Strengthening the rule of law and ending impunity is crucial to combatting violence in Mexico, according to a senior official with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
In an interview with the El Universal newspaper, the research and advocacy organization’s vice president for programs, Maureen Meyer, said militarized security strategies have failed and that the current government needs to rethink its non-confrontational “hugs, not bullets” approach to combatting violence.
The question that needs to be asked, she said, is: “What changes can [President] López Obrador implement [to improve] security and strengthen the rule of law?”
Meyer – who lived in Mexico between 2001 and 2020 and led WOLA’s Mexico program for 14 years – told El Universal that one of the reasons why there is so much violence here is impunity, which has remained stubbornly high despite the government’s commitment to eradicating it.
“You can kill someone with impunity because there are no consequences,” she said, adding that public security efforts have to be accompanied by the investigation and prosecution of criminals.
Asked whether the militarization of public security was the right way to respond to the security crisis – López Obrador announced last week that he would issue a decree to transfer responsibility for the National Guard from the civilian Security Ministry to the army – Meyer said evidence showed it wasn’t.
Studies show that the use of the military to carry out public security tasks “hasn’t worked,” she said, noting that “violence hasn’t declined.”
Former presidents Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto both used the military for public security tasks, as has López Obrador, although the current president asserts that his strategy is different because he instructs the armed forces to avoid confrontations with criminal groups wherever possible.
Meyer reiterated that militarization “hasn’t been effective in attending to security problems in Mexico.”
Instead, it has generated “more concerns,” she said. “Police and the military are not interchangeable. They have different training, different roles and there are a lot of risks at a human rights level.”
Indeed, members of the armed forces have been accused of committing human rights abuses while carrying out public security tasks across the country. In a report published earlier this year, Human Rights Watch noted that the National Human Rights Commission received 3,799 complaints of military abuses between 2013 and 2020. Extrajudicial killings are among the alleged abuses.
Meyer asserted that López Obrador is on the “wrong track” with his plan to put the National Guard under army control, highlighting that the proposal goes against the constitution, which was modified to create the security force under civilian leadership.
As for the “hugs, not bullets” approach, not confronting criminal groups “hasn’t been an effective strategy either,” she said.
The strategy – a kind of militarization-lite approach – needs to be rethought, the WOLA VP said.
On the one hand, the government needs to decide what the role of the military is when it comes into contact with organized crime, Meyer said.
(López Obrador controversially said in May that his government looks after criminals by avoiding armed confrontations.)
On the other hand, Meyer said, the government needs to work out how to strengthen civilian police forces, including state and municipal ones. Mexican police – especially members of municipal forces – are generally paid poorly and lack training. Many haven’t passed confidence tests, and numerous police forces have been disarmed due to suspected collusion with criminal groups.
Federal authorities need to think about how to achieve “better coordination between the three levels of government to confront the security crisis … we’re currently seeing in [northern] border cities and Guanajuato,” Meyer said, referring to recent outbreaks of violence in Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana and several Guanajuato municipalities. .
She also said the government’s security strategy has not clearly defined the role of prosecutor’s offices in the fight against violence, which remains at extremely high if not record levels.
“Since Calderón launched his [militarized] war against drug trafficking [in 2006], … what has really been lacking is [direction about] how to continue implementing the justice system and strengthen the rule of law in Mexico,” Meyer said.
She also noted that a recent survey conducted by the national statistics agency INEGI showed that the perception of insecurity among citizens is on the rise.
“There’s a generalized perception of insecurity in Mexico that is concerning and which shows that there is a need to rethink the federal government’s current security strategy,” Meyer said.
Despite that, the entire country isn’t plagued by violence, she stressed, noting that the latest statistics show that violence remains concentrated in certain states and municipalities.
With reports from El Universal