Mexico considers legislation to permanently grant extraordinary policing and surveillance powers to the military

Soldiers are regularly seen in the streets in Mexico following the militarization of the drug war. (Photo credit: Clayton Conn)

This week marks 10 years since Mexico’s former president Felipe Calderon militarized the so-called war on drugs by first deploying troops to carry out law enforcement duties in his home state. Since then tens of thousands have disappeared, more than a hundred thousand have been killed and accusations of human rights abuses carried out by both organized crime groups and the country’s security forces continue to mount. Now the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and his party are pushing for a legal measure to grant the military even more policing and spying powers, stoking fears that more violence and insecurity is to come. FSRN’s Clayton Conn brings us more from Mexico City.

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At a ceremony to commemorate the 106th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, Mexico’s president, top lawmakers and ranking military brass praised the role of the country’s armed forces in combating organized crime.

Navy Secretary, Vidal Soberón Sanz, urged the population to stand behind the military which increasingly has come under fire for alleged human rights abuses: “It is necessary for the three branches of government, political parties and society as a whole to join forces in all areas to end all that is damaging us as a nation, that is the only way to avoid more victims.”

Soberón Sanz says the military supports a recent proposal made by members of the ruling Institutional Revolution Party – or PRI – that will make permanent extraordinary powers granted to the armed forces. Called the Interior Security Law, the legislation seeks to further erase the legal line between military and civilian law enforcement duties.

“We support the proposal to formulate a legal framework that will prevent this state of uncertainty in which soldiers, pilots and sailors have remained – that there be legal certainty to our actions and the legal vacuum ruled out,” Soberón Sanz stated at the event.

Human rights defenders criticize the proposal, calling it a means to normalize a state of exception declared 10 years ago when former president Felipe Calderon deployed the military throughout the country for the stated purpose of fighting organized crime.

Former head of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Emilio Alvarez Icaza, says the armed forces need to stay out of domestic law enforcement: “The army, a soldier, is trained in the extreme use of force – how to kill an enemy. That’s what they are for. We need them for national security, and we pay for armies because of that. But they are not policemen.”

According to Article 28 of the proposed law, the military will also be granted greater surveillance powers previously deemed illegal and unconstitutional. For digital rights lawyer Gisela Perez de Acha, this would further diminish the already limited toolbox for defending human and civil rights in Mexico.

“If they can pretty much do anything and we are going to legalize the surveillance faculties for them, online and offline, the problematic thing is that we will not have the capabilities as citizens to push back against that and we have more of that against the police,” Perez de Acha points out.

Since Calderon militarized the nation’s public security strategy a decade ago, the official number of identified drug cartels has more than doubled. Meanwhile, the number of disappeared persons has risen to just under 30,000 – a toll comparable to that of Argentina’s Dirty War. The death toll is even higher, with an estimated 186,000 fatalities, according to official numbers.

When confronted with those bleak statistics, officials tend to point fingers at violent criminals. But international human rights organizations have extensively documented police and military involvement in enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.

Araceli Rodriguez, whose son was disappeared in 2009, echoes a common sentiment among victims’ families: “If those whom we entrust to protect us, take care of us, investigate crimes, are not doing that, well they should face exemplary punishment. Because not one public servant has been made an example of. That is why they continue with all this foolishness, that is why they continue to associate with the narcos and it’s why they continue to disappear people.”

Impunity is the rule in Mexico, even in the exceptional cases in which allegations of corruption or human rights abuses are investigated. Even when carrying our civilian police duties, the armed forces are only accountable to military court system.

Policy analyst Laura Carlsen argues that legislative proposals that fall short of systemic change will be ineffective in stopping the cycle of Mexico’s violence and insecurity: “Everyone pretends like the problem is just getting the right formula of who is in charge or of changing around the names of the agencies or of having the United States Merida Initiative come in and do training with these people, and it has nothing to do with the technical fix. It has to do with political will, as long as the Mexican government is benefiting, both on the individual level of corrupt officials and on the institutional level of structural corruption and complicity, from the lucrative drug trade we’re not going to see any changes.”

Although Mexican lawmakers and the country’s defense department say passage of the Interior Security Law is a top priority, political observers predict it is unlikely to occur in the current legislative session that ends in mid-December. Yet, 10 years after the militarization of the drug war, soldiers in the streets has become the new normal in many parts of Mexico.

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