Mexican senators on Dec. 13 approved an Internal Security Law, which would formalize the military's role in the country's domestic security.
Their votes came despite protests from their Senate counterparts, international organizations, and Mexican citizens. The bill faces further discussion but could get final approval by Dec. 15. It was first approved by Mexico's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, during a contentious session on Nov. 30, and throughout deliberations, opponents inside and outside congress have railed against it.
Mexico's constitution limits the military's domestic actions during peacetime, but the armed forces have been deployed to combat drug trafficking and organized crime since the first days of 2007, when then-President Felipe Calderon sent troops into his home state of Michoacan just a few weeks after taking office.
President George W. Bush exchanges handshakes with Mexico's President Felipe Calderon Monday, Aug. 20, 2007, as they met for a bilateral discussion during the North American Leaders' Summit in Montebello, Canada. (White House photo by Eric Draper)
The bill — proposed by members of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — would create a legal framework for the public-security functions the military has been carrying out on an ad hoc basis for more than a decade, like manning highway checkpoints and pursuing and arresting suspects.
Supporters say it would address legal issues around those deployments. The bill would set guidelines for the president's ability to authorize military action, but critics have said it makes it too easy to send the armed forces into the streets and opens the possibility they could be used against protests. They've also said the bill could allow deployments to be extended indefinitely.
A new initiative proposed by the bill would have the military provide intelligence to the government and its security agencies. The measure would also establish a group of government officials who would make decisions about the implementation of new measures the president could then, if needed, invoke to restore "internal order."
"The thing that I hear from a lot of people is, 'Yeah, but aren't they already doing it? And isn't this just sort of bringing that under code of law?' And that's a reasonable point," Everard Meade, the director of the Trans Border Institute at the University of San Diego, told Business Insider.
"Creating some more law and clarifying the legal framework is not a terrible idea, even if you think, as I do ... that it's not a good idea," Meade said. "The broader point is they're already doing it, and they're often doing it under really shady jurisdiction."
'Mexico without war!'
Criticism has come from all sides. Opposition legislators have called for calm, detailed discussion about the bill, rather than the previous fast push through the Chamber of Deputies that apparently left no time to read or debate it.
Lawmakers and civil-society groups inside and outside of Mexico have also charged the bill gives the military too much leeway in its domestic actions. Legislators have also criticized measures within the bill regarding the use of force as "cosmetic" and said that changes made by Senate committees are "insufficient" or "superficial."
Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has said the law is vague and doesn't include objective definitions of "internal security" and opens the possibility for it to be applied in "any" situation.
The Allée des Nations in front of the Palace of Nations (United Nations Office at Geneva). (Photo by MadGeographer)
The UN's high commissioner for human rights said formalizing the military's role in domestic security was "not the answer" and that doing so reduces incentives for civilian authorities to act in their traditional roles.
The Washington Office on Latin America — which noted that the military was still operating in 23 of Mexico's 32 states a decade after its first "temporary" deployment — has cautioned that the measure as is would likely lead to more abuses and hinder transparency.
Mexican protesters took to the streets of Mexico City during the Senate's deliberations on Dec. 13, chanting "Mexico without war!" and calling for the law to be rejected.
'We still need the army in the streets'
The PRI and parties allied with it have touted the necessity of the bill, dismissing international criticism and stressing the importance of a legal framework for the military's domestic operations.
"The issue of human rights is covered, and covered well" in the law, PRI congressman Cesar Dominguez said at the end of November. "But we cannot guarantee liberties and the full exercise of rights if there isn't a climate of public safety and peace."
"Blah, blah, blah. The truth is you always vote against everything," said Arturo Alvarez, a congressman from the Green Party, a PRI ally. "The fact is we still need the army in the streets."
The military's activities "have been limited by the lack of a normative framework that regulates actions they can perform during times of peace," Cristina Diaz, a PRI senator who heads the Senate's governance commission, said Dec. 13.
Mexican army soldier at the Independence Day Parade, September 16, 2013 in León, Guanajuato, Mexico. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com)
The continuing threat posed by powerful criminal organizations and their often more violent offspring undergirds many arguments in favor of the bill. But most admit the military's training is incompatible with policing.
Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, called the measure a "double-edge sword," because while the military had the capability to confront heavily armed criminal groups, it is not trained or equipped to carry out law-enforcement jobs, like gathering evidence or interrogating suspects.
"If you use the military, the allegations and the issues of human-rights violations are probably going to continue," Vigil told Business Insider. "But at the same time, if you don't use them, then Mexico is really sticking its neck out in terms of being able to provide nationwide security against these complex drug-trafficking consortiums."
David Shirk, the director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego, differed, saying that lack of investigative capacity was disqualifying.
The military "can't identify, track, and ... they don't have the necessary intelligence and, importantly, the evidentiary basis on which to bring people to justice that a part of a vast criminal conspiracy," Shirk told Business Insider. "The problem is neither does the Mexican police force."
A soldier carries out surveillance in the municipality of San Fernando in the Mexican State of Tamaulipas. (EFE photo by Miguel Sierra)
Shirk noted that the Mexican military has been involved in domestic operations for decades, with some arguing its role extends back the middle of the 20th century. By 1995, he said, there were calls to include the armed forces on the national public safety council.
But the expanded deployment in 2007 — rising from 20,000 to 50,000 soldiers — was intended as a short-term solution until criminal groups could be suppressed and police forces could be better trained.
Those troops are still in the streets. In places like Guerrero, riven by drug-related violence, they remain deployed to augment or replace local police. Tamaulipas, the northeast Mexican state that is the home turf of the Gulf and Zetas cartels, depends entirely on the military for order, after all the state's city and town police forces were dissolved because officers were linked to cartels fighting in the state.
Mexico's military remains one of the country's most trusted institutions, and the army is its most trusted security branch. But many see these prolonged deployments as directly responsible for more human-rights abuses and for increased violence throughout Mexico.
Shirk, citing a 2012 Justice in Mexico report, noted that allegations of rights abuses by the military increased as their deployments increased in 2007 and 2008. There continue to be over 1,000 complaints annually.
(Image from the University of San Diego)
The Washington Office on Latin America found that, between 2012 and 2016, there have been 505 criminal investigations by the Mexican attorney general into crimes and abuses by soldiers but just 16 convictions.
Researchers have found that between 2007 and 2010, there was "a causal effect between the deployment of joint military operations and the rise in the murder rate" in states where those joint operations took place, with data indicating there could have been nearly 7,000 fewer homicides in 2008 and 2009 had the military not been deployed.
The military has been implicated in abuses in recent years, like the killing of 22 suspects in central Mexico in 2014 and the disappearance of 43 student-teachers from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero state, also in 2014. Between 2015 and September 2017, the Mexican government reportedly paid out more than $6 million in compensation for human-rights violations by federal authorities, including defense forces.
"So to me, it's absolutely clear that if we see this government or another government that comes next turn to even more military involvement or start deploying the military more, we're going to see more people get hurt," Shirk told Business Insider.
'A very long-term project'
The Mexican military currently operates domestically under a vague clause allowing it to "aid" civilian law enforcement when asked to do so.
Military leaders have expressed "unease" about domestic operations, and the Mexican government has taken steps to hold military personnel accountable for abuses committed while acting in a public-security capacity.
Under a law approved in 2014, soldiers accused of violating civilians' rights are tried in civilian courts.
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"That's a big deal" and an important part of making sure abuses are dealt with transparently, Shirk said, though he doubted there had been enough time to assess whether that policy was being used well and had been effective in protecting against violations. (The Washington Office on Latin America has said that reform has not been fully implemented.)
Mexico has made little progress in reforming and reconstituting local and state police forces, which were often ineffective or infiltrated by criminal elements, and has shown little interest in doing so. Critics of the bill have charged that it removes incentives to carry out those reforms, but even a sincere effort to effect them would "be a very long-term project," Vigil said.
"It's going to take decades before they're up to speed," he told Business Insider, "and in the meantime they're going to have to use ... the military to conduct a lot of those [law-enforcement] operations."