The staggering scale of murder in Mexico

Will putting Mexico's military on the streets help stop violence in the country - or lead to more?

Mexico’s war on drugs has left 234,966 people dead in the last 11 years. In 2017 alone, the country saw some 29,000 murders, the highest annual tally since such record-keeping began in 1997.

For years, incensed Mexicans have demanded that President Enrique Peña Nieto – now in the final stretch of his six-year term – take action. Recently, lawmakers from his Revolutionary Institutional Party proposed a controversial solution: Put Mexico’s military on the streets to fight crime.

Despite protests and warnings from human rights advocates, who say the law will actually escalate violence, on Dec. 15, 2017, the Mexican Senate approved the Internal Security Law.

Just before Christmas, Peña Nieto signed the legislation into law. In response, activists poured red paint in fountains across Mexico City to symbolize the bloodshed it would usher in.

A military history of massacres

I’ve been studying the violence in my home country for decades. While something must be done to stem the bloodshed, history shows that militarizing law enforcement will hurt rather than help.

Mexico’s military has actually been fighting crime informally for over a decade. In 2006, former President Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 soldiers to battle cartels in the state of Michoacán. And they never really stopped.

The consequences have been grave. Between 2012 and 2016, Mexico’s attorney general launched 505 investigations into alleged human rights abuses – including torture and forced disappearances – committed by the military.

In 2014, soldiers shot 22 unarmed citizens in the town of Tlatlaya. Later that year, the army was allegedly involved in the unsolved kidnapping of 43 students from a teachers college in southern Mexico.

Much of the military’s extrajudicial violence is undocumented and investigations move slowly, so crimes by the armed forces have been difficult to prosecute. In 11 years, only 16 soldiers have been convicted of human rights abuses in civilian courts.

Supporters of the Internal Security Law, including Secretary of Defense Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, say the new law will right this wrong. By providing a legal framework for the armed forces to take on law enforcement duties, it ensures stricter regulation and more oversight.

Security experts, on the other hand, call the Internal Security Law dangerous, saying it delays much-needed police reforms and violates the Mexican Constitution, which prohibits using the military for Mexico’s public security.

The authoritarian connection

The idea of “internal security” has a dark genealogy in Mexican law. It first appeared just after the country’s independence from Spain, in 1822. According to the short-lived Emperor Agustín de Iturbide, his government had the right to protect “the internal order and the external security” of the fledgling nation.

In practice, that meant persecuting those who had opposed Iturbide’s dissolution of Congress and proclamation of himself as Mexico’s new emperor.

Authoritarian regimes have since invoked “internal security” – which made its way into the country’s 1917 constitution – to fight all sorts of rebels, from revolutionaries to student liberals to indigenous discontents.

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Advisory Committee: Yves Berthelot (France),  PV Rajagopal (India), Vandana Shiva (India), Oliver de Schutter (Belgium), Mazide N’Diaye (Senegal), Gabriela Monteiro (Brazil), Irakli Kakabadze (Georgia), Anne Pearson (Canada), Liz Theoharis (USA), Sulak Sivaraksa (Thailand), Jagat Basnet (Nepal), Miloon Kothari (India),  Irene Santiago (Philippines), Arsen Kharatyan (Armenia), Margrit Hugentobler (Switzerland), Jill Carr-Harris (Canada/India), Reva Joshee (Canada), Sonia Deotto (Mexico/Italy),Benjamin Joyeux (Geneva/France), Aneesh Thillenkery, Ramesh Sharma, Ran Singh (India)