John M. Ackerman

Militaristic posturing in Mexico

By John M. Ackerman
March 25, 2009
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HILLARY CLINTON should take advantage of this week's visit to Mexico to openly question the Mexican government's failing human rights record. President Felipe Calderón has centered his anti-drug strategy almost exclusively on the use of the military. If the United States wants to support a lasting peace south of the border, it should complement its military support with demands to respect basic civil liberties.

Since taking power, Calderón has engineered armed crackdowns in 10 states and set up military checkpoints throughout the country. He has sent 40,000 troops to patrol urban centers, with almost 10,000 posted in the border city of Ciudad Juárez. Two of the highest federal police commanders are now military officers, and a dozen prosecutors and police chiefs in Mexico's states are also members of the armed forces.

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has received over 1,000 new complaints against the military since the beginning of this offensive. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and local non-governmental organizations have severely criticized the Calderón administration for the abuses by the military and police.

Just last month, two leading indigenous human rights leaders were tortured and assassinated in the state of Guerrero by armed men who claimed to be police officers. In another recent case, two women and three children were gunned down at a checkpoint because their driver, who was rushing to attend a funeral, did not stop fast enough. The State Department's own Human Rights Report issued in February clearly demonstrates that these cases are all too frequent.

Nevertheless, Secretary of State Clinton has yet to take a clear public position on the issue. She may fear that emphasizing human rights might interfere with the "war" against the drug cartels.

But Mexico is not at war. The drug cartels are not interested in overthrowing the government nor do they have an ideological agenda. They are indeed heavily armed. But the fight against the drug trade will not be won in the streets with superior firepower. The real struggle is behind the scenes where authorities need to purge corruption and strengthen criminal intelligence.

Since Mexico is not at war, there is no justification for the virtual state of emergency that exists in many parts of the country. Nevertheless, the Mexican government is committed to maintaining the status quo. All crimes and human rights abuses committed by soldiers are tried exclusively by military tribunals. These courts tend to excuse even the most flagrant violations. Calderón has recently pushed through a constitutional reform that allows suspects of organized crime to be held for up to 80 days before bringing charges, and then for months in preventative prison before standing trial. Another recent reform closes down freedom-of-information requests to almost all aspects of criminal investigations even after they have been completed.

Historically, Mexico has stood out from other Latin American nations for its lack of militarism. In Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, the armed forces are relatively active in politics and have even taken power at crucial moments in recent history. In contrast, Mexico has not suffered a coup d'état for almost a century, and the military has normally maintained itself distant from civilian institutions.

This may be changing. In a worrisome parallel to the Bush administration, Calderón systematically looks to militaristic posturing as a way to artificially inflate his flagging political legitimacy. This is especially the case at the moment, since the sitting government faces the possibility of a sweeping defeat in the polls during the midterm elections in July. Public opinion polls place Calderón's party 10 points behind.

Clinton's visit to Mexico this week provides an important opportunity to demonstrate the US government's commitment to the rule of law. The "war" on drugs does not justify the wholesale suspension of civil liberties any more than the "war" on terror does.

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a columnist for La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine.

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