Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Soldiers in the streets: is that what we really want?

The administration’s move to hand over control of virtually all federal law enforcement to the military could determine what kind of country we live in for the foreseeable future. 

There’s nothing clandestine about the move; it’s all happening right out in the open, and the press coverage has been thorough. Yet you can sum up the prevailing public reaction in one word: meh. And that’s not really much of a word.

The indifference is understandable. People long ago lost confidence in their government’s ability to tackle crime after years of failed actions, counterproductive actions and inaction. 

Replacing the federales with Army guys and their cooler uniforms and bigger guns seems aimed at reclaiming some of that lost cred. Will it? 

Not likely, the public would say. Same dog, different fleas. 

There’s nothing new about soldiers taking over federal law enforcement duties. The origin of this militarization is usually traced to December 2006, when the newly installed president, Felipe Calderón, sent the armed forces after the drug cartels in his home state of Michoacán, setting the tone for his policy by donning a green cap and army jacket (invariably depicted by political cartoonists as several sizes too big for him) for photo ops.

Calderon and military
Former president Felipe Calderón in military garb in 2006.

But the true genesis may have been a decade earlier, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of using the military for public security. With that constitutional green light, Calderón’s strategy, originally billed as a temporary foray into one state has mission-creeped its way into a permanent nationwide military presence.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has doubled down on militarization. The president dissolved the civilian Federal Police and replaced it with a National Guard that was quickly absorbed into the armed forces. Hence, there will be no active civilian-controlled law enforcement elements at the federal level. Just state and local cops. All the rest is military.

And nobody is even pretending anymore that the military presence is meant to be temporary. Yes, attempts to remove a 2024 deadline for returning the soldiers to their barracks have been stalled, but López Obrador has promised to take steps to ensure that future governments won’t be able to reverse his policies.  

This is where the public might want to re-think its ho-hum attitude. The dog may be the same but the fleas have multiplied and changed their personalities.

We’re not just talking here about flamboyant shootouts with narcos. The soldier/cops are authorized to carry out the everyday actions you associate with police work. The political analyst and El Universal columnist Maite Azuela recently listed some of them:

They can handle complaints from individuals. They can investigate you. They can gather intelligence via the internet without identifying themselves. They can wiretap you. They can search your home. They can stop you for infractions just like traffic cops. In other words, opportunities for abuse or corruption are not rare.

Of course, state and local law enforcement can do those things as well. For that matter, so could the now-defunct Federal Police. But those institutions are held accountable for their actions, at least in theory. The Army and Navy are much more powerful and relatively unchecked.

Still, if there’s one thing everyone in Mexico agrees on, it’s the need to do something about runaway violent crime, narco-generated or otherwise. The question is whether the military is the right agent for the task.

The president thinks it is. The point, he says, is “to confront the national security problem using all the best tools that the State has at its disposal — the Army, the Navy, the National Guard — so that we can live in peace, so that the most important of all the human rights, the right to life, is guaranteed.” 

Toward that end, AMLO is not only expanding the military’s job specs to include public security along with national security, but he’s expanding its size as well. The National Guard number 118,000 today and in combination with the armed forces, 148,537 military personnel were deployed from December 2021 to January 2022. 

That’s a rather hefty call-up for a country that’s not at war, faces no imminent foreign threat, has no plans to invade Ukraine, and isn’t expecting an interplanetary alien invasion any time soon. The extra boots on the ground are for domestic use. 

It hasn’t gone unnoticed, including here at the Mexico News Daily, that AMLO campaigned for the presidency as a harsh critic of the very militarization he is now endorsing. To be fair, what the press and political opponents love to jump on as flip-flopping is not always a sin. If new evidence emerges, or the situation changes, or a convincing counter-argument is made, wouldn’t it be irresponsible not to change course? Witness former U.S. President Barack Obama on gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization. 

In this case, however, AMLO voters have a right to feel betrayed that they voted for militarization without knowing it. Many surely thought they were voting against it. Also, it’s interesting to note that the idea of an all-powerful Mexican Army can seem more appealing once you find yourself in charge of said Army. 

The argument in favor of militarization is fairly simple. The public security crisis is big and urgent, and the armed forces are the biggest and strongest counterforce we’ve got. But the assumption that the armed forces are our best bet for getting crime under control is just that— an assumption. There are some good reasons to doubt it.  

Other than the above-mentioned likelihood of abuse, the obvious objection is that soldiers are trained for war, not police work. Their default logic favors force, something police officers are supposed to try their best to avoid. Taken to extremes, innocent victims might be considered mere collateral damage in an effort to defeat an enemy. That’s not most people’s idea of public security.

High-value target operations, such as locating and moving in on a drug lord, fall within the military’s comfort zone (if “comfort” is the word). But most police tasks are mundane, such as urban patrols, investigations, and administrative work. They’re not good at these things and there’s plenty of evidence indicating that they don’t like doing them. They especially don’t like dealing with state and local police. 

With apologies to W.S. Gilbert, when constabulary duty’s to be done, a soldier’s lot is not a happy one. 

Perhaps the most relevant critique of militarization is that it detracts from the true solution to the crime problem, which is to put in place an efficient, equitable, smoothly operating and transparent criminal justice system along with well-trained, professional and incorruptible law enforcement officers at all levels of government. Unfortunately, that train has left the station, empty.

But who knows? Maybe by the end of AMLO’s term we’ll be pleasantly surprised at the progress in crime reduction, marked not only by happier statistics but also by concrete evidence, such as stores once shuttered by extortion threats opening up again, markedly reduced impunity in prosecuting crimes, and most important, by residents reporting that they honestly feel safer than before. 

We probably shouldn’t hold our breaths on all that. Maybe the best we can hope for is that this risky plan doesn’t make things worse. 

Kelly Arthur Garrett has been writing from Mexico since 1992. He lives in San Luis Potosí.

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