After the cartels triggered a wave of violence across Mexico last week, killing civilians, blocking roads with burning vehicles and torching dozens of stores, the government here reacted as it often does to an outbreak of lawlessness: it sent in troops.
The thousands of soldiers and National Guard members who have arrived in the cities of Tijuana, Juarez and Guadalajara in recent days appeared ready for battle with helmets, camouflage and assault rifles strapped to their ballistic vests.
It was a reminder not only of the current security crisis in that country, but also of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s broken promise to remove soldiers from the streets.
As a candidate, López Obrador swore a radical break with the militarized security strategy of his predecessors, whom he blamed for having transformed Mexico “into a cemetery”.
He pioneered the idea of legalizing drugs and amnesty for criminals and promised to support poor communities with “hugs, not bullets”. Insisting that the soldiers “are not solving anything”, he has repeatedly vowed to “bring the army back to the barracks”.
Yet since taking office nearly four years ago, López Obrador has embraced the armed forces with unprecedented fervor, developing many of the same policies he once attacked.
More than 200,000 federal troops are deployed across Mexico – more than twice as many as at any time since the country launched its war about drug traffickers 16 years ago.
This includes members of an expanded army and navy as well as more than 92,000 members of the National Guard, a new force created by López Obrador that is trained by the military and is mostly made up of former soldiers.
The president initially pledged to keep the National Guard under civilian rule and remove the military entirely from the streets by the end of his term in 2024.
Now he says he plans to bring the National Guard under the control of the armed forces – and allow the armed forces to continue their policing role indefinitely.
Derided by lawmakers as unconstitutional, his proposal reignited a long-running debate over whether the military, a force designed to fight foreign armies, should be used to fight domestic crime.
The consensus among security experts, human rights advocates and many government officials is that federal troops are simply not cut out for work that requires intimate knowledge of local communities and training in investigation and crime prevention.
To make their point, they point to the rising death toll since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón first called on the military to help fight drug cartels. – an arrangement that he said would be temporary.
That year, 10,452 people were killed in Mexico.
Today, homicides amount to more than 35,000 a year. Another 30,000 disappeared during López Obrador’s tenure alone.
Entire industries here are now dominated by organized crime, and a US military official recently valued that a third of Mexico is “ungoverned territory”, where criminal groups operate with impunity.
“We have decades of accumulated evidence to show that the militarization of public safety does not solve the problem of violence in Mexico,” said Stephanie Brewer, security and human rights expert at the Washington Office think tank. on Latin America. “It’s unrealistic to expect that doing the same thing will produce different results.”
Brewer and others have long insisted that peace in Mexico depends on reforming the country’s corrupt police force and reducing impunity by teaching prosecutors how to properly investigate crimes. The US government agrees and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on training programs for the military and police.
But López Obrador cut police budgets. He also dissolved the federal police, which had been obstinate by allegations that the authorities colluded with the criminals they were supposed to fight.
Instead of trying to reform law enforcement, López Obrador trusted the army and navy, which are consistently ranked among the most trusted institutions in the country.
Traditionally, the military has played a limited role in public security and civil affairs here, which sets Mexico apart from other parts of Latin America that have suffered coups and military governments.
Under an arrangement established eight decades ago by the then-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, the military was left to fend for itself as long as it did not interfere in governance. With no wars to fight, the troops attracted little public attention.
López Obrador not only kept the armed forces in charge of maintaining order, but also extended their functions far beyond security, giving them control of civilian tasks.
Troops are now leading the fight against illegal immigration, the COVID-19 pandemic and fuel theft from gas lines. They lead the country’s biggest infrastructure projects – including the construction of an airport and a major train line – and control the country’s ports and border crossings.
The new alliance between the president and the armed forces has fueled speculation and fear as to his motives. Some say that López Obrador needs the army because he has alienated many of the country’s traditional power brokers, including its business elite and opposition parties that have close ties to public sector unions.
Others fear he is consolidating his power ahead of a possible attempt to stay in power after his term ends.
“Why does he insist on giving more and more responsibility to the army? said security expert Ernesto López Portillo. “What does the president want after 2024?
López Obrador, who denies intending to violate the constitution by serving more than a six-year term, says he turned to the military because it is one of the most efficient and effective branches. less corrupt Mexican government.
Human rights officials worry about the potential for abuse.
Wrongdoings in the armed forces – including murders, enforced disappearances and torture – are usually investigated by military institutions themselves rather than by civilian prosecutors and rarely result in sanctions.
There are indications that the armed forces adopted a new, less aggressive tactic under López Obrador. Where the military once confronted organized crime head-on, sometimes killing bystanders in shootouts, today’s troops seem more focused on street patrols than cartel battles.
In the state of Michoacan, for example, residents have complained that the army merely acts as a buffer between criminal groups instead of directly challenging them.
Data shows troops have been engaged in fewer shootings than under the previous two presidents and seized fewer firearms – perhaps a sign that the president’s ‘hugs, not bullets’ rhetoric has trickled down to troops in the field.
Yet hundreds of people have filed complaints against the armed forces with the National Human Rights Commission since López Obrador took office. There have been high-profile cases in which troops appeared to act extrajudicially, including one in which a member of the National Guard killed a 19-year-old university student.
Even with homicides near historic highs and regular outbursts of violence like last week, López Obrador and the armed forces maintain high approval ratings.
It may sound like a paradox, but it’s not, said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at the public research institute CIDE in Mexico City.
“In times of uncertainty, in times of fear, institutions built around the image of discipline become the place where people take refuge,” he said. “People gravitate towards solutions of order more than solutions of justice.”
He said he felt discouraged.
“We’ve been here 15 years, and it’s disheartening to feel like we’ve dug ourselves into such a deep hole, and we’re still saying, you know, our only chance is to keep digging,” he said. .
Special Envoy Cecilia Sánchez of the Times Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.
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