In recent months, three constitutional challenges have been presented before the Mexican Supreme Court arguing that it should overturn the May 11th presidential decree that officially deployed the armed forces for civilian law enforcement until 2024. The order is, of course, a mere formality. The military has been deployed for law enforcement in Mexico for 14 years as part of a disastrous public security strategy that has led to thousands of human rights abuses including enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
During that time, the previous two presidents have unsuccessfully attempted to create legal and political justifications for this deployment, which many jurists contend is prohibited by the Constitution. The May 11 decree signed by President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador is simply the latest of these attempts. The current constitutional challenges before the Supreme Court are not only welcome but represent a positive and important step in challenging the continued attempts to legally justify the militarization of public security in Mexico.
Mexico’s police forces are abusive, corrupt, and have proven incapable of stopping relentless violence and crime bypowerful and well-funded cartels. Both President Felipe Calderón and his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, justified the continued presence of the military on the streets saying it served a temporary, auxiliary role, supporting civilian law enforcement while the police and prosecutors were reformed and professionalized. But its presence has been neither temporary nor auxiliary. The military has been deployed without interruption in many parts of Mexico since 2006, with practically no civilian oversight. Meanwhile, the promised reforms to civilian law enforcement have delivered little in the way of meaningful change, and violence has skyrocketed.
In the campaign, President López Obrador a promised to send the military “back to the barracks.” Instead, he has now gone even farther than his predecessors in trying to establish legal justifications to keep the military on the streets. In 2019, he reformed the constitution to create the National Guard. The National Guard is made up mostly of military troops, is led by military officers, and is trained by the military. Now López Obrador is attempting to justify military deployment using a version of the same argument that his predecessors did—that the military will play a temporary, auxiliary role to the National Guard.
This is a false distinction. The military and the National Guard are one and the same. Any attempt to portray the National Guard as a kind of police force, a civilian institution, is nothing more than clumsy political artifice.
Military policing has led to countless atrocities in Mexico. One of the most concerning elements of the executive order is that, for the first time, it formally empowers the armed forces to take on traditional law enforcement functions: detaining civilians, taking charge of crime scenes, and preserving evidence. When soldiers have undertaken these tasks in the past it has led to the cover-up of serious human rights violations. In cases such as the massacre in Tlatlaya in 2014 or the killing of two students on the campus of Monterrey Institute of Technology in 2010, soldiers executed civilians and then manipulated the crime scene, planting weapons and moving bodies to give the appearance there had been a conflict. Instead of trying to prevent further such abuses, López Obrador is once again putting the armed forces front and center in his security strategy, with same, well-known consequences for human rights.
The armed forces in Mexico—as in every country—are designed for warfare, not law enforcement. Soldiers are allowed to use lethal force as their first choice in an armed conflict, when targeting a legitimate military objective. The opposite is true of civilian police officers, who should only use lethal force as a last resort, if strictly necessary to protect themselves or others from death or serious injury. When soldiers, armed with weapons of war, are sent out into communities to conduct everyday policing, the result is both tragic and unsurprising.
President López Obrador frequently claims he is different than his predecessors and that his government is leading a profound transformation. However, his decision to formalize the use of the military for public security is just doubling down on failed policies of the past that have led to the loss of thousands of lives. López Obrador is committing a colossal error that will likely lead to further bloodshed with impunity. Judging by his record so far, López Obrador’s transformation, as far as human rights are concerned, will just be more of the same.