Sending the Mexican Army to Fight a Drug War Has Been a Disaster
Ten years and 100,000 deaths later, Mexico isn’t backing down
by DEBORAH BONELLO
A Senate report on recent proposals that apparently aim to regulate the role of Mexico’s military in public security has concluded that the draft legislation would only grow the responsibility of the armed forces in the fight against organized crime.
The congressional study of different versions of the Internal Security Law that have been proposed by senators or deputies from three of the main political parties in Mexico also evaluates 10 years of the country’s drug war that has resulted in at least 100,000 deaths, a myriad of human rights abuses and an overall increase in violence.
The authors point out an important fact — that after a decade of a militarized drug war there is still no adequate public data or evaluation of the military’s role in the campaign against organized crime.
Neither, they claim, is there solid evidence available to explain why the Federal Police and the gendarmerie, a new militarized police force created by President Enrique Peña Nieto, are insufficient tools for fighting organized crime without support from the armed forces.
The report goes on to argue that from the beginning, there was never any justification for dispatching the country’s military in the drug war.
When then-president Felipe Calderón took power at the end of 2006, after a controversial election, the authors of the report say that the nation was enjoying “historic lows” in homicides. One of Calderón’s first actions in office was to send thousands of soldiers to his home state of Michoacán, which remains one of the most violent in the country.
“It was after the start of the permanent operations [of the military] that a real epidemic of violence occurred at a national level, rising to 27,000 homicides in 2011,” argue the authors of the report from the Belisario Domínguez Institute, which is housed within the Senate. “Between 2007 and 2011 the level of homicides tripled (from 9,000 to 27,000) and the homicide rate went from 8.1 to 23.7 homicides per 100,000.”
The investigators conclude that the lack of solid evidence to evaluate the role of the military compared with Mexico’s various police forces points to not only a lack of accountability and transparency, but a tendency for legislators to carry out debates and make decisions based on personal convictions and ideologies rather than facts and research.
The “drastic rise” in violence that has taken place since the start of the military campaign is proof that Mexico needs a more controlled approach to the use of the military for public security, they argue, as well as a systematic evaluation of its activities. But the new proposals to regulate the military fall short of these goals, the report concludes.
The authors say that the legislation, as currently drafted, would offer too much discretion to decision makers due to the ambiguous and vague wording of the proposals. What’s more, they argue that the proposals do nothing to address the concerns laid out above.
InSight Crime analysis
Such a negative report from an investigative team attached to the nation’s Senate is a damning indictment of lawmakers’ disregard for evidence while drafting security policies.
Human rights defenders and critics of the drug war, which has taken a huge toll on the Mexican population in the last decade, will feel vindicated by the study. Ultimately, it advises congress to seek alternatives to militarization and to pursue a strategy to eventually pull the military off the streets — a process which Interior Secretary Osorio Chong claims has already begun, and something Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos supports.
But as is often the case in countries where the armed forces are relied on to provide a public security role, it is hard for that baton to be passed back to police forces that have previously been determined incapable of dealing with the challenge.
In the case of Mexico, the public perception that police forces at all levels — municipal, state and federal — are corrupt, co-opted and unprepared to deal with the problem of organized crime are backed up by data and fed by extreme, high-profile examples of police collusion with organized crime and widespread incompetence.
Whether the police are any more capable of combating organized crime now than they were before, or cause just as many problems as the armed forces in that role, is a question worth investigating.
Police reform has been attempted, unsuccessfully, by every Mexican president since José López Portillo (1976–1982), according to the Washington Office on Latin America. However, those same Mexican presidents also significantly expanded the military’s role in public security.
Until authorities make greater progress on police reform, it is unlikely that Mexico’s decision makers will back away from the militarized strategy against organized crime. And as long as there is no official measure taken of improvements in the police forces, authorities will forever be able to justify sending the military to do their job.