Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is struggling to confront organized crime groups despite increased reliance on the armed forces, whose involvement in serious human rights abuses has become evermore clear in recent months.
On October 4, Mexico’s Senate voted to extend the presence of the Army on the country’s streets until 2028, lengthening the period during which the institution’s soldiers will act as a public security force.
The move comes amid renewed dependence on the military by the government. Zacatecas saw 500 troops sent to the northern state in September alone, as state and municipal police struggled to contain cartel-driven violence.
Prior to arriving to the presidency, López Obrador had criticized former presidents for using the military to fight organized crime and vowed to return the Army to its role as the protector of national sovereignty. He instead turned to the National Guard, a public security force originally intended to be under civilian control, to pacify the nation’s streets. He stated his “hugs not bullets” approach to crime prevention would help reconfigure criminal dynamics for the better.
But in September, he announced that he had changed his mind. The Army must remain the frontline force to fight the country’s highly developed drug trafficking groups, he said. In the face of an almost unceasing rise in homicides, an untenable national police force, and the National Guard still not ready to step up, President López Obrador has returned to a security policy identical to that of his predecessors.
At the moment, however, the armed forces are embroiled in one of the country’s most notorious cases of institutional brutality, further calling its credibility into question.
Eight years after the deadly night in Iguala, Guerrero, when 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared, the government-led Commission for Truth and Access to Justice in the Ayotzinapa Case (Comisión para la Verdad y Acceso a la Justicia en el caso Ayotzinapa – CoVAJ) published its final report in August.
The exhaustive investigation outlined collusion between members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, the military, local police forces, and government officials in the kidnap, disappearance, and murder of all 43 students. The Commission found that at least one member of the armed forces had infiltrated the student group that night, and that members of the armed forces had real-time access to events as they unfolded on the ground yet did nothing.
Alejandro Encinas, the government official leading the commission, also said that some of the students were handed over to the Army while still alive before a local commander ordered them killed and disappeared.
Parents of the missing students had long demanded authorities investigate the role of the military in the crime. In presenting the report’s finding, Encinas was clear: It was “a state crime,” he said.
Some action is finally being taken. Jesús Murillo Karam, the Attorney General at the time of the tragedy, was arrested, though a judge has since suspended his case. José Rodríguez, a retired general and former commander of the 27th Infantry Battalion, based in Iguala during the time of the massacre, was arrested alongside two other soldiers. Rodríguez, the first high-level member of the military to be arrested, is accused of ordering the murder of six of the students originally kept alive for several days, the Truth Commission found.
A total of 83 arrest warrants related to the case were handed out in August. Twenty of these were against military personnel, according to local media. But a month later, following alleged threats from the Defense Ministry (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional – SEDENA) to take the Army off the streets, 16 warrants against military members were dropped in a move that the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Center PRODH) described as “extremely unusual.”
The military has traditionally stood apart from Mexico’s other security forces. Unlike the corruption-riddled municipal police forces, the Army remains well-trusted by the public. Contrary to the National Guard, which has its own corruption problems, it has a long history. It is seen as dependable, and has been given many more responsibilities under President López Obrador as a result.
Despite assurances from the president that the National Guard would remain a civilian-led institution, and despite its civilian nature being enshrined in the Mexican Constitution, the Defense Ministry was handed control of the National Guard and its public security duties were amplified.
Yet the Army is not a crime-fighting force.
“The use of the armed forces [to combat cartels] has become the new normal. The National Guard continues to grow in size and budgets despite the majority of the forces still being drawn from the Army and Navy despite not having the appropriate training for this kind of mission,” Craig Deare, an academic specializing in national security affairs, told InSight Crime.
Mexico’s armed forces have been involved in massacres and financial crimes. The Army has struggled to quell its own human rights abuses as it confronts drug trafficking organizations, and has been involved in an “alarmingly high number of civilian casualties,” according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“When significant elements of the armed forces are placed in those non-military roles to perform an essential police function — for which they are not trained — human rights abuses will become more likely and levels of corruption will likely increase,” Deare said.
In spite of these concerns, which have been voiced by various human rights institutions, the Army maintains its role as Mexico’s primary public security force. The president, once such a critic of the militarization of the nation, is treading a well-worn path.
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