In a meeting with activists and civic groups in Monterrey, representatives from Mexico’s military revealed their concerns, expressed their distrust of civilian authorities and social movements, and their desire to participate 'alone' in the drug war
According to statements made by the military brass and recently in a meeting with activists and human rights defenders in Monterrey, it is clear that the military is no longer willing to remain silent as they did for many years. As never before, the Army openly expresses it’s desire to have more authority, speaks of the inability of civilian authorities to act against crime and shows it’s distrust of the nation’s police forces.
The concerns of the military are expressed in several proposals for legislative reforms of Mexico’s Homeland Security Act (Ley de Seguridad Interior), as well as general statements criticizing the infiltration of the police forces by organized crime and the corruption of authorities at all levels of government.
The distrust is such that the military has asked for the power to coordinate, command and control actions against organized crime with the new “single police” entities, and without the participation of any civilian authorities if necessary.
The “single police”, already approved by the federal legislature, requires that states in Mexico abolish separate state and municipal police entities and form a new single police force under one command responsible for all law enforcement duties in the state, with higher professional standards, pay and training, and theoretically more immune to corruption. However, municipal administrations throughout the country have been reluctant and have dragged their feet in what they see as a loss of power to the states and federal authorities.
Another controversial amendment that shows the military’s unease with it’s new role would categorize social movements as "security threats”.
In addition, Sedena, Mexico’s Defense Ministry, has received a 13.3 billion peso supplemental to the defense budget to pay for the formation of 18 to 20 specialized “narco” battalions composed of 600 men each and trained in urban combat and police procedures and to be used in the fight against drug cartels. One of the goals of the training these units will receive will be to lessen collateral damage and innocent civilian deaths.
These units will be stationed in the states of Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Coahuila, Sonora, Durango and Sinaloa for the next four years and will take over the fight against organized crime as the “single police” forces are implemented in the states.
We have already seen a preview of the force these units will bring to the fight with the use of a 600 man Marine unit to eliminate one of the top capos of the Gulf Cartel in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, and with current Marine operations in the border cities of Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña in Coauhila.
What remains to be seen is if these units will be able to significantly deter cartel on cartel conflicts that are responsible for a majority of the deaths since the start of Calderon’s offensive in 2007.
The escalation of the Zeta-CDG conflict after the recent Marine operations that lead to the death of a top CDG capo, Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, has already resulted in outbursts of violence in Reynosa, Ciudad Mier, Tampico and Veracruz, in spite of the military’s presence.
As we have seen up to now, the use of the military at the forefront of the war against the drug cartels impacts the civilian population
The Army has been responsible for tragic errors that have claimed innocent lives and it is whispered that some units have participated in extra-judicial disappearances and killings, excessive use of force, torture and arbitrary arrests.
In one notorious case of collateral deaths, two students died during a clash between soldiers and organized crime gang members at the Tecnologico de Mexico campus in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, on March 19 of this year. During the investigation it was found that evidence at the scene was altered and only the military had immediate access to the area that was cordoned off for hours.
It is also troubling that many civilian collateral casualties are reported in military operations such as in Matamoros this past weekend where up to 50 deaths were reported by journalists. These high numbers have also been reported previously in other battles invloving military operations in Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo but they are impossible to verify.
Despite all this, the Army has an excellent reputation in Nuevo Leon and one confirmation of this is that it is the state with the most anonymous tips against criminals addressed to the military.
The majority of Nuevo Leon’s citizens do not trust their police, but they trust the military. In Nuevo Leon, at least three municipalities have had to be occupied temporarily by the Army and another ten have had military officers placed as police chiefs
The "Bridge" with civilians
All this exposure to civil society as the Army ventures out of the barracks has opened the eyes of many in the military and has led to a beginning of open expression and dialogue in what is a reclusive institution.
Now, for the first time in the history of the Defense ministry, the Army is seeking contact with civil society through the Citizen Liaison Unit. This office was created in June of this year and is rooted in a commitment made by the Army to the Congress in September 2009.
On Friday 22 October, a civic group named Puentes Centro Internacional para la Cultura de Paz (Bridges International Center for the Culture of Peace) whose mission is to build “bridges for dialogue”, convened a group of local activists for a dialogue with the army’s Citizen Liaison Unit.
(Some activists did not attend the seminar due to suspicions that the “Puentes” group may be a government front and the lack of an open call to all of civil society- during the seminar the army photographed and videotaped all attendees)
The meeting addressed various issues such as human rights violations, military courts and legal reforms that Sedena is requesting.
When one of the attendees asked "You are on the side of government, but are you sure the government is on your side?", the military responses were revealing, due to the fact that most of the criminals they capture and hand over to ministerial (investigative) or judicial authorities are released for lack of evidence or complicity with organized crime.
A senior official responded, "If this is happening it is because at some point the State was overwhelmed, their ability to deal with the situation was exceeded and that is why we are here, because we had to come together. "
The general of the Fourth Military Region (encompassing Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and San Luis Potosi), Guillermo Moreno Serrano, said that the Army holds weekly meetings with local authorities, but that only works with them when there are adequate "levels of confidence."
“And if not, we prefer to work alone,” added the general.
The Army had never before dared to make clear the level of the State's inability to cope with organized crime, or it’s distrust of civil authorities.
In Nuevo León no municipal administration or police force is free from infiltration by organized crime, and that is costing the military time, effort and lives. The deaths of soldiers in clashes are increasingly common.
This year the Sedena has had to significantly increase its presence in the Northeastern Mexico, due to the Zeta-CDG cartel war.
In March, 2000 soldiers were sent to the Seventh Military Region based in Escobedo, Nuevo Leon, and the Eighth Military Region based in Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
In April, Nuevo León received another motorized battalion of 600 troops to protect municipalities located on the border with Tamaulipas.
Earlier this year, the municipalities of Los Ramones and Los Herrera were taken over by the Army due to the complete absence of civilian authorities.
Is Democracy safe?
Statements by the military like those above validate their proposals to handle security operations, but at the same time, the new powers the Army is asking for would would allow it to make decisions that are conferred by law and by popular vote to civil authorities.
In short, the military would take over the responsibilities of politicians and public servants and the danger is that this may lead to the militarization of a State unable to be governed by civil laws.
And yet, what other alternative is there to the increasing demands by Mexico’s citizens for security? How can Mexico’s democracy continue to mature in the face of such ungovernability and lawlessness?
One way to address this dilemma and preserve democratic institutions is to understand that the solution to the crisis of drug trafficking is to not only inject resources to the military and police but to adopt a comprehensive approach.
According to the president of the National Defense Comission in the federal House of Deputies, Ardelio Vargas Fosado,"at the same time we are allocating more resources to security, we must also be allocating equal or greater resources to the areas of education, employment generation and development”.
"It is the lack of job opportunities and personal development for youth that drives many of them to, in desperation, first commit common law crimes and then enlist in the cartels."
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