SSR-RC Blog Archive

Military Justice and Impunity in Mexico’s Drug War By: Michael Lawrence | Mexico | Sep 27, 2011

The SSR issue paper Military Justice and Impunity in Mexico’s Drug War by Kristin Bricker (released just yesterday and available for download here) highlights military jurisdiction as an obstacle to accountability for (and also deterrence of) human rights abuses committed by the Mexican military in its war against drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). But the report also relates to broader issues of the role of the military within a democratic society (especially internal security) as well as its efficacy in the drug war. The deployment of around 50 000 troops throughout Mexico may ultimately comprise a self-defeating strategy for two reasons.

First, the deployment of the military has so far only served to intensify and escalate the brutal violence wracking Mexico (including an expanding spate of abuses committed by the Mexican military). The result is growing public outcry against the military. In January 2009, for example, protesters confronted President Calderón during a presidential visit to Ciudad Juárez (which suffered 2600 drug-related deaths the previous year) demanding the withdrawal of the army. The next month public protests against the military’s role in the drug war shut down parts of Monterey and border crossings in Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and Ciudad Juárez. And just last May hundreds of demonstrators marched fifty miles from Cuernavaca to Mexico City where they were joined by thousands more to demand an end to the drug war and even a government accommodation with the DTOs. The protest was led by poet Javier Sicilia whose innocent son was killed in the conflict. Sicilia is quoted as commenting: “The state controls nothing… Felipe Calderón wants to listen, but the country is no longer in his hands. He has no vision. He cannot imagine a better world. He does not see that the cruelty and impunity — and the killing — can also be blamed on our failing institutions.” Although the government has blamed DTOs for sponsoring such demonstrations, they represent a growing frustration with the government’s militarization of its war on drugs. With election looming in 2012, it is unclear whether the government offensive will be sustainable amidst democratic politics.

Second, the government’s war on drugs is ostensibly a central pillar of its efforts to establish and consolidate the rule of law as the foundation of its transition to free market democracy. As the SSR issue paper suggests, the military deployment is undermining the very laws and procedures that underpin this broader goal. Citizen’s complaints against the military include its use of arbitrary detention, rough treatment and torture of suspects, unauthorized searches and seizures, and inappropriate rules of engagement leading to civilian deaths. One Human Rights Watch report documents 17 cases of military abuses in which over 70 victims suffered rape, torture, killing and arbitrary detention at the hands of the military, none of which were officially investigated. Further, the longer the relatively corruption-free military is deployed in the drug war, the more susceptible it will become to infiltration by drug bribes.

The government of Mexico faces several nasty dilemmas relating to these issues. It has long claimed – with good reason – that the use of the military in the drug war is necessary given the widespread corruption and limited capacity of Mexico’s police forces, and the rising military capacities of the DTOs. The strategy, based on Colombia’s successful crackdown on the Medellin DTO in the early 90s, posits that sustained military pressure will cause the present 7-8 large-scale, heavily-armed DTOs to fragment into a much more diffuse and small-scale market structure that is less capable of mass violence. Today’s rising violence is interpreted by government officials as an indication that such a threshold is nearing just as critics interpret it to signal strategic failure. Ultimately the use of the military in Mexico’s drug war may prove self-defeating insofar as it only escalates the violence and abuses of the drug war, undermines the rule of law, or the military is returned to barracks before reaching a key (though highly uncertain) threshold of enforcement pressure.

Michael Lawrence is a Research Officer from the SSR Resource Centre at the Centre for International Governance Innovation