year, Mexico’s military was given even more power and autonomy to intervene in civic policing through a new Internal Security Law. The law went into effect Dec. 22 even though 27 percent of Congress members abstained from the vote. It grants the Mexican government the constitutional authority to send the military into crime hotspots to take over policing functions from civil authorities, codifying a troubling slide toward militarized policing in Mexico. Mixing the duties of the military, which is tasked with protecting sovereignty and national security, with the police, which is tasked with enforcing civic safety, is constitutionally prohibited in most developed democracies around the world, including the United States.

The new law will exacerbate trends that have worsened since Mexico’s war on drugs began, with dire consequences for human rights in the country, argues Santiago Aguirre Espinosa, the deputy director of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center in Mexico City. The law is “not just legalizing the status quo, but it is giving the army new responsibilities that it didn’t have before,” he says.

There is a long history in Mexico of the use of the military for policing functions—often with lethal consequences. Yet the military has steadily accumulated an unprecedented degree of power since the war on the cartels began in 2006. Proponents of the militarized strategy have remained limited by the constitution, which places legal restrictions on the ability of the legislative and executive branches to order the military’s involvement in civic policing. The Internal Security Law loosens those restrictions.

The new security law will exacerbate trends that have worsened since Mexico’s war on drugs began, with dire consequences for human rights.

The president will now be able to sign a decree to send the army to any municipality he deems necessary, first for a year-long period, and then indefinitely. “In cases that the armed forces do intervene,” Aguirre says, “the armed forces will have absolute rule over the security operation in that state or region.” That is to say, the police will be subordinate to the military. The law also expands the army’s surveillance capabilities.

The law represents a turnaround of sorts for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who campaigned on a strategy of shifting focus away from the drug war and toward civic police reform when he ran to succeed Calderon in 2012. Once in office, Pena Nieto’s administration announced the formation of an elite federal police force, the gendarmerie, to replace the duties the army was carrying out in various parts of the country; it was first deployed in 2014. Pena Nieto also proposed a unified command that would essentially absorb municipal police—considered the least accountable in the country—into the state police. But both efforts have floundered.

According to a national survey conducted by Mexico’s Congress and a public opinion NGO in 2017, 65 percent of respondents believe the police are controlled by organized crime. Mexicans believe the most accountable security institutions are the army and the marines, the poll found, with 43 percent of respondents trusting them “somewhat” and 27 percent trusting them “a lot.”

The new law faces scrutiny from local, national and international human rights organizations, as well as legal challenges. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission argued before the country’s Supreme Court earlier this month that the law is unconstitutional and will “bring no direct benefit to individuals or to soldiers that carry out tasks related to citizen security.” The Mexican constitution, the commission says, does not allow the executive to vest more powers to soldiers deployed in regions where there are already police.

The commission also states that the law defines the concept of “interior security” too vaguely, which allows for too much executive discretion. As Aguirre puts it, “when you generate hybrid concepts that aren’t public security and aren’t national security, like this idea of ‘interior security,’ it generates a very confusing conceptual framework that in itself can propagate arbitrariness.”

The law also faces “an unprecedented number of constitutional challenges,” according to the Washington Office on Latin America, including from the Mexico City Human Rights Commission, the National Institute for Transparency, three municipalities, a group of 44 senators, and 188 members of the lower Chamber of Deputies. The Supreme Court is accepting constitutional challenges until Feb. 6.

Pena Nieto has responded to these concerns by promising not to implement the law to its fullest extent until the most controversial sections have been analyzed by the Supreme Court. But as Aguirre notes, the current militarized strategy remains electorally popular, although the leading presidential candidates are somewhat divided. The candidate of Pena Nieto’s PRI party, Jose Antonio Meade, supports the law. Ricardo Anaya, the candidate of an alliance between Mexico’s two other major parties, has come out against it, instead favoring a police professionalization program. Another candidate, Margarita Zavala, who is running independently, supports it, while Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-wing frontrunner, ultimately rejected the law after some ambivalence. With issues of crime and corruption likely to play a large role in the election, the contentious Internal Security Law will be at the heart of campaign debates.

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