Militarization in Latin America -- a regional trend

A new law up for debate in Mexico's lower house proposes to expand and regulate the role of the military in the country's decade-long drug war, a red flag to critics of the controversial militarized crackdown against cartels. 

When presenting the new initiative, one of the representatives in favor of it -- Martha Sofía Tamayo Morales -- acknowledged that Mexico's armed forces have become "the main resource" in confronting organized crime and national security issues, but that "it's efficiency has been limited due to the lack of an adequate legal framework...particularly during its peacetime role."

The proposed Internal Security Law, put forward by representatives from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), recommends that the military begin to provide intelligence to the Mexican government and its internal security branches, which would be a new development should the initiative be made law.

A new internal group would be formed by people from different parts of government to make decisions on when to implement new special measures that the president could set in motion to restore "internal order" within an institution or geographical area of the country.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

In theory, the new initiative proposes making the armed forces the last, not first, resort in security matters after all other branches of law enforcement -- the municipal, state and federal police as well as the new gendarmerie -- have proved "insufficient in confronting the threat."

It would also mandate more accountability by requiring that the federal government be informed of all of the actions taken by the armed forces in its internal security role, as well as the publication of a regular report on the issue.

InSight Crime Analysis

It has yet to be seen how this new law will be viewed by Mexican legislators, but if it is passed, those who oppose militarization will draw little comfort from its "regulatory" function -- after all, the creation of a new law doesn't mean that it will be adhered to.

Mexico's military was first dispatched onto the country's streets to fight against organized crime in 2006 by former President Felipe Calderón, and it has remained in that role ever since. Although the Mexican army remains the country's most trusted security branch, its members have committed serious human rights violations in the context of the drug war, some of which it has attempted to cover up.

Since 2006, the country's National Human Rights Commission has received upwards of 9,000 complaints against its members, and soldiers have been involved in cases of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and the use of torture, as well as some of the gravest cases of human rights violations of the last decade.

Some could interpret the newly proposed Law for Internal Security as a way to get around these constitutional concerns by expanding definitions of internal security.

Even the head of Mexico's National Defense Secretariat (Sedena), Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, has said that the deployment of the military against organized crime was a "mistake" and that Mexico's military is weary of the task.

Despite the militarization of Mexico's campaign against organized crime and drug traffickers, homicide rates in Mexico are now approaching levels not seen since 2012. Independent analysts say that more than half of all homicides are the work of organized crime and criminal gangs.

The use of Mexico's military in a civilian context raises constitutional concerns. Although there are some specific circumstances in which the use of the Mexican Armed Forces is considered justified within national territory, Article 16 of the Mexican Constitution restricts the domestic function of the Armed Forces in peacetime, and prevents them from entering private residences. Without a declared state of emergency, putting the military onto the streets in the context of the drug war is difficult to justify in legal terms.

Some could interpret the newly proposed Law for Internal Security as a way to get around these constitutional concerns by expanding definitions of internal security. It would also be a way to create a legal framework that makes the use of the military in the drug war easier to justify on the international as well as national stage, given the criticism that the campaign has received from both foreign and domestic observers.

Last year, the United States withheld 15 percent of the funds earmarked for Mexico's anti-narcotics funding after Mexico failed to fulfill the human rights criteria upon which that funding was conditioned.

The use of the military against organized crime in Mexico follows a regional trend; some might even call it a regional tradition. Throughout Latin America, governments confronted by corrupt and under-prepared police forces and rising levels of violence and fire power from organized crime have frequently turned to their military to try to restore order.

In all cases, the armies of Latin American countries have proved themselves a blunt tool at best in bringing down violence associated with organized crime and drug trafficking in the long term, and in many cases have made things worse and committed offenses against the civilian population as grave as those perpetrated by the criminal actors they have been charged with neutralizing.

Other than Mexico, the most obvious examples of this today can be seen in Colombia (where the country's drug war and its 50-year civil conflict eventually blurred together) and Central America.

Other arguments against militarization are myriad. Militarization is an acceptance on the parts of governments that the police forces simply cannot cope with the public security challenge, which by default reduces the confidence citizens have in those that rule. Dependency on the military can create a cycle of dependency for police institutions, inhibiting the political will to make the necessary investments in building strong security and judicial institutions. It also sends a message to the public that the government is resorting to extreme measures in order to try to gain control of rising organized crime.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Yet for Latin American nations beleaguered by violence (of the world's most violent cities, 41 out of 50 are in Latin America), whose often poorly funded and badly prepared law enforcement and justice institutions have been co-opted and corrupted by organized crime, defense chiefs could justifiably argue that they have nowhere else to turn to restore security.

And that trend looks set to continue, despite its obvious flaws. Argentina's President Mauricio Macri is the latest to adopt a militarized approach, He has signed security agreements with the United States and Israel, while studying the Mexican model, as he develops a strategy to deal with increasing drug consumption and the growing presence of transnational organized crime in the country. 

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