Ten years of militarised drug policies in Mexico: more violence and human rights violations

51 people die on an average day in Mexico's war on drugs. But neither drugs nor drug trafficking are decreasing, while human rights violations have soared.

Daniel Joloy
7 May 2017

A photographer with a subject in the city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, which has no regular police force. The Mexican army and federal police patrol the streets. Stefan Falke/Fronteras Desk/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Mexico decided over ten years ago to militarize their drug policies and rely on the armed forces to conduct counter-narcotic operations and other public safety tasks. The so-called “war on drugs” has taken since then a very real dimension in the country.

Shortly after taking power in December 2006, President Felipe Calderon ordered a military offensive against the country’s drug cartels that eventually involved tens of thousands of troops undertaking tasks that should normally be performed by civilian forces. In only a matter of days, more than 30.000 soldiers were deployed in different cities around the country. This number has grown to over 96,000 soldiers carrying out public security tasks. Keeping drugs away from Mexico’s children has been a central justification.

Keeping drugs away from Mexico’s children has been a central justification.

In addition, police corporations all across the country have adopted military techniques, training and equipment for the conduct of their daily activities, including counter-narcotic operations. Former or active military commanders are also in command of police corporations at different states or municipalities.

Since then, violence has spiralled and insecurity remains a source of intense concern. According to available information, more than 150.000 people have been killed since 2006, reaching an average of 51 people violently killed every day. However, it is not clear how many of these are directly related to organised crime and operations conducted by security forces. Moreover, since President Peña Nieto took office four years ago, the administration stopped informing how many of these deaths were committed by the armed forces, and it remains a classified information.

Yet, despite a heavy reliance on the armed forces and criminal law to stop the use of drugs and drug trafficking, neither of these has decreased over the years. Actually, the age of first consumption keeps decreasing, reaching now children as young as 11 years old. In addition, the associated risks and harms of using drugs have risen with a corresponding increase in human rights violations.

According to the National Commission on Human Rights, complaints of human rights violations against the armed forces rose more than 900% during the first three years of the “war on drugs” alone. Arbitrary detentions, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions are only part of the abuses that have been documented across the country.

The age of first consumption keeps decreasing, reaching now children as young as 11 years old. 

Torture and other ill-treatment have for decades played a central role in policing and public security operations by military and police forces across Mexico. Victims of torture and other ill-treatment are often forced to “confess” to being part of a drug cartel or involved in other crimes such as kidnapping or drug trafficking. At times, security forces torture detainees and plant evidence on them in order to obtain information about drug cartels or make them incriminate other detainees.

Torture and other ill-treatment are the second most commonly reported human rights violations before the National Human Rights Commission, only after arbitrary detentions. Reports of torture have shown a sustained increase since 2006. The Federal Attorney General’s office informed me that the number of complaints about torture filed at a federal level more than doubled between 2013 and 2014, from 1,165 to 2,403.

Women in detention are at particular risk of torture and other ill-treatment. The vast majority of women detained in federal prisons are first time offenders, mostly imprisoned for drug-related crimes. Women are perceived as the weakest link in the trafficking chain by the authorities, seen as an easy target for arrest as drug cartels often recruit women from marginalised backgrounds to carry out the lowest and most dangerous tasks.

In a survey conducted by Amnesty International with 100 women in detention, 72 were reported to have been subjected to some form of sexual violence during arrest, including, in many cases, the use of rape as torture. Out of all the women who reported the involvement of the army or the navy in their arrest, 80% reported being raped.

This is the case of Claudia Medina, a young woman from the state of Veracruz who was arrested by marines in 2012. After breaking into her house, they took her to the local naval base with her hands tied and blindfolded. There, she was tortured using electric shocks and beatings, and was later raped and left tied to a chair in the scorching afternoon heat. The next day, she was blindfolded again and transferred to the office of the prosecutor, where she was interrogated and pressured into signing a statement without being allowed to read it. She was accused of being part of a dangerous criminal gang caught with arms and drugs. All the evidence against her was fabricated and the authorities ignored her claims that she was tortured. She was acquitted and released years later, but no one has been prosecuted for these acts.

Of all the women who reported the involvement of the army or the navy in their arrest, 80% reported being raped.

Enforced disappearances have also soared since 2006. Thousands of people have disappeared or gone missing since the “war on drugs” began, many believed to have been abducted by criminal gangs. However, many enforced disappearances have been committed by the police and the military, sometimes acting in collusion with criminal gangs.

The initial wave of disappearances was much more marked in the northern states of Mexico, in the border with the US. But gradually, more and more cases have emerged in other states and it is now extended throughout the country. According to official figures, there are more than 30,000 people whose whereabouts remain unknown. Half of these disappearances have occurred during the last four years. While it is not clear how many of these were the victims of enforced disappearance in which the authorities have been involved, the response of the authorities has been completely flawed.

One of the most recent and emblematic cases is the enforced disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, in September 2014. Rural school teaching trainees were travelling to Mexico City from the southern state of Guerrero on five buses when they were stopped and shot at by police and other unidentified individuals. The students got off the buses to try to escape, but the attack continued and three people were killed. A number of students were detained and subjected to enforced disappearances. The authorities' “official” version has claimed that local police handled the students to a local gang who then burnt the bodies of the students in a local rubbish dump and then threw their ashes into a nearby river.

However, an investigation conducted by independent experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has proved that this theory is impossible, but we still don’t know the truth of what really happened, and the fate and whereabouts of the students remain unknown. Experts have suggested, as a line of inquiry, that one of the buses in which the students were travelling might have contained a large package of heroin to be trafficked to the US.

Children and young people have been particularly impacted by the militarised response to drugs in Mexico. Adolescents and young people have been engaged at all stages of the drugs supply chain, exposed to organised crime, sexual exploitation, violence and drug enforcement.

The fate and whereabouts of the Ayotzinapa students remain unknown.

Despite the authorities' justification (based on the welfare of children) the militarization of public security, combined with a zero-tolerance approach to drug use, have contributed to increased violations of the rights of children. Since the war on drugs began, there have been increased attacks on children and their parents, leaving thousands dead and tens of thousands orphaned. Even drug rehabilitation centres have been attacked, directly targeting young people who use drugs, and many schools have been caught in the crossfire, resulting in a significant drop in school attendance for fear of violence.

The killings have included cases where children have died at military checkpoints, such as that of the Almanza boys, killed by army forces in 2010 while the family was on their way to the beach for a holiday in the state of Tamaulipas. As they passed through the military checkpoint, they reduced their speed and soldiers allowed them through to continue their journey. But a few meters down the road, soldiers opened indiscriminate fire against the car they were traveling in, killing Bryan and Martin Almanza, aged five and nine.

Most of these cases remain shrouded in impunity. It is estimated that over 98% of all crimes committed remain unresolved, and estimates also suggest that complaints are only presented in around 20% of all crimes. Impunity for human rights violations is even worse.

When a complaint is lodged with the authorities, cases are rarely investigated and those responsible are almost never prosecuted, let alone brought to justice. The almost absolute impunity enjoyed by perpetrators acts as a strong incentive to commit more crimes and sends a message that the authorities tolerate such acts. Some families have told Amnesty International that the main reason they did not report human rights violations to the authorities because of a prevailing sense of fear, resulting from the complete lack of trust in the authorities and the widespread influence and collusion with organised gangs.

It is estimated that over 98% of all crimes committed remain unresolved.

President Peña Nieto has sought to draw a line with the previous administration and change course. During the campaign and first years in office, he promised to put an end to the “war on drugs”, reduce rates of violence and change the way in which drugs are regulated. But four years into his administration, little has changed. The army is still on the streets, violence has not decreased, and neither have human rights violations.

Of even greater concern is the fact that the administration has, for the past few months, been pushing a bill that would normalise the presence of the army in public security, particularly in the fight against drug cartels. If passed, the bill would allow the army to investigate crimes, collect evidence from crime scenes, conduct mass surveillance and even intervene in public demonstrations.

In this general context of violence and militarization, human rights defenders exposing all of these violations and demanding truth and justice, including victims and their families, have found themselves at the forefront of the attacks, both from organised criminal groups and the authorities. They have faced increased threats, harassment and intimidation. In some cases, human rights defenders have even been killed because of their pursuit of justice.

Human rights defenders have found themselves at the forefront of the attacks.

Mexican authorities have done little to protect human rights defenders and to fully guarantee the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations. Instead of recognising the crucial role played by them, the authorities have engaged in public defamation campaigns that delegitimize their work and put them at increased risk.

This is why projects like “Anyone’s child” are so relevant in today’s Mexico. Wider support from the international community of human rights defenders and victims of the “war on drugs” is another tool to increase their visibility and ensure their protection. It is precisely these type of efforts to boost international solidarity that can contribute to putting an end to this context of violence and promote a change in policy that ensures human rights are fully respected and protected.

This blog is adapted from a speech given by Daniel Joloy, Amnesty International, at the launch of the Anyone’s Child Mexico interactive documentary and has been republished from their website. Anyone’s Child have developed an interactive documentary with Mexican families living on the front-line of the global drug war. Discover how this war has failed in Mexico by listening to the stories of the families it affects most.

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