WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

Illustration: Sergio Ortíz Borbolla

6 Sep 2023 | Press Release

Militarization Without Civilian Controls Puts Human Rights at Risk in Mexico – WOLA Launches New Report

The report Militarized Transformation is available in Spanish here.

The abridged report in English is available here.


Washington, D.C., September 6, 2023 – In a context of increasing militarization within and outside the realm of public security in Mexico, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) calls for strengthening civilian controls over the armed forces in its new report: Militarized Transformation.

Among the main findings: the Ministry of Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Sedena) informed WOLA that it does not register its arrests in the National Detention Registry (Registro Nacional de Detenciones, RND), a tool created in 2019 to protect human rights, in which Sedena is required by law to participate. Statistics provided to WOLA appear to show significant under-reporting on military detentions in the RND registry.

This is not the only example of how Sedena disregards legal obligations. Others that have come to light in recent months include the use of the malware known as Pegasus to spy on activists and the concealment of information in the Ayotzinapa case.

“The Mexican government is giving more and more power to institutions known precisely for their lack of transparency, and it is doing so without adequate civilian controls, in a process that will be difficult to reverse,” warns Stephanie Brewer, WOLA’s director for Mexico. “Power without checks and balances is a high-risk path for human rights.”

While the federal government often claims that human rights violations are a thing of the past, data collected in the report on topics such as torture and the use of force point to abuses by federal forces, including the country’s young National Guard, during the current administration. WOLA also notes that practices such as altering crime scenes have been documented in alleged arbitrary executions by the military under the current government.

“It’s essential to move towards demilitarization and consolidating civilian institutions,”  highlights Brewer. “But as long as the military is deployed in policing tasks, the armed forces require robust transparency and accountability mechanisms. There are concrete steps the government should take to establish and strengthen those civilian controls.”

Among the report’s recommendations to improve security and justice in Mexico, WOLA stresses the need to strengthen the capacities and accountability of the country’s police institutions, as well as to improve the results of criminal investigations. The report highlights that impunity remains the norm.

Although President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and members of his cabinet have sought to convey the message that the judicial branch is the institution responsible for impunity in Mexico, data show that the vast majority of crimes are not brought before a judge. 

Regarding the role of the United States, WOLA identifies three major areas where U.S. or bilateral policies need to advance to improve security and the rule of law: 

  1. Leaving behind the so-called “war on drugs” model;
  2. Significantly reducing the widespread availability in the United States of firearms that are trafficked into Mexico;
  3. Ending measures that seek to externalize U.S. border control into Mexico, which place migrants at risk.

WOLA calls on the United States to avoid any action that would reinforce a military approach to security in Mexico. 

WOLA is a research and advocacy organization that has been promoting human rights in the Americas for nearly 50 years. In its work on Mexico, WOLA advocates for both the Mexican government and U.S. foreign policy to prioritize the protection of people’s rights, the rule of law, and the consolidation of capable and accountable civilian institutions. WOLA has closely monitored the effects of the militarization of public security in Mexico for decades, particularly during the administrations of Presidents Ernesto Zedillo, Vicente Fox, Felipe Calderón, Enrique Peña Nieto, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

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