Nearly 750 military personnel are reported to have died while in service since Mexico launched its “war on drugs” in 2006. A closer look at the figures shows a daunting picture of violence in the country, with thousands of civilians killed, and the ineffectiveness of militarized strategies.
A list published by Mexico’s National Defense Secretariat (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional – SEDENA) includes the names of 543 members of the army and air force killed on duty since 2006. El Economista documented a further 54 cases of marines who died during anti-narcotics operations during Felipe Calderón’s administration (2006-2012) and the local website Defensa recorded another 152 during the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018).
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The vast majority of deaths (70 percent) were of low-ranking officers, according to a comprehensive analysis of the figures published by Vice.
At the top of the list of states with the most military deaths is Tamaulipas (131) on the US-Mexico border, infamous for clashes between the armed forces and crime organizations, particularly the Zetas.
Next is Sinaloa (67), home to one of the most powerful drug trafficking cartels in México. It is followed by Michoacán (57) and Guerrero (55), home to Mexico’s poppy fields.
According to the list from SEDENA, 2010 was the most violent year for military personnel since 2006 with 89 deaths. 2018 saw the fewest military casualties with just 11 registered.
Deaths of civilians at the hands of criminal organizations have also risen sharply since 2006.
The watchdog agency Semáforo Delictivo, a non-profit organization that documents killings connected to organized crime, recorded a record 22,365 cases in 2018 alone, a 20 percent increase from 2017.
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The number of military personnel killed in the fight against organized crime should come as no surprise.
The states highlighted in SEDENA’s document as those with the highest number of killings are amongst those where organized crime has been the strongest in the past 13 years.
The fact that 2018 saw a drastic reduction in comparison to 2010, going from 89 to 11 deaths is positive. However, the same states continue to be the most affected (Tamaulipas, Guerrero and Sinaloa) and there is still much work to be done.
In addition, members of the security forces have long complained about the deadly impact of their lack of resources and experts have said that fighting organized crime is not what the Mexican army has been trained to do.
Furthermore, the figures, as tragic as they might be, only tell half of the story.
Since President Felipe Calderón decided to fight fire with fire in 2006, and ratchet up violence against drug gangs, thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire, with human rights abuses and killings by security forces and criminal groups alike becoming commonplace.
According to the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos – CMDPDH), nearly 1,070 people have been victims of grave human rights violations at the hands of security forces, including killings, torture, and disappearances since 2006. This assessment is based on reports made to Mexico’s Human Rights Commission and is likely to be a very conservative estimate.
In response to criticism of the militarized approach to security, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed the creation of a 60,000 member National Guard.
But the new force, which has now been approved by all 32 states, is not a major departure from the previous approach.
Although it will operate under the civilian Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection, it will be populated by former military personnel and federal police officers. This has generated many questions as to how effective the new force will be.