Mexico’s war on drugs: can you expect the military to function as police?

A side-effect of the war on drugs launched by President Calderon was to involve the army in carrying out police operations against gangs. However, this blurring of lines between both security institutions resulted in an increase in human rights violations.

Alejandro Garcia de la Garza
7 March 2012

Ever since President Felipe Calderon started the war on drugs in 2006, there have been a record number of arrests and drug seizures. In some areas, progress seems to have been made, but the violence that affects the country is still on the rise. The population, caught in the middle of the firefight, has been suffering not only from the cartels and organized crime groups, but also by the very authorities supposed to protect them. As the number of drug related murders seems to be decreasing, can it be said the war on drugs has yielded positive results?

According to published statistics, Mexico’s war on drugs has claimed the lives of 47,515 people since President Calderon launched the war on drugs in 2006. Calderon’s strategy since the beginning was to take organized crime head on, making the war on drugs a real fight.  With many of the local, state and federal police suspected of working for the cartels, as evidenced by numerous arrests and suspension within police forces, and no way to uphold the law, the president had to turn to the military, unleashing the armed forces on its own population. Politicians, desperate to clean up their act, tried purging the police forces, with the military taking up their functions as they made arrests of suspected police officers and took over the precincts.

Mexico’s army is well known for their relief efforts during natural disasters. But ever since they started fighting the war on drugs on the streets of Mexico, human rights violations have tarnished that reputation.  As José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch said, “Instead of reducing violence, Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country,”

Soldiers who commit human rights violations against civilians continue to be investigated and prosecuted under military jurisdiction, which means that victims of the abuses, their families and the population in general never find out about punitive measures taken against the perpetrators, if any.

With the military assuming functions that civilian forces should be carrying out, it comes as no surprise that problems between authorities and the population increase, and with them reports of human rights violations. The military was not designed to police cities, and when fighting an enemy wearing no uniform and mingled with civilians, casualties of war are bound to multiply; excessive use of force, wrongful arrest and prolonged detention, even cases of torture have also been reported. Civilian victims also include those who have been caught in the crossfire when the military and the cartels come face to face. Yet despite the increasing number of complaints about human rights violations carried out by the Mexican military, it is still one of the most trusted institutions as far as the people are concerned.

With elections coming up, many are skeptical about whether the situation will improve. Mexico’s public safety secretary, Genaro García Luna, states that violence and crime in Mexico have reached their peak, and will probably decrease in the next years. Waging a war on drugs against an enemy with a larger budget, no uniforms and following no rules is not an easy battle. Especially while the United States remains the world’s largest consumer.

Is there any hope in the near future? All candidates on both sides of the border make a point of saying that they will fight violence and crime if elected, but so far, no one has given any concrete details about how this will be done. Followers of the current president argue for prolonging his current policies; the opposition claims that this strategy is not working, yet offer no alternative. However, some regional leaders, politicians and intellectuals argue that by redefining drug policy, and thus eliminating the exorbitant profits of the criminals, many more deaths can be avoided. The strategy, they say, is not to fight the cartels head on, but to hit them in their pockets. But the debate over whether to legalize certain drugs or not is not likely to take up occupatiopn on the political agenda any time soon, especially with presidential elections coming up in both Mexico and the United States.

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