Mexico: terror and “terrorism”

A little-noticed security reform in Mexico threatens a major erosion of liberty by exploiting public fear to introduce a sweeping definition of “terrorism”.

Alejandro Garcia de la Garza
20 February 2014
Woman on peace demonstration in Mexico

Real fears--a woman at an anti-violence demonstration in Mexico City. Flickr / Oscar Ocelotl Aguirre. Some rights reserved.On February 11, the Mexican Senate approved reform of the laws concerning terrorism. The bill will soon reach the desk of the president, Enrique Peña Nieto, to be ratified—a likely outcome, since he initiated the proposal last June.

The reform envisages jail terms of 15 to 40 years and fines from 27,000 to 80,000 pesos (roughly US$2,045 to $6056) for those who use chemical, biological or radioactive weapons or arms of any other kind to carry out acts that seek to generate fear among the population. The bill states that this punishment will be applied to those who “intentionally commit actions affecting public or private goods or services against the physical or emotional integrity of people, or their lives, that cause alarm, fear or terror in the population or in a group or sector of the population, that threaten national security or pressure the authorities or individuals to make a determination.” If the so-called terrorist attack affects publicly accessible property or the national economy or if hostages are taken, the penalty will be increased by half.

A linked proposal to eliminate article 139 of the Federal Penal Code raises fear of abuses. It currently stipulates that “manifestations made by social groups in the exercise of human, social or constitutional rights, which do not threaten the rights or property of people or that do not have a purpose to pressure the authorities to make a determination in a particular way over a demand, shall not be considered as terrorist actions.”


The two leftist political parties in Mexico, the PRD and PT, have been the only groups to oppose the reform. Among their concerns was a fear that legitimate social protests and manifestations could be criminalised under the pretext of security. The language used does not make a clear distinction between those with a legitimate right to protest and terrorists.

Now back in office after 12 years, President Peña Nieto’s party, the PRI—or Institutional Revolutionary Party—ruled Mexico for over 70 years in what was called “the perfect dictatorship”. Dispersing social manifestations was a favoured tool for persecuting opposition and old fears of uncontested PRI power have resurfaced. But the reform may be a way to gain favour with Mexico’s northern partners and Peña Nieto met the US president, Barack Obama, and the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, on February 19 in Toluca.

Many Mexicans had expected the Obama administration to take a more sympathetic position on migration. Far from it: according to the Mexican National Institute on Migration, 2013 saw over 333,000 Mexicans deported from the US. The relationship between the two countries has been tainted not only by the unregulated movement of people across the border but by the trafficking of drugs from Mexico—and of American guns, coming the other way, with which the drug cartels have been arming themselves.

During the summit, Obama’s focus was on increasing co-operation among Canada, the US and Mexico to increase prosperity and commerce in the region. While energy reform was one of the main areas of focus, security also played an important role, with Obama saying that reforms were urgent but co-operation was excellent.

The language used does not make a clear distinction between those with a legitimate right to protest and terrorists.

Yet while the “war on drugs” is being fought in Mexico (and across Latin America) under strict instructions and financing from the US, the latter is simultaneously the major consumer of drugs and the biggest exporter of weapons. At the same time and in sharp contradiction, there is a trend towards legalisation of marijuana at state level in the US.

The “war on terror” similarly has quite different resonances in the two neighbours, from the way it is fought to who the “enemy” is supposed to be. With such a vague definition in the Mexican security reform, the new law could be used to advance political agendas, suppress social manifestations, persecute opposition parties or individuals and silence critics. A different and clearer definition of the challenge is required for a country plagued by cartel violence, where murder, extortion and public displays of violence are a daily occurrence.

Mexicans lives in a constant state of terror—where rivals and victims of the cartels are found tortured and dismembered, where the police and military are responsible for human-rights abuses and where civilian groups have taken up arms to protect themselves. It’s just not the one addressed in the new law.

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