WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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10 Jan 2019 | Commentary

Mexico’s Proposed National Guard Would Solidify the Militarization of Public Security

Strengthening Military’s Role in Fighting Crime Puts Human Rights at Risk

In a troubling development for Mexico, the country’s new president seems intent on furthering the militarization of public security in Mexico that has marked the country’s security policies for over two decades.

During his successful campaign for president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for strengthening and professionalizing Mexico’s police and gradually withdrawing the Mexican military from public security tasks, a view also echoed by his Minister of Public Security Alfonso Durazo. However, in a marked departure from this position, López Obrador’s National Plan for Peace and Security, presented just weeks before he took office on December 1, proposes creating a National Guard made up of Military Police (drawn from the Army and Navy) and Federal Police agents, primarily under the control and supervision of the Ministry of Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, SEDENA).

Although the National Plan recognizes the lack of capacity and professionalization that mars Mexico’s police forces, rather than focus on police reform and ending Mexico’s reliance on the military as a domestic crime-fighting force, López Obrador’s administration would transfer policing functions to a military-led force. The proposed National Guard would assume the traditional duties of a civilian police force: preventing and combating crime, patrolling the streets, preserving crime scenes, detaining suspects, and assisting in criminal investigations. The current proposal also states that during the first three years of operation, the federal government will work to strengthen the capacities of Mexico’s civilian public security bodies so that they can reassume their main tasks.

Mexico has seen a version of this story play out before. As WOLA has reported previously, every Mexican president since José López Portillo (1976-1982) has promised that they would make police reform a priority in their efforts to strengthen the rule of law and combat crime in the country. However, in the absence of successful police reform, the same Mexican presidents also significantly expanded the role of the Mexican military in public security, arguing that the military was needed until a Federal Police force could fully assume its public security role.

López Obrador’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, began his presidency promising police reform and creating the military-trained Gendarmerie as a special force within the Federal Police. Yet he later promoted the Internal Security Law, which dramatically expanded the military’s policing powers, despite widespread concerns about the law’s lack of transparency, civilian oversight, and accountability mechanisms for human rights abuses committed by soldiers. While Mexico’s Congress approved the law in 2017, a year later the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

Notably, López Obrador’s proposal for creating a National Guard was presented just a day before the Supreme Court’s ruling. It appears that in order to avoid the same challenges in court that eventually eliminated Peña Nieto’s Internal Security Law, López Obrador’s plan proposes amending multiple articles of Mexico’s Constitution in order to legally establish the National Guard and solidify the Mexican military’s role in public security.

From January 8-11, Mexico’s Congress will hold a series of hearings to discuss the proposed National Guard and constitutional reforms with representatives of state and local governments, federal officials, civil society organizations, and experts. The Chamber of Deputies (Mexico’s lower house of Congress) will then convene a special session starting January 16 to vote on the reforms that would create the National Guard, while the Senate has yet to confirm a date for its vote. However, in a concerning move, López Obrador has already issued a call to recruit more than 21,000 members of the proposed National Guard, under the coordination of SEDENA and the Navy (Secretaría de la Marina, SEMAR). Doing so is highly troubling: it indicates his determination to create the National Guard regardless of the fact that the constitutional reforms have not yet passed Congress or been approved by the majority of state legislatures, as is required for them to take effect.

For over two decades, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has exposed the serious risks posed by the militarization of public security in Latin America and has advocated against the appropriation of U.S. assistance to meet such ends. In recent years, we have produced several reports and commentaries on the human rights concerns related to using the military in a policing role in Mexico and the need to strengthen Mexico’s civilian police forces.

In light of López Obrador’s proposed security plan and the hearings taking place in Mexico this week, we present the following concerns and observations regarding the proposal to create a National Guard in Mexico based on WOLA’s research and advocacy work on cases of grave human rights violations committed by Mexican soldiers:

The military and police are not interchangeable

A fundamental problem with the militarization of public security is that the armed forces are not trained to interact with the civilian population. Civilian police forces are trained to address threats to public security with the trust and cooperation of the people, with as little force as possible. In contrast, soldiers are trained to use force to overwhelm an enemy in combat situations, making them unfit to be in close contact with civilians.

In our November 2017 report, Overlooking Justice: Human Rights Violations Committed by Mexican Soldiers against Civilians are Met with Impunity, we found that applying soldiers’ military training to public security tasks has had grave consequences. For example, in one case we analyzed, the soldiers implicated in an extrajudicial execution “were carrying out the functions of the police from the state of Nuevo León’s Ministry of Public Security when they killed the victim. In the trial of this case—where soldiers were also accused of tampering with the crime scene—the soldiers argued that they lacked the training necessary to carry out public security functions.”

While Mexico’s current Military Police force receives police training, they are still soldiers who have been recruited and trained by the armed forces, and they are under military command. The current proposal for the National Guard makes clear that recruits will also be taught in military installations according to a curricula developed between SEDENA, SEMAR, and the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB), and the Ministry of Public Security (Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana, SSPC). While the National Guard will be trained on human rights, police functions, and use of force, concerns remain about the militarized style of the proposed force and its training.

There are other strong indications that the National Guard will have a predominantly militarized nature. Articles in the drafts approved by the Commission of Constitutional Issues in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies on December 21, 2018 state that while the National Guard will fall under the command of a civilian agency (the Ministry of Public Security), SEDENA will command the force as long as Mexico’s “emergency of violence and insecurity” continues. While the articles stipulate that there would be a five-year limit to SEDENA’s command of the National Guard, it’s hard to read this as something other than continuing to empower the armed forces to handle domestic security tasks.

As WOLA has extensively documented in the region, there are also wide-reaching concerns about the lack of civilian oversight over soldiers carrying out public security tasks (a problem seen in other Latin American countries with a high lack of accountability for Military Police abuse, such as Brazil). Mexico is one of the few countries in the region without a civilian defense minister, and the Mexican government has yet to establish strong mechanisms to ensure full civilian control over the military. (Indeed, the Mexican Congress’ main oversight role of the armed forces is approving their budget.) The proposed National Guard, even under SEDENA’s “temporary” five-year leadership, would grant additional power and discretion to the armed forces.

The militarization of public security in Mexico has not reduced violence and has led to grave human rights violations

For over a decade, the deployment of Mexican soldiers across the country to patrol streets and crack down on organized crime has not effectively reduced crime and violence in the country. Last year was the most violent year on record in Mexico, and the number of civilian fatalities in confrontations with security forces remains alarmingly high. Mexico’s most recent survey on victimization and perceptions of public security further shows that more Mexican households reported having at least one member who had been a victim of a crime. The survey also shows an increase in the number of Mexicans reporting feeling unsafe in their state, rising to 79.4 percent.  

The presence of Mexican soldiers on the streets has resulted in grave human rights violations. Since 2007, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) has received more than 10,000 complaints of human rights violations committed by Mexican soldiers. Between 2007 and June 2017, the CNDH issued 148 recommendations to Mexico’s armed forces for grave human rights violations, including documented cases of torture, forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, and unlawful use of force, among others.

In a recommendation issued in September 2018, the CNDH found members of the Military Police responsible for the arbitrary execution of two people in the context of confrontations that occurred in the town of Palmarito, Puebla on May 3, 2017. On that day, Military Police were patrolling the town and alleged “huachicoleros” (individuals involved in oil theft) attacked them, resulting in the death of six civilians and four soldiers. Days later, on May 10, a video was made public that showed a soldier executing a civilian involved in the confrontation, even though the victim had already surrendered and was lying on the ground.

The creation of a National Guard does not address weak accountability mechanisms for human rights violations and crimes committed by members of the military

Another concern about the current constitutional reform drafts is the lack of adequate measures for ensuring that human rights violations committed by members of the National Guard will be properly investigated and sanctioned.

According to the proposed constitutional reforms, crimes committed by active members of the new force will be investigated by the corresponding civilian authorities, while crimes involving military disobedience will be investigated by military authorities. However, there’s a big problem with this: civilian authorities have a poor record when it comes to investigating military human rights violations. Our research, based on official statistics provided by Mexican authorities, shows that between 2012 and 2016, 96.8 percent of military abuses investigated by the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PRG) remained unpunished.

We found that part of the problem is that the PGR does not investigate chain of command responsibility: that is, the potential liability of military superiors in cases of soldiers accused of committing crimes or human rights violations against civilians. This is particularly concerning in cases such as the massacre of 22 civilians at the hands of Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya, State of Mexico in June 2014, where the soldiers were operating under standing orders to “take out criminals in the darkness”.

Additionally, more often than not, civilian investigations into military abuses are slow, incomplete, and fail to produce the evidence needed for convictions in court. We also found that military authorities engage in practices that hinder civilian investigations, such as limiting civilian authorities’ access to testimony from the accused or key witnesses, and failing to investigate and sanction soldiers who tamper with crime scenes or give false testimony.

In its review of its judgements involving human rights violations committed by Mexican soldiers, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Inter-American Court) has highlighted that Mexico’s military should have no role in criminal investigations unless the crime solely involves violations of military discipline. However, military prosecutors and courts continue investigating human rights violations against civilians, arguing that they retain jurisdiction to open their own investigation in order to clarify whether the same events constitute military crimes.

The fact that both the Mexican military and civilian authorities can be carrying out parallel investigations into the same case at the same time can be severely problematic, as embodied in the Tlatlaya case. A major problem with this case was that military authorities had access to the crime scene as well as soldiers’ testimonies before civilian authorities. A surviving witness and victim of the massacre—Clara Gómez—was not formally recognized as a victim and party to the case by military authorities. She had to file a constitutional complaint in order to gain access to the military’s case file, which contained relevant information for the investigation that had not been shared with civilian officials.

Such shortcomings have allowed the Tlatlaya case to remain in impunity for over four years. Of the seven soldiers who eventually faced trial in a military court on charges related to military discipline, six out of seven were acquitted, while one was sentenced to just a year in prison for “disobedience.” In the civilian investigation, none of the soldiers implicated have been held accountable. On two occasions, federal judges have found that the PGR failed to pursue necessary lines of investigation in the case.

The creation of the National Guard also fails to address the lack of accountability within the police

Internal and external controls over Mexico’s police, including the Federal Police, remain weak, while human rights violations by these forces are widespread. In May 2006, police repression of a protest resulted in the arbitrary detention, sexual torture, and other human rights violations against 11 women from the town of San Salvador Atenco, State of Mexico. Based on the lack of progress in the Mexican government’s investigation into the case, it was reviewed by the Inter-American Court, which in November 2018 ruled in favor of the victims and held the Mexican government responsible for the human rights violations against the women.

As part of its judgement, the Court called on the Mexican government to establish a federal-level independent observatory charged with monitoring the use of force of Federal Police and police in the State of Mexico. With the participation of civil society, the observatory will also be responsible for providing follow-up to policies established to increase police accountability.

Members of the National Guard may hinder criminal investigations

The proposal for the National Guard would grant the new force the ability to secure crime scenes, detain suspects, and assist public prosecutors in criminal investigations. This is highly concerning given that soldiers and Federal Police agents have been involved in multiple cases involving obstruction of justice or tampering with evidence.

The CNDH has documented numerous cases of military abuse in which soldiers either gave false testimony or altered the crime scene, including by planting weapons and drugs or by moving victims’ corpses.

The CNDH has also documented similar actions in cases involving the Federal Police. In the case of the armed confrontation between Federal Police agents and civilians on a ranch in Tanhuato, Michoacan in May 2015 that resulted in the killing of 43 individuals (42 civilians and one Federal Police agent), the Commission found that 22 individuals were arbitrarily executed and four were killed as a result of excessive use of force. It also found that two detainees were tortured and that Federal Police had altered the crime scene and planted weapons on 16 of the victims.

A militarized National Guard will not solve Mexico’s problems of violence, insecurity, and impunity

Before it was ruled unconstitutional, the Internal Security Law was widely criticized by security experts, national and international human rights organizations, and regional and international human rights bodies, as it further legalized the participation of Mexican armed forces in public security tasks and failed to implement any additional controls or oversight mechanisms. Many of these same bodies, including the CNDH, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the members of the #SeguridadSinGuerra collective, have all expressed significant concerns about the current proposal for the National Guard.  

Moreover, in its November 2018 ruling on the case of the enforced disappearance of members of the Alvarado family that occurred in the context of military operations in Chihuahua in 2009, the Inter-American Court again reiterated that maintaining public order and citizen security should be the primary responsibility of civilian police forces and that any use of the armed forces should be “a) extraordinary; b) subordinated and complementary to the work of civilian forces; c) legally regulated and with use of force protocols… and d) supervised by competent, independent and technically capable civil bodies.”

WOLA recognizes the significant security challenges facing Mexico. We also recognize the support the armed forces have provided the police for over a decade, as well as past governments’ failures to effectively strengthen and professionalize the police. However, we believe that the best way to address insecurity in Mexico and to combat criminal organizations is to strengthen civilian police institutions and conduct serious investigations that end in convictions.

Rather than amending the Mexican Constitution to solidify the military’s role in public security, the López Obrador administration should develop a strategy for the gradual removal of the Mexican armed forces from public security, strictly limit in both time and function their participation in any public security tasks, and invest the resources needed to create strong, rights-respecting civilian police institutions that are able to prevent and combat crime with the trust of the Mexican population.

Read WOLA’s resources on concerns regarding the militarization of public security in Mexico: