The Mexican navy has taken on a major role in the country’s fight against organized crime, but, despite various high-profile successes, it increasingly faces accusations of committing abuses and failing to improve security in Mexico.
As part of his militarized strategy against organized crime, President Felipe Calderon has given the navy (Armada de Mexico or SEMAR) the task of combating the country’s drug cartels and improving public safety. Calderon’s decision to turn to the navy, widely viewed as Mexico’s most trustworthy force, came as the army faced accusations of human rights abuses, while the police were widely perceived as riddled with corruption. The navy had gained the reputation of being more trustworthy in part because it had not been highly involved in investigating organized crime. This meant that criminals had less incentive to try to penetrate the institution. It is also a smaller force, making it easier to control and maintain discipline.
The navy itself has been keen to distinguish itself from the other state forces involved in the battle against organised crime. “We work alone, we do not trust the police ... we are committed to the fight," a navy captain, who wished to remain anonymous, told Reuters news agency in 2009.
The navy is well-equipped to undertake its new duties, having acquired modern sophisticated weaponry and equipment. To meet its increased workload, it has added around 10,000 personnel since December 2006, including some 460 Special Forces troops. The strengthened navy has enjoyed significant successes, and has been part of operations to kill or capture a number of prominent drug lords.
The navy has benefited from a close working relationship with the U.S. military and anti-narcotics agencies. Indeed, it is alleged that navy Special Forces troops have been trained by their American counterparts. It was intelligence from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) which aided the navy in locating and killing drug lords Arturo Beltran Leyva and Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, alias "Tony Tormenta," two of the navy’s most high profile coups to date. The perceived success of navy operations has attracted praise from the U.S. After the December 2009 operation that resulted in Beltran Leyva's killing, U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual described the navy as a “key player in the counter-narcotics fight." The ambassador said that, unlike the navy, the army seemed “reluctant to act on good intelligence and conduct operations against high-level targets."
However, the navy's reputation as the cleaner force has recently taken some blows. Allegations have surfaced about·corruption within its ranks, and it has faced criticism from human rights group Amnesty International (AI). The organization said that the navy's increasingly prominent role in the fight against crime has coincided with an increase in human rights violations in Mexico. AI has called for Mexican authorities to investigate the disappearance of six people whose relatives claim were detained by the navy on June 5, during an operation in Tamaulipas state. The naval department has admitted that its troops "had contact" with the six but denies that they were detained.
Serious doubts are also being raised over whether the navy is really improving public safety in Mexico. Deaths related to organized crime are rising, and Calderon’s broader military strategy is coming under increasingly intense scrutiny.
The Mexican navy is certainly a more powerful force today than it was several years ago but may be losing its reputation as a trustworthy force. Like the army, it is accruing allegations of human rights abuses and corruption. In addition, its approach to fighting organized crime is increasingly appearing overly aggressive and counter-productive. At a ceremony commemorating Naval Day in June of this year, Calderon lavished praise on the navy, telling troops they are a source of national pride. With accusations of forced disappearances, and a 16 percent increase in deaths related to organized crime in 2011, many Mexicans may not agree.