The Mexican President wants to bypass Congress to keep the army on the streets

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s president has begun examining plans to bypass Congress to hand formal control of the National Guard to the army, a move that would remove the military’s control over policing in a country could escalate with a high level of violence.

This has raised concerns because President Andrés Manuel López Obrador got approval for the force’s deployment in 2019, promising in the constitution that it would be under nominal civilian control and the army would be off the streets by 2024.

However, neither the National Guard nor the military have been able to reduce insecurity in the country. For the past week, drug cartels have carried out widespread arson and shootings, scaring civilians in three major northwestern cities in a bold challenge to the state.

Still, López Obrador wants to involve soldiers in policing and eliminate civilian control over the National Guard, whose officers and commanders are mostly soldiers with military training and pay grades.

But the President no longer has the votes in Congress to change the Constitution and has suggested that he could try to do so as a regulatory change with a simple majority in Congress or through an executive order and see if the courts uphold it will.

López Obrador on Friday warned against politicizing the issue, saying the military is needed to fight Mexico’s violent drug cartels. But then he politicized it himself.

“Constitutional reform would be ideal, but we have to look for ways because instead of helping us, they (the opposition) are blocking us, there is an intention to prevent us from doing anything,” said López Obrador.

The two main opposition parties also had different positions when in power. They assisted the Army in public security roles during their respective tenures beginning in 2006 and 2012.

When López Obrador ran for president, he called for the army to be taken off the streets. But being in power – and seeing homicides going at the highest level ever – has apparently changed his mind.

It wasn’t just for crime-fighting that he relied heavily on the military. Seeing the army and navy as heroic, patriotic and less corruptible, he has put them in charge of building major infrastructure projects, running airports and trains, stopping migrants and policing customs at seaports.

The Mexican army has been heavily involved in policing since the drug war began in 2006. But its presence has always been understood as temporary, a stopgap measure until Mexico could build a trustworthy police force.

López Obrador seems to have abandoned this plan, instead making military and quasi-military forces like the National Guard the main solution. “Your mandate must be extended,” he said.

“I think the best thing is that the National Guard is a department of the Department of Defense to give it stability over time and prevent it from being corrupted,” he said. He also wants the army and navy to help with public safety beyond 2024, the current deadline set in a 2020 executive order.

The force has grown to 115,000, but almost 80% of its personnel came from the military.

The United Nations and human rights groups have long expressed reservations about policing by the military. and Mexico’s Supreme Court has yet to rule on multiple appeals against what critics say are unconstitutional duties assigned to the National Guard.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said last week that the militarization of civilian institutions like the police weakens democracy. Soldiers are not trained for it, the military is inherently uncontrollable, implicated in human rights abuses, and the presence of troops has not resolved the pressing issue of reforming the police, prosecutors, and courts.

While López Obrador claims that human rights abuses will no longer be tolerated, the state’s National Human Rights Commission has received more than a thousand complaints about alleged human rights violations by the National Guard. The agency issued five recommendations in cases where there was evidence of excessive use of force, torture or ill-treatment of migrants.

“The problem with using the military in civilian roles is that we don’t have control over what goes on inside the armed forces,” said Ana Lorena Delgadillo, director of the civic group Foundation For Justice.

Delgadillo said that the National Guard’s subordination to the Department of Defense, although defined in constitutional language as a civilian commanded force, is “authoritarian,” subject to court challenges, and will not help pacify the country.

Mexico’s employers’ association Coparmex said in a statement that the state police’s capabilities should instead be strengthened. “You and the (prosecutors) have authority to interact with civilians,” the group said.

Perhaps more importantly, the quasi-military National Guard has failed to bring down Mexico’s persistently high homicide rate.

Sofía de Robina, a lawyer at the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, said the National Guard had been “unable to reduce violence” in part because of its military strategy of “occupying territories”.

While this strategy – building barracks and regular patrols – can be helpful in remote or rural areas, it has proved less useful in urban areas and even provoked resistance.

Police hailing from the cities where they operate and living among residents would be more effective, experts say. But widespread corruption, poor pay and threats from cartels against police officers have weakened local and state police forces.

More than 15 years of experience with the military in police roles has shown “that the paradigm is wrong, that the army would solve the problems,” Delgadillo said.

De Robina added that López Obrador’s latest move means keeping the military in policing indefinitely and “totally defying the obligation that public safety is civilian” with no time or strategic constraints.

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