Mexico: Extending Military Policing Threatens Rights

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Hundreds of military troops joined Mexico’s national guard on patrol following attacks by criminal groups in Tijuana, August 13, 2022.
© 2022 Sipa USA via AP

(Washington, DC) – Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s plan to formalize and indefinitely extend military control of federal law enforcement tasks poses a serious threat to human rights and transparency, Human Rights Watch said today.

On August 25, 2022, Interior Secretary Adan Augusto López announced that President López Obrador plans to send legislation to Congress on September 1 that would formally transfer control of the National Guard—the main federal law enforcement agency charged with public security operations—from the Public Security Ministry to the Defense Ministry. He also said the president plans to introduce a bill amending the constitution to make the change permanent and to eliminate the prohibition on law enforcement by soldiers. Earlier this month, on August 8, the president announced he was exploring legal ways of transferring the National Guard to military control, including by executive order.

“Nearly two decades of military policing have failed to put an end to Mexico’s relentless cartel violence and have led to countless atrocities by soldiers and marines with near-total impunity,” said Tyler Mattiace, Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President López Obrador should abandon the failed and abusive militarized security strategy of his predecessors and focus on strengthening Mexico’s civilian justice institutions.”  

The military, informally deployed for civilian law enforcement since 2006, has committed widespread human rights violations—including executions, enforced disappearances, and torture—while failing to address skyrocketing levels of violent crime.

Under the president’s proposed plan, the military would be indefinitely authorized to continue conducting a wide range of traditional law enforcement tasks. These include detaining and interrogating civilians, taking charge of crime scenes, preserving evidence, detaining undocumented migrants, and obtaining court orders to track mobile phone activity and location.

When soldiers and marines have been deployed for these tasks in the past, they have arbitrarily detained civilians, sometimes based on fabricated evidence. Soldiers have held civilians without charge on military bases, beating, waterboarding, administering electric shocks and sometimes threatening to rape them, often to extract confessions.

Soldiers also have executed unarmed civilians, sometimes intentionally, and forcibly disappeared civilians. Reports of extrajudicial killings by the military have continued under the current administration. Those responsible for these abuses are almost never brought to justice.

In many cases soldiers have attempted to cover up killings and abuses, bringing in doctors to treat torture wounds that could be used as evidence, planting weapons and moving bodies to create the appearance that victims died in a conflict, or secretly burning and disposing of victims’ remains. The military has also refused to disclose information about these abuses or subsequent cover ups even when required to do so by Mexico’s transparency law.

In March, the group of international experts investigating the cover up of the 2014 Ayotzinapa mass kidnapping of college students reported that the armed forces had refused to turn over documents relating to the case despite an order from President López Obrador.

Army law enforcement operations involving suspects who were reportedly armed also raise questions about soldiers’ preparation and willingness to follow standards for civilian policing. These include the rule that civilian police should only use lethal force as a last resort, when it is strictly necessary to protect themselves or others.

In the first three years of the López Obrador presidency, the army reported that, in 640 confrontations with armed civilians, it killed 515 people, detained 381, and wounded 89, with 21 soldiers killed during this period. Authorities do not regularly independently investigate the military’s use of lethal force in civilian policing operations.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled, including in a 2018 case against Mexico, that the military should only be used for law enforcement tasks in extraordinary circumstances, to assist but not replace civilian officials, and subject to strict monitoring to ensure accountability. The president’s proposed plan does not comply with these requirements.

To approve López Obrador’s proposal to replace the Federal Police with the National Guard in 2019, legislators modified Mexico’s constitution. They made the National Guard nominally civilian but included provisions allowing the military to oversee the transition and assist with law enforcement until March 2024, while civilian leadership was trained. In May 2020, President López Obrador issued an executive order formally deploying the armed forces to assist with law enforcement until the March 2024 deadline.

Since then, the National Guard has acted as a de facto branch of the armed forces. The National Guard is led by military commanders, and more than 80 percent of its members are soldiers or marines who receive their salaries from the Defense Ministry, although they have been temporarily assigned to the National Guard. The Defense Ministry has also supplied or paid for all weapons, vehicles, and barracks used by the National Guard. The National Guard has reportedly offered its non-military members, mostly former Federal Police officers, bonuses to retire early and has transferred many who remain to administrative roles.

Opposition parties have announced that they will challenge any executive order or law  that transfers the National Guard to military control before the Supreme Court, on the grounds that it contravenes the constitution, which states that the National Guard is a civilian body and prohibits the use of the military for civilian law enforcement in peacetime.

President López Obrador said in a news conference on August 9 that he would proceed with the plan and let the Supreme Court decide on its constitutionality. However, the court is led by a chief justice who has frequently voted to uphold the president’s policies and even spoken out publicly in his support. The chief justice has repeatedly postponed hearing cases related to the National Guard, one of López Obrador’s top political priorities. Seven cases challenging the use of the military for law enforcement are pending before the court.

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