Mexico’s Old-School War on Crime Gets a Surprising New Champion

Why is AMLO attempting to further militarize policing, instead of pursuing the progressive reforms he promised during his campaign?

On the campaign trail in 2018, Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, promised a radically different strategy to tackle the country’s long-standing problem with violent crime. Running on a progressive platform with the slogan “becarios sí, sicarios no” (“yes to scholarships, no to hitmen”), the leftist politician better known as AMLO vowed to withdraw the military from regions wracked by drug violence and focus on education, social programs, and job creation to help young people avoid falling into the hands of criminal organizations.

A fresh approach is badly needed. In 2017, Mexico experienced its most violent year in terms of absolute number of homicides for two decades, a figure that spiked again in 2018 with over 34,000 killings. With police forces poorly paid, underequipped, and widely viewed as corrupt, the solution for recent governments has been to deploy the military to combat the country’s heavily armed drug cartels. For many, López Obrador’s campaign vision represented a genuine change in policy and perspective. But three months into his term, that vision has largely failed to materialize.

“Officially, the war is over,” the president, who took office in December 2018 following a landslide election victory last July, announced in a press conference Jan. 30. “We want peace, and we’re going to get peace.”

Yet just one day later, the National Regeneration Movement leader emulated his predecessors by dispatching Army and Navy troops to Tijuana, the border city across from San Diego, where gang wars—reportedly over control of local crystal meth sales—saw the city’s homicide rate reach a historic high last year with 2,518 murders.

López Obrador also disappointed many sympathizers by proposing legislation to ramp up the militarization of Mexico’s crime-fighting forces even further. Days after taking office, he submitted a bill to Congress to create a new militarized police force called the National Guard, which human rights groups and security analysts warned could set a dangerous precedent in terms of the constitutional powers granted to the country’s armed forces.“Communities that have been greatly affected by violence in Tijuana often see police as perpetrators of violence and instruments of criminal groups.”

Mexico’s war on crime is far from over. And while López Obrador’s proposed constitutional reform was blocked by the senate Feb. 21, the path to police reform and safety for civilians remains fraught with obstacles.

A decade ago, the city of Tijuana was one of the principal battlegrounds for Mexico’s cartels. Not only did the bodies pile up, but they were also hung from public bridges on busy thoroughfares as gangs sought to outdo each other in spectacular acts of brutality. Tourism dried up rapidly. The local economy was shattered. In 2007, then-President Felipe Calderón of the center-right National Action Party controversially deployed Army and Navy troops, along with heavily armed federal police, to reel in the gangs.

With this policy, Calderón instigated the current incarnation of the country’s so-called drug war, involving unprecedented numbers of federal troops and military involvement, a policy that continued under his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto of the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party. Yet with only 6.8 percent of crimes, from car theft to murder, reported to authorities, Mexico’s real war has always been against impunity, the inability of criminal justice institutions to protect citizens and uphold the law, a legacy of decades of authoritarian rule and institutional decay.

“The position of Tijuana along the U.S.-Mexico border makes it a valuable asset for criminal groups, which include drug trafficking groups, but also those involved with human smuggling and human trafficking,” Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, a researcher at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego, told Foreign Policy. “While it is difficult to establish what groups operate where, we do know the criminal actors have changed in the last decade.

“Communities that have been greatly affected by violence in Tijuana often see police as perpetrators of violence and instruments of criminal groups,” she added, citing researchthat shows citizens are increasingly unwilling to report crimes to the police.

Mexico’s Congress on Thursday approved the creation of a 60,000-member National Guard to tackle the nation’s public security crisis, a force that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made a cornerstone of his plan to confront organized crime and curb soaring violence.

The vote capped months of legislative wrangling over the nature of the force and who would control it, with human-rights activists and civil society groups lobbying fiercely to limit the military’s influence on it and warning it could represent the further militarization of policing in Mexico.

In the end, Congress decided the National Guard would have an explicitly civilian, rather than military, character, with the new force lodged under the authority of the civilian Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection.

The makeup of the force would be a hybrid, combining officers from the Federal Police with members of the army and navy’s policing units. While military members of the force would be able to maintain their ranks, those accused of abuses would be tried in civilian courts. The force’s top commander could be a military official but would report to a civilian boss.

The near-unanimous vote in the lower house of Congress followed a unanimous vote on the same proposal in the Senate on Feb. 21. The proposal, which involves reforms to more than a dozen articles in the Mexican Constitution, still needs ratification by a simple majority of Mexico’s state congresses to go into effect.

Giving oversight of the force to a civilian authority helped assuage some critics who had worried that an overtly military National Guard would have represented the continuation of a failed strategy stretching back more than a decade.

In 2006, the president at the time, Felipe Calderon, declared an all-out war on drug traffickers and deployed the military to lead the battle. He pursued a strategy, continued by his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, of decapitating the groups by taking down their leaders.

But the approach helped to fragment large criminal enterprises into smaller, more violent groups, which branched out into a wider range of crimes. This increasingly complex criminal landscape has led to soaring violence: There were more homicides in Mexico last year than in any other year on record.

Mr. López Obrador initially campaigned on a promise to break from his predecessors by pulling the military off the streets and returning them to their barracks.

Shortly before he took office, he instead proposed the formation of a National Guard, under military command, that would be in charge of “preventing and combating crime” throughout Mexico.Soldiers patrolling last week in Acapulco, Mexico.CreditFrancisco Robles/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Soldiers patrolling last week in Acapulco, Mexico.

But some civil society groups argued Mr. López Obrador’s proposal amounted to yet another iteration of a failed strategy to deploy the blunt weapon of the military to fight crime. Critics noted that the military had a history of human-rights abuses and was not trained for the sort of neighborhood-level, serve-and-protect approach that the public security crisis in Mexico demanded.

Instead, civil society groups wanted the government to invest heavily in the nation’s police forces, and improve the ability of law-enforcement agencies to conduct thorough criminal investigations that result in convictions.

A day after Mr. López Obrador presented his proposal for creating the National Guard, the Mexican Supreme Court struck down a 2017 law that would have expanded and formalized the military’s policing powers.

But the plan approved by Congress on Thursday will allow the military to remain active in the public security fight while the National Guard is made fully operational. After a five-year transition period, the military will be pulled from the streets.

Mexico’s security secretary, Alfonso Durazo, said he hoped approval by the state legislatures would be completed within four months, after which the new force would begin. Its initial ranks would take shape by absorbing 18,000 Federal Police officers, 35,000 military police and 8,000 naval police.

By the end of the year, he said, he hoped to increase the force to 150,000 through intense recruitment and training. The force would be permanently deployed throughout the country.

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But some analysts said the force may not be large enough to win the security battle.

“This guard will soon face harsh reality and will be seriously challenged,” said Abelardo Rodríguez, a professor at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. The largest organized crime groups, he said, have tremendous firepower that has at times overwhelmed the Mexican armed forces.

The security secretary acknowledged the size of the force would be a fraction of what the country needs. Ideally, Mr. Durazo said, the National Guard would number at least 360,000.

“We are using what is available,” he said, “and trying to guarantee public security, hoping that in several years we will have a loyal, disciplined body that will serve as an example to the world.”

Some security analysts questioned whether the new entity would be radical enough break from the existing Federal Police — in composition, training and strategy — to alter the security situation.

“Operationally, it doesn’t change anything,” said Jaime López Aranda, a security analyst in Mexico City, noting that the National Guard would be another version of what Mexico has had for years: a hybrid model of civilian and military policing.

As for his assessment of whether the National Guard would have an impact on crime and violence, Mr. López Aranda responded: “Of course not. It’s the same people doing the exact same stuff.”

Source: Foreign Policy, NYTIMES

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