Website InSight published two interesting articles on Thursday and Friday on the Mexican army and its role in Mexican society.
On Thursday, Gary Moore wrote about a small success story in the fight against organized crime and drug-related violence in the country. The central thesis of the article: a troop surge in San Fernando (Tamaulipas), the town that has become synonymous to large scale massacres and horrendous violence perpetrated by the Los Zetas crime group, has brought San Fernando back to a state of relative calm. Moore writes:
By late June, so many troops and federal police had surged into San Fernando’s forbidding landscape that the seemingly impossible occurred: Quiet. Suddenly, arrogant and long-standing signs of Zeta presence -- the pickups or SUVs openly cruising with brandished heavy weapons -- were gone from the streets.
The Mexican government has not given the improvement in the situation in San Fernando a lot of airplay. Perhaps that's for the best: amidst surging violence levels, such cries of victory could be taken the wrong way by the general public, already increasingly disenchanted with the federal government's drug war (even though, according to recent polls, by and large the public agrees with president Calderón's general idea that organized crime should be confronted). Yet San Fernando does show that a concentrated and well coordinated deployment military personnel can actually work.
Yesterday there was Ronan Graham's article on the military seeking additional funding to modernize the army and hire more recruits in order to be able to more effectively combat organized crime. The army is looking for almost one billion US dollars in extra money and has been lobbying with congress to get the additional funds.
Both articles raise some important questions on the role of the Mexican army in Mexico.
The role of the military has been criticized, principally because of the high number of alleged violations of human rights. In places where the army is very active, such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, there are hundreds of complaints about soldiers participating in the forced disappearance, torture and detention of supposed organized crime suspects without legal representation.
There is also resistance against the army's participation in combating crime from a principal point of view: domestic law enforcement should not be carried out by soldiers, but by the police. The army should only be in charge of national defence. Soldiers aren't trained to fight crime, and are therefore unprepared to operate in a civil environment in a non-war situation.
The deployment of the army in Mexico is met with both opposition and agreement.
Civil movements, such as the one led by Javier Sicilia, have stated since its inception that the Mexican people 'want the army to move back to the barracks'. According to them, not only should the army by principal not be involved in crimefighting, but the deployment of some 50.000 soldiers and marines has not been able to curb the violence. In fact, these movements state, the army has actually increased the perception of insecurity through its well-documented violations of human rights.
Then again, there are also those who do want the army involved. On this website we mentioned the example of the town of Cherán, in rural Michoacán State, where angry citizens aren't protesting against the military, but against the lack of military presence in their region. Those in favor of army presence aren't so much fans of militirization, but they simply lack faith in the capability of especially the municipal police to keep their communities safe.
The latter is indeed one of the biggest current problems in Mexico. There is a reason why the president deployed soliders in the first place: the police simply isn't able to combat organized crime groups. Especially in rural areas in battered states such as Chihuahua, municipal policemen are woefully underpaid and lack a real degree of professionalization (many police officers have only finished primary school), which makes them vulnerable to bribes by criminals.
They also lack the equipment and armaments to maintain security: in some small communities in rural Chihuahua police forces reportedly had only one light calibre handgun for about ten police officers. Against dozens of heavily armed and well organized cartel enforcers, no policeman in his right mind would dare challenge the sicarios. And in many places, such as Sinaloa, police officers are also often friends or family of members or crime groups. In Sinaloa, where the federal government enjoys very little respect from citizens, there is a very real problem of who policemen are loyal to crime groups, even without plata or plomo.
The Federal Police, far better trained and paid than its municipal counterpart, isn't able to balance this out. Thus, the federal government has no other choice than to deploy the army.
As Ronan Graham reported on InSight, the thin line between civil society and the military is rapidly becoming more blurry. In fact, Mexico is experiencing a creeping militirization. In many places where drug related violence has skyrocketed and the army has been deployed, the chiefs of police have been replaced by former military men. In 14 of 32 Mexican states the Public Security Secretariat is now led not by civilian officials, but by former military officers.
In some cases this has led to the army being given carte blanche to operate in a manner it sees fit. Take the case of Tijuana, where the municipal police force until recently was led by former colonel Julian Leyzaola. According to human rights groups such as the CMDPDH, Leyzaola appointed more and more former military officers on key positions in the police force. The police then allowed the military to act with near impunity, resulting in hundreds of cases of forced disappearance and torture.
During my recent visits to Ciudad Juárez, activists and civilians alike warned me of the situation in the Valley of Juárez, a strip of land hugging the border, where crime groups became so violent that municipal police forces simply left entire towns. When the army moved in, it initiated a sort of state of siege and, according to activists such as the Reyes-Salazar family, now effectively governs the area, allegedly with a great many violations of human rights and operating with total impunity.
Mexico's military spending is still relatively low in comparison to countries such as Brazil or Colombia; it only spends 4,86 billion USD on the army (0,4% of GNP). In comparison: Brazil spends four times more money on its army. However, since the president deployed the military in 2006, spending has increased 25%.
The new National Security Law, now awaiting approval in Congress, tries to streamline the role of the military by allowing soldiers to be tried in court and clarifying the authority of the army under certain circumstances. Should this law be accepted, it would partially (though not adequately, according to human rights watchdogs) improve many of the human rights related issues with the army. However, it would also mean that the army is even more institutionalized as a law enforcement agency, precisely what many analysts fear.
The presidency, however, has little choice than to keep militirizing some parts of the country. As long as the police is vulnerable to corruption, underpaid, poorly educated and poorly equipped, the only institution with the capability to confront the most heavily armed crime groups is the military. President Calderón has tried to adress the issue, for example by proposing a unified national police corps, but reform has come to a halt due to political gridlock.
And here we have the one issue that many human rights groups fail to adress properly in their statements. As valid as their arguments against the use of military force are, they do not propose any real alternatives either. Javier Sicilia, for example, wants the soldiers back in the barracks. And yet he fails to answer the all important question: alright, then what? 'Strengthening institutions' is the usual commonplace answer, but strengthening insititutions is a slow process, even without taking into account the political gridlock plagueing Mexico's current administration.
The creeping militirization of Mexico is an unwelcome process, but unfortunately it is unavoidable. There are no real alternatives in the short run that can improve security, and it is hardly imaginable that the next administration will see a different situation.
The only thing the Mexican government can do right now (and at least president Calderón has shown willingness to try) is defining more adequately what the military's role in law enforcement is and take all possible measures to protect the civilian population. But in any case, the army is here to stay. As much as we might dislike it.