Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: War on Crime Triggers Activists’ Suspicions

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Dec 15 2006 (IPS) - Mexican President Felipe Calderón kicked off his administration by stressing public security and increasing the power of the military. And although the strategy is alarming human rights groups, the majority of Mexicans seem pleased.

“The steps taken by the new government are aimed at legitimising the militarisation of the country, which will result in human rights violations and the criminalisation of social protests,” Adrián Ramírez, president of the Mexican League for the Defence of Human Rights, told IPS.

Calderón, who took office Dec. 1, ordered a gigantic and unprecedented military and police operation in the western state of Michoacán, where 542 people, 24 of them police chiefs, have been executed so far this year in drug-related killings.

He announced a pay hike for soldiers, and ordered 7,500 of them to transfer to the federal police, as well as 2,500 naval personnel. At a stroke, then, the number of police officers at the disposal of the federal government has risen from 17,154 to 27,154..

With respect to the budget, he has asked legislators for a substantial increase in appropriations for security purposes. The goal is “for the rule of law to prevail over violence,” which requires using the full weight of the forces of the state against organised crime, Calderón said.

The road taken by the new government “can only be interpreted in two ways: either it represents just a temporary political manoeuvre for effect, but not meant to produce real results, or it is the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of a prolonged battle against organised crime,” said Enrique López, editor of the newspaper Provincia de Michoacán.

Isabel Uriarte, head of the public security section at the Agustín Pro Juárez human rights centre, said it was a good thing for the government to confront insecurity and crime, as they are “matters that undermine human rights.”

“But we are concerned that no preventive security measures, nor any strengthening of local civilian police corps, are being announced at the same time,” Uriarte told IPS.

The activist said that the new government’s actions against drug traffickers, who certainly are behaving with unprecedented violence, “are a way to establish the legitimacy” of the use of government force.

The violence of the Mexican drug cartels has escalated to a terrifying degree in recent months.

So far this year, nearly 2,000 people have been executed in several operations attributed to drug traffickers. Most of the victims were shot, but 30 people were decapitated.

“We will not allow criminals to go on blocking Mexico’s path towards a more prosperous and developed future,” Calderón declared.

Opinion polls show that insecurity is one of the main concerns of Mexicans.

Nearly half the families in the country report that at least one of its members has been the victim of a crime, according to a study on “Criminality and Victimisation”, carried out in 2004 under the auspices and direction of the United Nations Office Against Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

However, for every 100 crimes committed in Mexico, only 25 are reported to the police, because of fear or lack of trust, and the onerous paperwork involved. And out of those 25 reported crimes, only five or less are investigated, and only two will result in the arrest of the guilty party, according to statistics from the Secretariat of Public Security.

An average of 4.6 crimes are reported per 1,000 population in Mexico, according to the Secretariat.

Ramírez said that it was correct to carry out a frontal assault on the problem of public insecurity, but criticised the plan to do so with military personnel, and in a manner that would imply “violating the rights of many people.”

Setting up checkpoints indiscriminately on highways and streets, and searching houses and rural areas, are violations of people’s rights to travel freely and of their legal safeguards, he said.

He also pointed out that a large proportion of the federal police are soldiers, and that the military have been used by the authorities to combat protests, like the social uprising in the southern state of Oaxaca from June to November. As of October, Oaxaca state is under occupation by some 5,000 federal police.

“The wave of militarisation in Michoacán is also a means of legitimising the military presence there, at a time when social organisations are gaining strength in that state,” Ramírez said.

In October, a number of organisations formed the Popular Assembly of the People of Michoacán, similar in nature to the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) which led the protests in Oaxaca state.

By order of the government, everyone entering Michoacán, whether by land or by air, is thoroughly searched, as are their vehicles.

The streets of Michoacán’s cities are subject to constant surveillance, and rural areas are patrolled by the approximately 7,000 troops and police that President Calderón has ordered deployed for this operation.

On Wednesday there was a shoot-out between the federal police and suspected drug traffickers in a rural area of Michoacán, where marijuana and opium poppies are grown, and rival gangs have been fighting gun battles over control of marketing routes.

Futhermore, in an incident that is still under investigation, the body of a first cousin of the president’s wife, Margarita Zavala, was found on Wednesday in an abandoned car in the state of Mexico, which borders on the Mexico City district. He had been shot to death.

Various surveys carried out by local media indicate that Calderón’s willingness to combat insecurity with police and military operations was well received by the majority of the population. Numerous independent enquiries made by IPS, without attempting to attain statistical validity, tend to confirm this finding.

Governors of several Mexican states, especially those on the border with the United States, have called on Calderón to carry out operations similar to that in Michoacán in their own states, while business sectors have stated their satisfaction with the government’s hard-line stance towards crime.

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