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DRUGS-MEXICO: Army to Continue Policing Until 2012

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Feb 6 2008 (IPS) - The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has joined those calling for the Mexican army to be withdrawn from the fight against drug traffickers. But her request will not be acted on until at least 2012, when President Felipe Calderón’s term of office is up.

Keeping soldiers in the front line of crime-fighting for a long period of time is “frankly dangerous,” because they are trained to use “excessive force,” said Arbour, who met with Calderón Wednesday in the course of a four-day visit to Mexico, where she arrived on Tuesday.

Law enforcement requires reasonable and contained use of force, Arbour said. Nevertheless, she acknowledged that there may be times when a greater force, like the army, must be resorted to.

The National Defence Programme for 2007-2012, signed by Calderón on Jan. 23, clearly states that the military will continue to participate in the fight against drug cartels, which have been using unprecedented levels of violence and firepower over the past few years.

So far this year, over 260 people have been murdered in drug-related killings. In 2007, drug-related deaths totalled 2,800, and over the last seven years, nearly 12,000 people have been killed.

Following some recent arrests of druglords, the authorities said that the mafias are planning to murder high-level security officials, and that in some cases these groups have weaponry similar to that used by the U.S. armed forces.

Although the Mexican constitution states that in peace time, no military authority shall exercise functions beyond those strictly related to military discipline, a Supreme Court ruling in 1996 approved the use of the army for other purposes when there are grave internal security problems.

Calderón, who took office in December 2006, ordered the military into the front line of combat against drug trafficking. His predecessors had also done so, but not to such a great extent.

Polls indicate that most of the public supports the strategy, as do a number of analysts who argue that today, only the armed forces can stand up to the violence of drug traffickers.

But non-governmental organisations and the state National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) are asking for a timetable for the withdrawal of the armed forces from police work as soon as possible, on the grounds that they lack suitable training.

Several cases of human rights abuses by soldiers during policing actions have already been documented.

Human rights expert Fabián Sánchez told IPS that the military are unprepared for police work, and for respecting human rights. He urged the government to work harder at professionalising the police.

The Mexican police are also involved in the fight against drug mafias, but several studies indicate that they are poorly trained and also seriously tainted by corruption.

Sánchez, a former head of the non-governmental Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights, acknowledges these failings, but says that not enough is being done to correct them.

In 2007 the government made 1,400 police chiefs take aptitude tests, which fewer than 600 passed.

In Mexico, 350,000 police are distributed in different divisions which lack central coordination. Police officers are poorly paid, badly trained, and are no match for the greater tactical strength and firepower of the drug trafficking mafias.

In addition, their social prestige is at rock bottom, according to the polls.

The military, on the other hand, made up of 253,000 troops, are highly regarded by Mexicans.

According to José Luis Soberanes, head of the CNDH, “sentencing the army to stay on the streets indefinitely is the worst thing that could happen to us.”

Ombudsman Soberanes called for “a gradual, prudent and cautious” withdrawal of soldiers from police work, “so that organised crime does not regard the state as a paper tiger.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights joined her voice to this demand, but observers do not think it will have much of an impact, especially now that drug traffickers’ violence has reached unprecedented levels.

The most powerful drug trafficking organisations in Latin America operate in Mexico, and a large proportion of the drugs consumed in the United States is trafficked from this country.

Some researchers suggest that the government should change tack in the fight against drug trafficking, by emphasising prevention of drug consumption and attacking poverty in the areas where drug plantations exist and the cartels are active.

However, the plans announced by the authorities indicate that military force will continue to be used, at least until 2012.

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