Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Should Mexican Troops Keep Fighting Cartels?

Mexico’s Supreme Court in November overturned a law that formalized the use of troops to fight gangs. // File Photo: Mexican Government. Mexico’s Supreme Court in November overturned a law that formalized the use of troops to fight gangs. // File Photo: Mexican Government.

Mexico’s Supreme Court last month overturned a new law that formalized the use of military troops to combat criminal gangs, with nine of the 11 justices vetoing the measure. Human rights groups claimed the legislation could lead to abuses by the Mexican military, which is already accused of human rights violations. Meanwhile, incoming Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said “there is no way to pull Mexico’s armed forces out of the fight against organized crime,” adding that new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration will propose the creation of a National Guard with military personnel to take over such duties. What were the reasons behind the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the security law, and are they justified? Is López Obrador’s plan to form a National Guard to combat organized crime a good idea? What changes should the incoming administration implement to curb Mexico’s persistent insecurity?

Gonzalo Escribano, government affairs director at Speyside Mexico: “A few weeks ago, AMLO presented his security strategy, which generated division with his base. At first glance, the plan seems to be a continuation of the military-centered strategies of the last two presidents. The National Guard model, in fact, is very similar to Peña Nieto’s 2012 idea to create a similar force, the Gendarmerie; an idea that the armed forces blocked as Peña Nieto refused to give them command over it. Many of AMLO’s voters were expecting to see a radical departure from this approach. The strategy of using the armed forces in the fight against criminals was first implemented in 2006. It has delivered, at best, mixed results, and the fact is that the levels of violence, insecurity and human rights abuses are higher than ever. The creation of the National Guard will require a constitutional amendment. The bill provides that the new guards will receive human rights training and will be tried in civil courts. However, it remains to be seen if these caveats will be enough to convince all of Morena’s lawmakers, as well as some members of the opposition, to vote in favor of the reform and achieve the majority needed for a constitutional amendment. AMLO’s plan does not end with the creation of the National Guard. Other priorities are fighting corruption, rethinking the prohibition of drugs and fighting inequality and poverty. The plan overlooks two necessary keys for Mexico to escape its insecurity crisis: building strong local police forces and addressing the immense deficiencies of the country’s system of law enforcement.”

Amanda Mattingly, senior director at The Arkin Group in New York: “López Obrador’s proposal to create a National Guard force, which would incorporate law enforcement authorities and branches of the military in the fight against organized crime, is not a bad idea in theory. In practice, however, it could lead to an increase in abuses that human rights groups already accuse the military of committing, and further increase the bloodshed. It is not necessarily a new plan either, as the Mexican military has been involved in the fight since former President Felipe Calderón dispatched it in 2006. Involving the military in domestic law enforcement is a tricky thing and was always supposed to be temporary, which is presumably why the Supreme Court overturned the new security law designed to formalize the arrangement. But López Obrador is realizing that the army is better equipped and more trustworthy than the police, and it is unrealistic to call them back to the barracks now. Infiltrating and dismantling the criminal organizations requires skill and coordination as well as intelligence-based methodologies and the capabilities of a better trained service. Still, creating a National Guard will not be enough. López Obrador needs an ambitious, multilayered security agenda right out of the gate—one that is tough on the criminal organizations and drug cartels, reforms the security apparatus and judicial system and addresses the underlying issues of poverty, inequality, corruption and impunity. Winning the presidency with 53 percent of the vote, he has the mandate to do this, but the question is whether he has the vision and conviction to carry it out.”

Raúl Benítez Manaut, researcher at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Humanities at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM): “The war against drug trafficking that began in 2007, with the support of the United States through the Mérida Initiative, is at a critical moment as Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes office. Official data report a total of 225,790 homicides between December 2006 and October of this year. More than 27,000 people have disappeared. The government for 12 years pushed the militarization of a war on drugs, and the country’s armed forces were empowered politically. On Dec. 21, 2017, then-President Peña Nieto announced that the Law of Interior Security had taken effect. However, in November, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. This law was a military project to give jurisdiction to the armed forces. During the campaign, AMLO criticized the armed forces and announced his plan to remove them from the streets. He said a great amount of human rights were being violated. AMLO’s original project was to strengthen the federal police. However, he changed his mind at some point between September and October. There was a reconciliation between AMLO and the military. Now, he proposes constructing a new military force, the National Guard. This would be led by the army, with the so-called military police, and would include the participation of the navy, with the navy police, as well as the federal police forces. We could speak of a ‘neo-militarization’ of the new government. The war on drugs in Mexico still does not end.”

Monica de Bolle, director of the Latin American Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies: “The Supreme Court’s decision does seem justified in the face of human rights abuses that inevitably arise from placing the military in a law enforcement role. This said, Mexico’s uncontrolled violence and drug problems urgently need a strategy that perhaps combines a role for the military together with policies to address potential gaps left by trying to dismantle the illegal drug economy—thus far, the country has failed miserably, under many different presidents, to come up with such a strategy. Forming a National Guard to combat organized crime seems like more of the same, repackaged. Who will integrate the National Guard? What kind of training will members receive? How does this fold into the Mérida Initiative, which has so far proved to be unsuccessful? Despite campaign promises, there’s no clarity on the security strategy to be followed by the AMLO administration.”

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