On December 19, exactly three months after the earthquake that left over 360 dead in central Mexico, the iconic Arena México in Mexico City was gearing up for its regular Tuesday evening show. According to the event’s flyer, however, the night of lucha libre would be punctuated by a special event: an homage to “the Mexican heroes who participated in rescue missions” after the September 19th quake.
In a pause between lucha rounds, dozens of uniformed men and women marched into the arena in step with the Zacatecas March, played by the wind section of the National Defense Secretary band. While soldiers posed before the green, white, and red of the Mexican flag waving across huge LED screens, the celebration uplifted the military’s role as the genuine heroes of the disaster, sidelining the roles taken on by civilian rescue groups in the quake’s aftermath.
The act exuded all the grandeur of an army that had just been given sweeping powers to conduct military operations against its own population. More than just a commemoration, the display at Arena México tacitly acknowledged a concerning sign of army encroachment into civilian life.
Four days earlier, Mexico had adopted its Ley de Seguridad Interior, or Internal Security Law, which amends the constitution to enable the executive branch to grant certain police responsibilities to Mexican armed forces—a response that has become increasingly normalized since the beginning of Mexico’s Drug War in 2006. In 2017, Mexico registered the highest number of homicides since the drug war began. Rather than a panacea, however, the law stands to create new sources of terror for an already-terrorized population caught in the ongoing U.S.-backed drug war ravaging the region.
A Lesson in Seizing the Moment
The Senate Chamber had voted in favor of this contentious piece of legislation on Dec. 22, 2017. Championed by legislators from the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) and part of the Partido de Acción Nacional (National Action Party, PAN) as a measure necessary for combatting organized crime, the law stands to have broad-reaching impacts on human rights, security, and natural resources, acting as a gateway to deepen militarization.
The Internal Security Law allows the acting president to dispatch military units to conduct “domestic security activities,” overriding police authority in cases deemed a threat to national security. Article 16 of the law states that if domestic security threats pose a grave danger to citizens and government institutions, the president may order a military intervention at their discretion without consulting the legislature—though what constitutes “grave danger” is never defined by the Law.
Under this legislation, the armed forces can undertake public policing tasks for up to a year. Over this period, soldiers and marines will have full ability to plan and execute tactical operatives against “potential threats,” which could include civilians, and engage in their own intelligence-gathering procedures. The president may order an extension of military deployment for “as long as the threat to domestic security persists,” granting both the executive branch and armed forces a troubling ability to bypass constitutional protocols.
The Interior Security Law does not establish any legal oversight or accountability mechanisms, including any obligation to keep military records of such operations. This is especially perturbing given how PRI-backed surveillance practices such as Pegasus, a covert spying application that monitors phone usage, have already reportedly been used against Mexican journalists and human rights activists.
Though Mexico’s Internal Security Law was the subject of public deliberation for over a year, it was approved in record time last December, raising concerns of political opportunism. A marathon 12-hour debate in the Senate that wrapped up in the early hours of the morning of December 15, allowed the law to steamroll through the House of Representatives the very same day, leaving no time for public input on its modifications. Arriving alongside a post-quake surge in public support for the military, the law passed just before the legislature was set to adjourn for the winter holidays.
A small protest broke out near Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes after the announcement of the law’s passage. However, remarkably few mobilizations have taken place since its approval save for a march led by the militant teachers union, the CNTE, in Chiapas. This could be due in part to a lack of governmental transparency; a poll conducted just days before the law passed found that only 42% of Mexico’s population knew of its existence.
Militarization: a Repetitive Exercise in Failure
The militarization of Mexico’s policing strategy represents an expanding threat to civilians grappling with the effects of the regional drug war. More than a decade has passed since then-President Felipe Calderón declared the War on Drugs in 2006, and Mexicans are understandably desperate for solutions to curb the spectacular displays of violence which permeate the country. The fact that 2017 set Mexico’s historic record for homicides along with reports of cartels fragmenting and encroaching into new territory has left many on edge. However, the government’s proposed fix only doubles down on tactics that have exacerbated the problem.
While U.S.-supported Mexican military spending and troops on the ground has increased, so too have violent deaths. Since 2008, when the United States began dedicating funds to Mexico’s Drug War via the Mérida Initiative, approximately 640,700 Mexican troops have been deployed to engage in public security missions, according to data compiled by the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH). By 2015, Mexican military funding had increased by $5.3 billion USD, while violent deaths have tripled.
If the goal in replacing police with armed forces is to reduce crime, then the tactic itself has already proven ineffective. In places where the military has conducted policing operations, local homicides have been shown to grow by 9%, as stated in a report by the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights (ProDH) Center.
Despite these findings, calls for military escalation have persisted from various sectors. Department of Defense head General Salvador Cienfuegos has publicly demanded a law regulating military involvement in security operations as far back as 2016. The deployment of well-armed military units has been publicly framed as the appropriate response to criminal organizations with access to equally deadly weaponry, especially given the widespread reputation of police as corrupt and inefficient. This framing has been successful: though public opinion is divided over a complete military takeover of police responsibilities, two separate polls found that between 59 and 68 percent of the population, respectively, support measures like this.
The Law and its Discontents
A gamut of critics including the UN Commission on Human Rights, Mexican celebrities, and over 240 victims’ and human rights groups have spoken out about the dangers of increased militarization in Mexico as part of the #SeguridadSinGuerra (Safety Without War) coalition. Though public protests have been relatively less common, these groups are determined in their opposition online. #SeguridadSinGuerra has been especially outspoken through its social media hashtag about the law’s unconstitutionality, inefficiency, and dangers to civil society. “The currently approved Internal Security Law does not respect the Constitution,” the coalition’s website reads, urging visitors to sign a petition asking President Enrique Peña Nieto to veto the legislation. “It threatens human rights; it does not resolve issues of insecurity; it legalizes a security strategy that has failed over the last decade.”
Activists have hit the crux of what makes Mexico’s Internal Security Law so disquieting. Rather than a dramatic departure from inefficient security practices, it legally codifies ten years of disastrous de facto military policing.However, these operations were never legally sanctioned nor granted such widespread application until now. Critics and activists maintain that cementing these abilities into law will only allow the rampant human rights abuses connected with these military operatives to continue with greater impunity.
“This strategy [of militarization] has turned serious crimes, including forced disappearances, torture, murder, and arbitrary detention, into policy, wherein these crimes remain completely unprosecuted,” José Antonio Guevara Bermúdez, executive director of the CMDPDH, wrote.
One such unprosecuted case is that of Juan Carlos Soni Bulos, founder of the Huasteca Potosina Indigenous Culture Academy, which supports the rights of Tenek Indigenous groups in San Luis Potosí. Local marines arbitrarily detained and tortured Juan Carlos, along with three others in November 2013. The group was charged with possession of illicit substances and military-grade weaponry and incarcerated for almost a year and a half.
Though charges against the group were eventually dropped, no one has been prosecuted in connection with their abuse and unfounded arrest. Like many who have experienced the effects of military policing firsthand, Juan Carlos is uneasy about the new law. “I don’t think militarizing the country is the right strategy in fighting insecurity,” he told me. “Instead of reducing violence and insecurity, we’ve only seen an increase.”
According to the ProDH Center report, Juan Carlos’s case is just one of 10,751 complaints filed between 2007 and 2017 against the military for violations such as illegal use of force, torture, arbitrary execution, and forced disappearances—only a tiny fraction of which faced prosecution. Last year’s Global Impunity Index found that Mexico convicts only 4.46 percent of all reported crimes. Cases like those of Juan Carlos and the unprosecuted disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa in 2014, linked by some reports to the 26th Army Infantry Battalion, act as high-profile warnings against the bloody repercussions of ratcheting up militarization.
Militarized Security from Tegucigalpa to Tamaulipas
As a strong proponent of antinarcotics operatives in Latin America since the 1970s, the United States has a strong geopolitical investment in the new Internal Security Law. However, more than the U.S.’ tough-on-crime reputation is at stake. Like the shipments of heroin and cocaine currently sustaining the U.S. drug market, Mexican military spending is also projected to head north via increased arm sales to Mexico with the new bill.
In 2015, The Washington Post reported that Mexico purchased approximately $1.15 billion USD worth of arms from the United States, replacing Spain as the nation’s top arms supplier. A recent NACLA Report on the Americas article stated that Mexico has still about $261 million USD to spend of a $266 million USD firearms contract with SIG Sauer, a U.S.-Swiss-German high-grade weapons manufacturer, between 2017 and 2024. If Mexican army officials are eager to escalate their operations, these funds could easily be put to use in the near future.
Meanwhile, concerns over the militarization of public security are a constant in neighboring Central America, where peace accord agreements requiring the separation of armed forces and civilian police have been put to the test. This is particularly true in the Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—included initially within the U.S.-backed Mérida Initiative but later within the Alliance for Prosperity and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) programs. In September, for instance, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén stationed a fleet of tanks along the streets of San Salvador, allegedly to deter criminal acts. And, following his contentious reelection in November 2017, President Juan Orlando Hernández declared a state of emergency in Honduras, allowing the military to repress multitudes of protestors and strikers. Clashes between civilians and armed forces have resulted in over 30 deaths in the country since December.
The legal codification of militarized approaches to basic public safety could turn these “exceptional,” previously illegal responses—reliant on civilian intimidation—into official policy. Though Mexico’s Internal Security Law states that the military cannot intervene in peaceful protest, the definition of what constitutes “peaceful” is left to the president’s discretion. Those harboring doubts about the potential implications of the law need look no further than the Northern Triangle and Mexican states already experiencing military deployment, like Michoacán, Guerrero, Nuevo León, and Nayarit, to identify the results of the application of such policies.
Other countries in the region in turn may look to Mexico with concern as a regional trendsetter for security policy. Intensifying, south-moving border militarization, from the U.S.-Mexico border wall to Mexico’s Southern Border Plan—an initiative for increased security forces near the Mexico-Guatemala border—along with Mexico’s role in the Alliance for Prosperity, speak to the influential role such legislation could play in developing the region’s security outlook.
Looking Out at the Minefield Ahead
There are rising concerns that the Internal Security Law could play a role in the expansion of natural resource extraction. Mexico’s new Biodiversity Law, which opens the door for mining operations in previously protected wildlife areas, was approved the same day as the Internal Security Law. Additionally, a contentious General Water Law that would permit fracking and privatization of Mexico’s water utility, is currently under debate in the House of Representatives. In a country where environmental defenders face astronomical rates of repression and homicide, increased militarization alongside a boost in protection for corporate natural resource interests should be particularly alarming.
At the time of this writing, several challenges to the Internal Security Law have emerged. The first of these came from the mayor of San Pedro Cholula, Puebla, followed by seven other municipalities in the State of Mexico and Yucatan, arguing that the law infringes on local autonomy. Members of the leftist Morena party as well as the México al Frente coalition, which includes senators from the PAN, Partido de la Revolucionario Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD) and Movimiento Ciudadano, have submitted a joint motion against the law’s constitutionality. On January 19, the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) has added its own challenge.
In the meantime, President Enrique Peña Nieto has agreed to refrain from implementing the law until the Supreme Court has made its final ruling on the legislation’s constitutionality. As a result, the issue will likely stay relatively dormant until the current election season intensifies leading up to the July 1, 2018 presidential elections.
The recent tribute to the army in Arena México reflects a concerning blend of militarism and nationalism, an issue that has come under increased public scrutiny in the wake of the debate over the Internal Security Law. What the incoming president chooses to do with Mexico’s Internal Security Law will have longstanding repercussions for both Mexico and the rest of the region. Mexico is caught between a show of escalating arms and implementing complex structural solutions to drug-related violence. The need to tip the balance towards the latter has never been more urgent.
Nicola Chávez Courtright is a Ph.D. student in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Her current research focuses on transnational imaginaries of the Northern Triangle.