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Mexico Strengthens Military’s Role in Drug War, Outraging Critics

Unlike the rest of Latin America, where long military dictatorships have left indelible scars, Mexico has had civilian control over the armed forces for the past century as part of an unspoken agreement that allows officers latitude over the areas they command.

The drug war has disrupted that equilibrium, opening the military to charges of human rights abuses and rattling commanders who have asked the government to restore “order and sense” to their mission.

Since former President Felipe Calderón first sent troops to fight drug gangs at the end of 2006, more than 200,000 people have been killed in the drug war and 31,000 people have gone missing, according to official statistics.

The violence has surged as Mr. Peña Nieto begins his final year in office. This year has been the deadliest in two decades, and the government has yet to announce any plan to confront the violence.

Mr. Peña Nieto has ordered soldiers into more states as fragmenting gangs expand their criminal operations and local authorities simply throw up their hands. Senator Roberto Gil, an architect of the new law, said that the military now operated in 27 of Mexico’s 32 states, compared with six when Mr. Peña Nieto took office five years ago.

Mr. Gil, who is a member of the conservative opposition National Action Party, said the intent of the new law was to establish controls over the president’s power to place soldiers on the streets.

Over the past 12 years, there has been “no law, no procedures and no tracks” to guide military deployment, he said. The president’s power could be exercised arbitrarily, and governors have used military intervention as a crutch rather than set up their own police forces.

Under the new law, Mr. Gil said, the president must outline the reasons for sending in troops through a public executive order that is valid for a year. If the situation does not improve, the president can extend the intervention but must explain why.

“Federal intervention should be very precise and short-lived,” he said. In response to critics who argued that the law simply continues the bad incentive for governors and mayors to rely on military intervention, he added a clause that would require them to outline their plans — and spending — on strengthening law enforcement.

“Mexico has an addiction to the armed forces,” he said. “We need to reduce the doses until we reach abstinence.”

But critics say the addition is merely a patch on a law that gives new power to the military. “All they are doing is simulating that they listened to the criticism,” Mr. Madrazo said. “This law does not contemplate what needs to be done in terms of police reform.”

Critics point to other elements of the law that shut off oversight. Information on the military operations will be classified, available to only one congressional commission which meets behind closed doors.

The armed forces “don’t have to be accountable to anybody,” said Santiago Aguirre, the deputy director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Center for Human Rights in Mexico City.

The military will be granted new authority to conduct investigations. “This will generate a parallel intelligence structure,” Mr. Aguirre said. “That breaks their subordination to civilian power.”

Since the law was first presented in congress two weeks ago, there has been outpouring against it. Human rights groups united in opposition, pointing to the rise in abuses committed by the military in the drug war. The government’s National Human Rights Commission and its transparency institute have opposed it. Presidents of major universities have spoken out against it.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, and the United Nations special rapporteur on arbitrary executions, along with other United Nations experts, also raised concerns.

Mr. Aguirre said there was a political imperative behind the quick vote. The armed forces “are interested in showing that they have political power” ahead of next year’s election. “They have warned that 2018 will be uncertain,” and worry that a new president “won’t allow them to continue with the unspoken rules.”

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City, leads in the polls. He has yet to present a clear security policy, but he recently floated the idea of granting amnesty to some drug traffickers.

Source: NYT > World

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