MEXICO CITY, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Mexico's new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is promising to deliver a big "transformation." But among his first orders of business is to codify a militarized police force that has been largely responsible for the country's skyrocketing violence.
"First come the poor," López Obrador said during his inauguration speech Saturday in which he declared an end to neo-liberal economic policies embraced by Mexico since the 1980s, part of his "Fourth Transformation."
In terms of Mexico's security crisis, the new president is proposing the same militarized policing strategy used by his predecessors, Felipe Calderón (2006-12) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-18).
In 2006, Calderón put the military on the streets for policing duties and soon after, Mexico's homicide rate surged to levels that were unprecedented at the time.
Peña Nieto's presidency enhanced the role of the military in policing and the bloodshed continued. Mexican authorities say they opened 120,666 homicide investigations from 2012 to 2018, a 17 percent increase over Calderón's tenure.
Peña Nieto did achieve some crime-fighting goals. Mexico has arrested 110 of 122 organized crime leaders in the past six years. But even so, the security situation has only worsened. Violence is now rampant in previously peaceful states like Guanajuato and Colima and has returned to drug war hot spots like the border regions of Ciudad Juarez and Baja California.
In response to this violence, López Obrador campaigned on a promise to withdraw the military from policing. But for the last two weeks of the presidential transition period, he attracted criticism for his plan to continue the strategy.
In August, a month after López Obrador's landslide victory, the new public security minister, Alfonso Durazo said they were inheriting a security strategy "in ruins."
"Right now, there is no way to withdraw the armed forces from the streets. It would be irresponsible. The Federal Police does not have the capacity, and frankly municipal police are too weak and unprepared, and in many cases they are infiltrated by organized crime," Durazo said in a televised interview with journalist Carlos Loret de Mola.
The National Guard
On Nov. 14, López Obrador's transition team announced it would send a bill to Congress to create a nationwide police force in the form of a National Guard. This new force would be headed and trained by army officers. Recently, Mexico's Supreme Court invalidated an internal security law on the basis that the Constitution prohibits the military from permanent policing functions. So putting the military in charge of the National Guard will require changing the Constitution. That requires a supermajority in Congress and in the states.
On Tuesday, Mexico's Congress was to begin debating the constitutional amendments.
Amnesty International's Secretary General Kumi Naidoo implored López Obrador to change his mind.
"You find yourself at a crossroads," Naidoo said in a video distributed on Facebook. "You can take the same way that your predecessors followed and risk making the same mistakes, or you can consider a new strategy and build a different kind of approach, one where armed forces slowly go back to their barracks."
Amnesty's Mexico researcher, Carlos Zazueta, told UPI the National Guard has not been used in Mexico since the 19th century. López Obrador's security strategy resurrects it, he said in a telephone interview, and turns it into a "super police force" made up of part of the Federal Police, the Army and the Mexican Marines. The National Guard will be run by an army officer and trained by the military, Zazueta said.
"This is the key part of the strategy, and it's what worries us the most because the National Guard is not going to be under the command of a civilian," he said.
Gladys McCormick, an expert on the drug war in the Americas and professor of history at Syracuse University in New York, questions how the new force will be implemented.
"The devil is in the details. It's not just about implementation," she told UPI. "It's also about how this proposal will be paid for, and how will this move from the federal to the state level. There is nothing new here when it comes to putting military officers in charge of a police force. This is the same thing that has been trotted out by other administrations."
The new security strategy is opposed by 12 state governors who belong to the Partido de Acción Nacional, the party that ruled Mexico during the Calderón administration. López Obrador's security strategy will appoint security "superdelegates" to supervise public safety in each of Mexico's 31 states and Mexico City, a move the governors see as usurping their constitutional powers.
Human rights abuses
The militarized policing strategy provoked human rights abuses by Mexico's military and its federal, state and local police forces. Enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and attacks and murders on human rights defenders and journalists surged, including the mass disappearance of 43 teaching students of Ayotzinapa in 2014. Even so, the Peña Nieto government attempted to make the military's security functions permanent with a widely criticized National Security Law, which never took effect because human rights organizations challenged it in the Supreme Court.
"The Supreme Court just invalidated Enrique Peña Nieto's security law because it enshrined the military's role in charge of policing, exactly something that López Obrador's security strategy is also trying to achieve, make the military control over policing permanent," said Catalina Perez Correa, a professor at the CIDE, a social sciences institute in Mexico who researches the country's approach to policing and the drug war.
"We have had 12 years of militarized policing," Pérez Correa said, "and it hasn't helped. Human rights abuses and studies show the violence have only increased. The military are trained to use force in an extreme way, to repel invaders and protect the nation's sovereignty. To combat external threats. The military is not trained to pursue criminals so they can be brought to justice. That's meant to be the work of police forces and that is what they are meant to be trained to do, to bring those who violate the law before judicial institutions so they can be tried and face punishment."
On Sunday, the day after the new president was sworn into office, the new deputy interior minister for human rights, Alejandro Encinas, announced the case into the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43 would be reopened.
The militarized approach to policing has led to a high death toll in Mexico. In 2017, Mexico's homicide rate reached unprecedented levels, only to be superseded by 24,000 homicides registered in the first 10 months of 2018, set to be Mexico's most violent year on record.