Army's role as police under debate in Mexico

A bill to give legal justification for Mexico's armed forces to assume police roles advanced in the country's Congress Thursday over objections by rights groups and opposition legislators who say it would provide for an open-ended militarization.

Supporters say Mexico's armed forces have to stay in the streets to fight gangs, given the incapacity of local police forces. But critics say that's all the more reason to have a calm, detailed debate about whether the law should allow the army to perform law enforcement, how and for how long.

Thursday's hurried debate in an alternative congressional commission meeting room that was too cramped for observers suggested that kind of thorough debate was not going to happen.

The bill was approved in commission in a fast-track, party-line vote and will go to the floor of the lower house of Congress. It would allow soldiers to do legally what they have been doing ad-hoc for at least a decade: conduct raids and man highway checkpoints, pursue and detain suspects.

"We are doing a very rushed and not very professional job," said opposition Congressman Jorge Triana of the conservative National Action Party. "What this bill seeks to do is convert something that should be the exception into the norm."

The Washington Office on Latin America think tank wrote that "formalizing the militarization of public security in Mexico would set a fundamentally negative precedent in Latin America," where such arrangements are becoming more common.

Mexican state governors, and the ruling party, tend to like the law authorizing the army's presence under loose and indefinite rules because it takes the pressure off them to engage in the long, costly and difficult process of training, equipping and paying reliable police who can be trusted not to go work for the drug cartels.

"The issue of human rights is covered, and covered well" in the law, said Cesar Dominguez, a legislator of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, from the border state of Chihuahua. "But we cannot guarantee liberties and the full exercise of rights if there isn't a climate of public safety and peace."

"If we don't make visible (rules) on this issue, we will leave in place hidden rules that allow them to do what they want, when they want," Dominguez said of soldiers.

Human rights groups and opposition legislators oppose the bill, not just because it threatens to permanently militarize law enforcement in Mexico, but also because they say it removes much of the pressure to professionalize police.

"If today, the federal and state governments haven't lived up to their responsibility to build effective police forces, they're even less likely to do so if they have a legal justification to fill that void with the request for military intervention," dozens of human rights groups wrote in statement on the eve of discussion of the new law. They called for strengthening law enforcement institutions instead.

It's a delicate balancing act in Mexico, where the Army and Navy are some of the few remaining respected public institutions, and where some regions — like the violent border state of Tamaulipas — depend entirely on the armed forces to keep some semblance of order, after all city and town police forces were disbanded because their officers were on the payroll of warring drug cartels.

Supporters claimed the bill would allow soldiers to act only for renewable one-year periods, but opponents said that could make the deployments almost endlessly renewable. Critics also questioned whether the bill made it too easy for the president to declare a state of emergency with the army in the streets and whether soldiers might be called on to break up not just cartel gun fights, but protest movements as well.

Delicate question emerged about whether the soldiers' presence should be renewed year-by-year; whether it was too easy for the president to declare a state of emergency with the army in the streets; whether soldiers might be called on to break up, not just cartel gun fights, but protest movements, as well.

At present, the Army operates under a vague clause that allows it to "aid" civilian law enforcement agencies when called upon to do so.

Few on either side blame the Army, which has made clear it would rather return to its barracks and concentrate on tasks it was trained for.

"They didn't get themselves involved in this; they were made to get involved in this," said Congresswoman Norma Nahle of the leftist Morena party. But she noted that rights complaints involving the armed forces rose from about 190 cases per year before the Army was called out in 2006 to about 1,075 complaints annually in recent years.

Rules already in place specify that soldiers accused of violating civilians' rights must be tried in civilian, not military courts.

The Army desperately wants the new rules, because at present, military personnel are vulnerable not only to ambushes from well-armed drug cartels, but also legal actions that are hard to fight given their vague mandate.

The bill has been sitting on Congress' back burner for so long that many now wonder why there is such a rush to approve it.

It was a year ago that the defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, publicly complained about the confusion.

"Ten years ago it was decided that the police should be rebuilt, and we still haven't seen that reconstruction," he said. "

"If you want us to go back to our bases, fine, I'll be the first to raise both my hands," Cienfuegos said. "We didn't ask to be here. We don't like it here. None of us here today went go to school to chase criminals."