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13 Dec 2017 | Commentary

By Strengthening Military’s Role in Fighting Crime, Mexico’s Proposed Security Law Will Worsen Human Rights Abuses and Harm Transparency

* On December 15, the Mexican Congress approved the Internal Security Law and sent it to President Enrique Peña Nieto, who enacted the law on December 21. 

On November 30, 2017, Mexico’s lower house of Congress passed a proposed Internal Security Law (Ley de Seguridad Interior) and sent it to the Senate for a vote. In response to public outcry from civil society, human rights and security experts, and national and international human rights bodies, on December 8, President Enrique Peña Nieto called on the Senate to engage in serious dialogue with opponents of the law and to consider their concerns before voting on the bill. Despite the president’s request, the Senate will likely vote on the bill tomorrow and send it to the lower house of Congress for its final approval by the end of the current legislative session on Friday, December 15.

If approved, the law would further militarize public security in Mexico and limit civilian oversight of the military, allowing soldiers to intervene in any situation deemed a threat to the “interior security of the country.” In its current version, the law fails to present a plan to gradually withdraw the armed forces from their current prominent role in combating organized crime. The more Mexico relies on its military, the less incentive there is to strengthen and professionalize the civilian police forces who are charged with carrying out public security tasks.

In this context it is important to remember that soldiers and police officers are not interchangeable. The armed forces are equipped for combat situations and are trained to use force to overwhelm an enemy. Police are trained to interact with the civilian population and to combat crime and threats to public security with the trust and cooperation of the people, using as little force as possible.

The results of the Mexican government’s decision in 2006 to deploy soldiers across the country to patrol streets and crack down on organized crime are clear. Eleven years later, 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. The CNDH has also issued over 140 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.

Over a decade after what was originally present as a “temporary” measure, and despite rising violence and ongoing accusations of human rights violations committed by soldiers, Mexico’s armed forces continue to participate in law enforcement operations. To the detriment of human rights, the Internal Security Law threatens to further expand and cement the military’s role in public security.

Among the most troubling aspects of the Internal Security Law are:

1) Lack of oversight and no plan for withdrawal: The law does not outline adequate procedures which would allow civilian authorities to monitor the actions of soldiers carrying out public security tasks, or to investigate cases of military abuse. It also fails to present a plan to professionalize civilian police forces and gradually withdraw soldiers from the streets.

2) Ambiguity: The law uses vague terms like “actions, risks, and threats to interior security” that broaden the types of situations in which soldiers can respond. While the law passed by the lower house of Congress allowed the military to intervene in protests not considered “peaceful,” the Senate is currently debating modifications that would restrict soldiers from intervening in certain protests deemed permissible in accordance with the Mexican Constitution. However, the vagueness of the law will still allow the military to determine whether or not a protest is permissible, presenting a serious risk to freedom of expression and the right to protest in Mexico.

3) Lack of transparency: Any information related to the enforcement of the Internal Security Law will be considered confidential, as it is deemed relevant to national security and thus exempt from disclosure to the public. This will make it difficult to monitor and document the consequences of the military’s presence on the streets. The National Institute of Transparency (Instituto Nacional de Transparencia), the federal agency which upholds Mexico’s freedom of information request laws, has said that the Internal Security Law goes against transparency principles, and would allow authorities to block information requests about the law’s implementation “without analysis.”

4) Human rights concerns: Before 2006, on average the CNDH registered 190 civilian complaints and would issue two recommendations per year on military abuse. After 2006, these numbers skyrocketed to an average of 1,075 complaints and 14 recommendations per year. According to a recent study by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), 97 percent of the cases investigating abuse by the military within the federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) fail to secure a conviction. Cementing the military’s role in fighting crime would further expose Mexicans to increased human rights violations, and would fail to address the widespread impunity that persists for these crimes.

The Internal Security Law would do little to combat crime in Mexico:

1) The best way to address insecurity in Mexico and to combat criminal organizations is to conduct serious investigations that end in convictions and to strengthen civilian police institutions. Police and prosecutors’ offices, not soldiers, are qualified to interact with the population to prevent crime and violence and to carry out investigations and legal prosecutions.

2) Reducing violence requires combatting the widespread corruption that allows criminal organizations to operate, often in collusion with members of Mexico’s security forces and public officials. To date, the Mexican government has failed to fully implement its National Anti-Corruption System and it is blocking efforts to ensure investigations of high-profile corruption cases.

Civil society organizations request that the Mexican government:

1) Reject the version of the Internal Security Law that was approved in Mexico’s lower house of Congress and the modified version being discussed in the Senate. The Senate should refrain from rushing through a vote on the law, and should instead take time to consider the opinions and concerns of the civil society bodies, human rights experts, and international organizations that oppose it.

2) As was again raised today by the Mexico Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the CNDH, the Mexican government should open spaces for national dialogue about security in Mexico. This would mean engaging in open and inclusive conversations about the law and listening and responding to concerns by civil society and experts.

3) Debate the Internal Security Law as part of a series of integral reforms that diminish violence, insecurity, impunity, and corruption in Mexico. This should include efforts to professionalize the civilian police and to create an independent and autonomous National Prosecutor’s Office capable of effectively investigating and prosecuting crimes and abuses.

Click here for more resources on the Internal Security Law and the response of international, regional, and Mexican human rights bodies.