Mexico’s Army Seeks More Funding, But Should it Have Key Security Role?

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As it settles in to a long-term role in public security, the Mexican military is seeking additional government funding and increased manpower to build a force capable of effectively combating the country’s drug cartels.

Mexico’s Ministry of Defense (SEDENA) is lobbying the country’s Congress for more than 13 billion pesos ($980 million) in funding to modernize the army and add thousands of new soldiers to its ranks. According to chairman of the Congressional Defense Committee, Rogelio Cerda Perez, the expansion and modernization of the army is “not a luxury but a necessity.” He has called for “more troops on the streets,” to fight drug trafficking gangs. The need to renew weaponry and vehicles is urgent, Cerda argues, with some equipment dating back to World War II. The 13 billion pesos demanded by the ministry would be used to reshape the army entirely, adding 10,800 troops and creating 18 new special forces battalions specialized in combating drug trafficking.

Since coming to power in 2006, President Felipe Calderon has increasingly tasked the armed forces with restoring public security, as part of his militarized strategy against organized crime, as state and municipal police forces are widely viewed as ineffective and riddled with corruption. The extent of the military’s public security role is now clearly evident, with 14 of Mexico’s 32 states now having military men installed as the heads of their respective public security agencies. Indeed, according to research carried out by the Center of Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), the number of soldiers deployed in public security roles has increased by 68 percent since 2006.

However, public security has deteriorated greatly since 2006, and rates of violence connected to organized crime have risen sharply under Calderon’s military strategy. On top of this, the army has faced mounting allegations of human rights abuses, with·complaints against the military to the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) increasing 10-fold between 2006 and 2009. Concerns regarding the role of the army in internal security were raised in a 2009 report on Public Security and Human Rights, released by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The report warned against the increasing involvement of the armed forces in public security roles, and called for a “clear separation” between the internal security work of the police and the national defense role of the armed forces, describing the two entities as “substantially different in terms of the purposes for which they were created and in their training and preparation.”

Nevertheless, despite these worries and the evident deterioration of the security situation in Mexico since 2006, Rogelio Cerda Perez is adamant that the blame for the failures of the last four years should be placed on insufficient government funding of the army, rather than on the unsuitability of the armed forces for internal security work. Under this theory, the army is simply not adequately equipped to combat the powerful transnational drug cartels, which have laid siege to many towns and regions. Cerda believes that the government’s aspirations to counter drug trafficking gangs through a military strategy will remain unsuccessful, unless defense spending increases significantly on current levels.

Since 2006, President Calderon has increased defense spending by 25 percent. However, this would seem insufficient to cover the costs of the military’s greatly expanded new role, and even more so, given the increasing strength and technological capabilities of the country’s largest drug cartels.

Mexico lags far behind its Latin American neighbors on military spending. In 2010, the Mexican government spent some $4.86 billion on its armed forces, representing 0.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Comparisons with other countries in the region are telling, with Brazil spending four times more than Mexico, relative to its GDP, and Chile seven times more. If the efforts of Rogelio Cerda Perez and the Ministry of Defence are successful, however, the Mexican Army and Air Force would become the second largest military power in Latin America, behind only Brazil and Colombia, with 220,000 troops.

Earlier this month, the north Mexico state of Nuevo Leon established a new civil police force which, according to the state governor, Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz, will by 2014 be responsible for combating organized crime in the state, taking over the duties currently carried out by the armed forces. However, for many, the army remains the only institution in Mexico which possesses the necessary capabilities and resources to mount a serious battle against the drug cartels. Especially if the Ministry of Defence’s proposals are approved by Congress, it seems likely that the army will continue to play a significant role in internal security in the region, and in other areas where drug cartels have a considerable presence, for some time to come.

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