“Don Chelo,” a key figure in Mexico’s powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel, had been out of prison only 10 days when marines raided his ranch on the outskirts of Guadalajara early Monday morning.
Armed with assault rifles, he and a companion resisted fiercely, killing one marine before images of their own lifeless bodies were plastered across social media. They were the latest casualties in the seemingly endless drug war that claimed more lives than the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.
When the final body counts are tallied, 2017 will almost certainly go down as the most violent year in Mexico’s modern history, after registering 23,698 homicides from January through October.
Unsure how to stop the killing, Mexico’s government is returning to a well-worn strategy: brute force. The government is poised to pass a bill that would put even more power behind its armed forces in their war against organized crime, but security experts aren’t convinced it’ll change the country’s bloody course, and fear that the formal militarization of Mexico’s streets will only invite more bloodshed, illegal surveillance, and human rights abuses.
Civil society shares those concerns and strongly opposes the legislation, with more than 130,000 people and 200 human rights organizations signing petitions against it. Yet Mexico’s lower house passed the bill after minimal debate last Thursday and the Senate could approve it this week.
The law employs vague language that effectively grants the president to replace ineffective police forces with soldiers for renewable one-year periods, without making public any information on their deployments. Further, it enables soldiers to gather intelligence and shut down “non-peaceful” demonstrations.
“There’ll be no accountability or transparency. All the problems we have now will continue and could even get worse.”
To its critics, the bill simply formalizes a strategy that has long been part of the problem: Mexico’s military-first approach to the drug war.
“This law legalizes what’s been happening for a long time. It removes any incentives for governors to fix their problems because they can just ask the president to send in federal forces,” said the security analyst Jorge Kawas.
“It does nothing to fix our broken police forces,” Kawas added. “There’ll be no accountability or transparency. All the problems we have now will continue and could even get worse.”
R3D, Mexico’s Defense of Digital Rights Network, warned that the “vagueness” of the law also allows the armed forces to spy on civilians “without establishing any clear limits, democratic controls or accountability mechanisms.”
A military-first mentality
Mexico’s armed forces have been on the front line of the drug war ever since then-President Felipe Calderón deployed them in his native state of Michoacán in 2006. His successor Enrique Peña Nieto has maintained this strategy, which enjoys support from the U.S., despite its failure to bring about a reduction in the levels of violence.
More than 200,000 people have been killed and 33,000 have disappeared in the last 11 years, and October’s 2,764 murders made it the deadliest month since records began, two decades ago.
In an investigation released last month, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) found that “the militarization of public security in Mexico has had at least three grave consequences: Violence has increased in the country while human rights violations persist, the urgency and pressure to pass reforms to strengthen the civilian police force has decreased, and accountability has been virtually nonexistent.”
WOLA and 10 other human rights groups warned last week that the law “would set a fundamentally negative precedent in Latin America.” They called on Mexico to “professionalize the civilian police and guarantee an independent and autonomous national prosecutor’s office capable of effectively investigating crimes and human rights violations.”
“You can’t substitute soldiers for police.”
Mexico leans on its armed forces in part because they’re generally considered less corruptible than its police, but the navy’s image was tainted on Friday when the national press reported that six marines recently kidnapped a businessman aboard an official navy pickup truck in Mexico City and demanded a $1 million ransom. The army has also been implicated in several high-profile massacres in recent years.
“It’s very obvious why the military don’t do police work, because in a confrontation they’re trained to eliminate enemies, not to arrest criminals,” said Catalina Pérez Correa, a law professor and public security expert. “You can’t substitute soldiers for police.”
Pérez also warned that the proposed legislation “gives a lot of power to the president, with very few checks and balances. If there are protests after the upcoming elections, this law could justify the president in deploying the army to control the demonstrations.”
A fast-approaching presidential election
Security concerns are likely to play a major role in Mexico’s July 2018 presidential election.
The early front-runner, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, put forward his own controversial proposal on Saturday. Speaking in Guerrero, a state ravaged by drug-related violence, the veteran leftist candidate said he would consider an “amnesty” for cartel leaders, with the backing of their victims.
López Obrador, a frequent critic of Donald Trump, said he would also “demand that the U.S. government carry out campaigns to reduce consumption” of illegal narcotics.
The proposed amnesty was greeted with skepticism in the Mexican press.
“This requires a lot of work in the long term, but our politicians aren’t prepared to do that because it won’t help them in the next elections.”
“To negotiate with criminals is to pact with the devil,” the security analyst Alejandro Hope wrote on Monday, noting that any pact with the cartels would be unstable, difficult to implement, and potentially counterproductive.
“There’s no way that an amnesty would guarantee peace,” added the columnist Héctor de Mauleón. “It would just be a way of preventing hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from receiving justice.”
Lamenting the lack of viable proposals from Mexico’s politicians, Pérez insisted that there’s no simple solution to the nation’s problems.
“The police and justice systems need reforming. We need a security model based on civic participation instead of bullets,” she said. “This requires a lot of work in the long term, but our politicians aren’t prepared to do that because it won’t help them in the next elections.”
Duncan Tucker is a freelance journalist based in Mexico