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Weekly Report - 14 May 2020 (WR-20-19)

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MEXICO: Military role in public security cemented

The Mexican military will bear the brunt of the government’s efforts to reduce violent homicides in the country, with all of the associated human rights concerns, for at least another four years, according to a presidential decree issued this week. This does not come as a surprise, especially as violent homicides have continued unabated since the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and security forces are hard put to take the fight to organised crime. But it is an indictment of the effectiveness of the national guard, announced with much fanfare in March last year by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was a fierce critic of the use of the military in public security while in opposition.

The decree, which was published in the official gazette on 11 May, states that the armed forces will carry out a complementary public security role alongside the national guard until 2024, the final year of President López Obrador’s six-year term. This ensures the continued militarisation of public security until López Obrador leaves office, which runs counter to his stated conviction while in opposition, as well as his government’s efforts to improve human rights in Mexico: the military has long been unaccountable for human rights violations.

  • Human rights

Several hundred protesters took part in demonstrations across Mexico to mark the ‘Día de las Madres’ on 10 May, while endeavouring to comply with social distancing requirements, to demand that the authorities search for missing family members. The United Nations (UN) country team in Mexico applauded the efforts of relatives of the ‘disappeared’ over the years and appealed to authorities to continue with the search for forcibly disappeared people in spite of the coronavirus pandemic “by means of specific actions that do not violate measures for the protection of public health”. President López Obrador announced last August that the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) would be invited to take part in the search for forcibly disappeared Mexicans in a mission scheduled for the second half of 2020. 

The public security ministry said the continued role of the military in public security was essential because the national guard was still “in the process of consolidation”. The national guard is overstretched, not least because it has had to play a big role in immigration, being deployed to Mexico’s northern and southern borders, which was not envisaged when it was conceived. The Covid-19 pandemic has also put a strain on the country’s various security forces; marines have been carrying out patrols in Ciudad de México (CDMX), for instance, due to the number of police in the capital having been struck down by illness or compelled to self-isolate.

Mexican security expert Alejandro Hope rejected these possible justifications for extending the military’s role in public security. Writing in the national daily El Universal on 12 May, Hope argued that the entire constitutional reform establishing the national guard was never about creating a new force to replace the military in the fight against organised crime and drug trafficking but rather “the institutionalisation of military participation in public security”. He said that “the heart of the constitutional reform was the fifth transitory article; the national guard was a cover for this objective”. The fifth transitory article allowed for the military to provide support for the national guard while it is consolidating, but this provides plenty of latitude for the military’s role to become open-ended.

Hope’s argument that there was no need to modify the constitution with this end in sight is plausible but to argue that the reform was exclusively about preserving the militarisation of public security rather than establishing a new force overlooks the vainglorious ambition of successive heads of state determined to leave their mark. López Obrador wanted his own force just as his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) wanted his. Peña Nieto’s grandly conceived gendarmerie, however, ended up being subsumed into the federal police (PF), which has now been superseded by López Obrador’s national guard. There is a strong chance that Mexico’s next head of state will create yet another militarised police force to replace the national guard, while the military will all the time keep performing its public security role.