The United Nations has urged Mexico to begin removing military personnel from policing functions, yet doing so may prove difficult in a country where soldiers have come to play a key role in providing domestic security.
Speaking at a press conference on October 7 following a three-day visit to Mexico, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called on Mexico to “adopt a time frame for the withdrawal of the military from public security functions.” (See video below)
In his statements, Zeid said that during his visit he had encountered a “very bleak” picture of a society “wracked by high levels of insecurity.” This includes an estimated 151,233 people killed between December 2006 and August 2015, and at least 26,000 missing since 2007.
“The citizens live in fear and don’t feel they have the protection of the law,” Zeid stated, adding that the police need a major reform and Mexico’s attorney general’s office needs to be strengthened.
Detailing a conversation he had with Mexico’s military leaders, Zeid told the audience he found there was agreement that having the military perform policing functions is not ideal, with Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos unhappy about military units being “dragged into” policing work.
Zeid therefore called on the Mexican government to “act with urgency” in reforming police and working towards providing stronger legal protections for citizens. The sooner this happens, the sooner the Mexican military can “return to barracks,” Zeid declared.
InSight Crime Analysis
Under former President Felipe Calderon, and continuing under current President Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico has come to rely heavily on military units instead of police for providing security.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform
In the face of Mexico’s violent drug cartels — and a police force nearly 90 percent of citizens perceive as corrupt — deploying the military presents an attractive stopgap measure for Mexican leaders. Yet soldiers are trained to kill enemy combatants, not engage in standard policing behavior — such as investigating crime scenes — and the militarization of Mexico’s domestic security has been linked to human rights abuses, massacres, and forced disappearances.
The solution is better trained and funded police. But this is difficult in practice to achieve, and requires long-term investments and changes in institutional cultures that take time to demonstrate results. In the meantime, a side effect of Mexico’s use of the military in domestic security is that state governments may come to rely on soldiers — which are paid for by the federal government — thereby disincentivizing local leaders from investing in police reform.
Unfortunately, the military appears to be mutating into a more permanent feature of Mexico’s domestic security apparatus, and extracting them from their policing roles will likely prove difficult.