There is nothing noble about war. In the words of the Spanish-American philosopher and poet George Santayana, it “wastes a nation’s wealth, chokes its industries, kills its flower,” and “condemns it to be governed by adventurers.”
Mexico has endured all these pains and more, including 150,000 murders and some 26,000 disappearances, during its brutal 10-year war against drug cartels.
Some of the main drivers of this abysmal violence are Mexico’s armed forces, which have de facto aided police in fighting the drug war since 2006. The military has proven to be exceptionally efficient killers. From 2007 to 2014, the army killed around eight opponents – or suspected criminals – for each one it wounded, according to researchers at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica (CIDE).
The marines were even more deadly: they killed some 30 combatants for each one they injured, CIDE’s lethality index shows.
Several senior U.N. officials have urged Mexico to “completely withdraw military forces from law enforcement activities” and ensure that “public security is upheld by civilian rather than military security forces.”
The Mexican Congress seems to disagree. The governing Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), which holds a majority of seats, is pushing for “fast track” approval of legislation that would formalize the role of the armed forces in law enforcement.
Between two (rogue) armies
President Felipe Calderón first conscripted Mexico’s military into police work in December 2006, when he decided that his mandate was to “take back” Mexico from organized crime. To do this, Calderón reasoned, he would need the army: local police departments were too weak and corrupt.
His security strategy, which was lauded by the United States, delegated law enforcement to the military until the police could be “reinforced and cleansed.”
After a decade of murder and grief, his mistake is clear. In the words of a former high-level Mexican intelligence official, Jorge Carrillo Olea, Calderón’s strategy is one of the “major stupidities” in recent history, implemented without a base study on either its “legality” or “political relevance.”
Calderón had no time for such due diligence, he told the newspaper Milenio in a 2009 interview. Organized crime was a cancer “invading” the country, and as Mexico’s doctor he would use the army “to extirpate, radiate and attack the disease” – even if the medicine was “costly and painful.”
Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) was voted out of office in 2012, perhaps because patients don’t usually embrace needless suffering.
Nonetheless, his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto of the long-ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), has continued his predecessor’s aggressive “treatment” of organized crime.
A few weeks before the 2012 election, the then-candidate appointed Colombian general Oscar Naranjo, who is credited with helping take down Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar in 1993, as one of his key “external advisers.”
As director of the Colombian National Police from 2007 to 2012, he grew the National Police from 136,000 to 170,000 members and oversaw “Plan Colombia”, a US$500 million-annual US aid package providing military equipment and training to Colombian police.
In Mexico, Naranjo was supposed to work “outside of hierarchies” to effect Peña Nieto’s aggressive anti-narcotics policy. He did his job with vigour. During his 2012-2014 tenure, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reported that the army accumulated 2,212 complaints – 541 more than those lodged against the military in president Calderón’s first two years.
Mexico has now been trapped between two duelling rogue forces – the cartels and the military – for ten years. Impunity is rampant. Of the 4,000 complaints of torture reviewed by the attorney general from 2006 to 2016, only 15 resulted in convictions.
A decade’s worth of forced disappearances and killings have also gone unpunished.
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