February 29, 2008

The militarization of Tijuana

By Luis Alonso Pérez and Mariana Martínez

Military presence in Mexican cities has been steadily rising, especially in Northern border cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, both known to be political trend setters in Mexico.

The military take over of public safety in some of Mexico’s most violet areas, is part of president Calderon´s “strong hand” approach to the war on drugs and rampant police corruption.

In the last decade, —under pressure from the US and other major drug-consuming countries—, the Mexican government has viewed the military as an ethical entity, fit to tackle drug trafficking.

But it was only last year that Calderón took the military’s role even further, sending 30-agent federal task forces in Ciudad Juárez, Monterrey, and Tijuana. These units have been compared to the American “Untouchables”, who pursued U.S. mobsters in the 1930s.

Now, local and state officials in Baja California are following the president’s lead; choosing retired or on-leave military personnel to head their Public Security offices.

The new Tijuana police commander is formally a military man on leave, and new Public Safety Director for Rosarito is a retired Capitan.

But civilians,—even those who used to cry out the need for military prescience in the streets—, are now questioning the pertinence of such a prescience because of what it can do for human and civil rights.

Alberto Capella, Public Safety Director for Tijuana, considers the military involvement in public safety a must, due to the rampant corruption in police forces and thriving violence in the streets.

“We can’t even start planning a series of internal strategies when what happens on the streets is still out of our control. Since we came into office, we have had to wage two wars: one inside the police force to try to clean it, and the other one, the “normal” one against criminals, who are not going to give us a truce while we identify honest cops, to organize the war against criminals.”

It is now common to find urban military checkpoints as well as convoys patrolling the streets at night.

But safety has come at a steep price for people like Antonio Martinez.

Just a month ago he was taken into custody by federal agents, after a three hour shoot out between police and criminals said to belong to the Arellano Felix Cartel.

Martinez was in his house, just three doors down from where the shooting happened. He said he was hiding in a bathroom the whole time and quickly answered the door when the federal police wanted to question him.

“They thought I was one of them…one of the shooters, and treated me as such.”

Martinez had no contact with his relatives for over 24 hours and was flown to Mexico City for questioning.

“Lower your head, what where you doing here? They were all questioning me at the same time and that’s when the hitting started.”

He said his face was covered most of the time and the agents were wearing masks so he could not identify them.

“One is not really conscious of what’s happening, you just can’t believe it: they just took me from my home, I clearly identified myself I can’t believe they are arresting me…there’s this feeling of total powerlessness.”

Retired military Capitan Jorge Eduardo Montero Alvarez, now Public Security Director of Rosarito, defends the military involvement in public safety and calls Antonio’s experience a mistake that has been blown out of proportion.

“I believe that, making a fair assessment, we can see that the military involvement with civilians is constant, and one can not let a single isolated incident stain our performance.”

Mexico still has the lowest per capita military budget in Latin America, but that can soon change under Calderón, as troop size has grown 15% since 1994, and the military budget continues to rise at a rate of about 16% a year.

In a recent meeting for Private Security Companies, Executive President for both Colombia’s National Private Security Commission and the Pan-American Private Security Federation, Jaime Higuera Serrano, said the Mexican militarization approach is similar to what Colombia lived through over 12 years ago.

The militarization of Colombia came to be for similar reasons: rampant corruption, violence in the streets, kidnappings related to drug trafficking. For Higuera, the approach is viable only under strict citizen involvement and supervision.

“What’s important is that these incidents can be addressed in a timely fashion and that there is civilian control over what authorities are doing so they can denounce irregularities in any given moment.”

But the Mexican Constitution as well as state and local legislatures do not have citizen oversight of military operations and the path to make a claim against a military officer is not clear.

Montero insists on the military’s incorruptibility and honor.

“Anyone can denounce abuse with the authorities, and let me tell you the military is very vigilant of their officer’s behavior, so any kind of abuse that’s reported will be considered by military authorities as a priority, and they will be quick and rigorous in making sure justice is served.”

But for Antonio Martinez, belief in the system has been broken, when asked if he would file a formal complaint, he takes a long pause before answering.

“I need to focus on my physical and emotional stability first. The most valuable thing for me is my integrity and that of my loved ones” said Martinez.

“The fear still exists whenever I see an authority, I get nervous. Yes, yes, I still fear that they can come out of nowhere to ask me a simple question, because now I don’t know what can happen to me, because of what I went thru.”

The federal government claims the Military presence in city streets is only temporary, but the increased budget and troop strength, as well as a reluctance to set specific milestones after which troops will be withdrawn, suggest otherwise.

Without proper oversight or civilian involvement, this strategy might pose a threat to the rights of Mexican citizens, already living in a state of insecurity.

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