March 20, 2009

Border Militarization Deepens

Frontera NorteSur

The assignment of Mexican military personnel to civilian law enforcement duties along the Mexico-US border is growing by the day. In Tijuana, Baja California, Mayor Jorge Ramos Hernandez named three military men to key policing positions this week.

Mayor Ramos swore in Captain Francisco Ortega Zamora as operational head of the Tijuana police force, while he gave two other officials, Air Force Captain Victor Manuel de la Cruz and Lieutenant Adrian Hernandez, the titles of commander and assistant commander, respectively, of the strategic central Tijuana sector.

Fulfilling a 2007 campaign pledge to put soldiers at the helm of crime-fighting, Mayor Ramos said the goal of the appointments was to root out deep-seated corruption and break the stranglehold of organized crime on civilian law enforcement authorities.

In comments made at the swearing-in ceremony for the trio of new police officials, Mayor Ramos said he was convinced his administration was on the “right road” to reclaiming the rule of law. Besides swearing in the new police commanders, the border mayor took oaths of service from 225 officers who reportedly passed corruption tests.

An unscientific, online poll conducted by the Tijuana newspaper Frontera found an overwhelming majority of respondents agreed the presence of military police chiefs in central Tijuana would curb crime. As of March 18, 348 respondents, or 84.08 percent of the total participants in the survey, clicked on the yes button in answer to the question if military police participation would reduce criminal activities in a conflictive part of the city.

In Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, meanwhile, local officials, in coordination with Mexico’s Defense Ministry, continued placing 14 retired or active-duty military personnel in the highest police jobs. As in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez’s civilian police force has been the scene of numerous scandals involving police officers and organized crime.

In a surprise but not completely unexpected move, retired General David Julian Rivera Breton, who was appointed as the city’s new public safety chief this week, disarmed an estimated 1,600 local police officers pending corruption tests. Many police officers were then ordered to act as chauffeurs for soldiers patrolling the streets or put on indefinite furlough.

As General Rivera showed an initial firm hand, more details of the new police chief’s background emerged. In addition to previous service in states well-known for drug trafficking, General Rivera was part of the government campaign against the indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army in the state of Chiapas 15 years ago.

Since thousands of new troops began streaming into Ciudad Juarez late last month, violence has significantly dropped. Armed commandoes, who roamed the streets at will in recent months, have mysteriously melted from the scene. Instead of confronting cartel gunmen, soldiers are carrying out routine police and customs duties. In recent days, army personnel have ticketed motorists for driving older, polluting vehicles or have checked the import/export bays at international bridges.

In US Senate testimony this week, General Victor E. Renuart, Jr., head of the US Department of Defense’s Northern Command, confirmed the US military is collaborating with the Mexican armed forces. General Renuart said efforts to strengthen military capabilities on the border were a positive step.

While the dispatch of fresh troops and the appointment of military personnel to direct civilian law enforcement operations in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez significantly expand the breadth and scope of the Mexican armed forces’ role in public life, military involvement in anti-drug and other law enforcement campaigns is far from new, even though the Mexican Constitution does not allow for the type of activities currently performed by soldiers on the border and in the interior of the nation.

For decades, Mexican soldiers and marines have been assigned the jobs of uprooting drug plantings and seizing narcotics on highways and sea lanes.

In various states of the Republic, retired or on-leave military men are often the choice picks to lead local or state police departments.

A big difference between the current round of border deployments and military appointments and earlier anti-drug campaigns undertaken by the Mexican armed forces is the shift away from rural areas to urban ones.

An official 2008 military document obtained by the Reforma News Agency via Mexico’s Freedom of Information Act provides some details of the change in strategy. According to the news service, the Mexican military plans this year to significantly decrease drug crop elimination programs, which often target poor farmers, and instead focus on high-impact, urban crime areas.

The armed forces intend to more than double the number of personnel assigned to urban zones in at least seven states from 13,000 to 27,000 soldiers during 2009, according to Reforma. Currently, 45,000 troops are active in the drug war across the country, with nearly one-fifth of the total now stationed in Ciudad Juarez alone.

The urban troop “surge” in Ciudad Juarez and other cities takes place less than four months before voters go to the polls to elect a new federal Congress. Aside from a highly visible security presence, a sensationalistic media atmosphere helps defines and shape the 2009 election year.

The two main television networks, Televisa and TV Azteca, generously fill their broadcast time with stories of narco-violence, decapitations and kidnappings, while a small political party, the Mexican Green Party, plasters the country’s streets with expensive, large billboards and bus banners urging the death penalty for murderers and kidnappers. And to make sure everyone gets the message, the Mexican Greens zap robo-calls into homes and offices.

To put the overall political-social situation in a broader historical context, civilian authorities frequently call on the military during crises. Sometimes, the results are far different than what was officially proposed.

In 1997, for example, a huge scandal erupted after General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, head of the National Institute to Combat Drugs and a darling of Washington, was jailed and charged with being on the payroll of the Juarez drug cartel.

Later, another military man highly praised by the Bush administration, General Rafael Macedo de la Concha, served as federal attorney general during the first few years of the Fox administration. With the assistance of the FBI and other US law enforcement agencies, General Macedo de la Concha embarked on a drive to professionalize Mexico’s federal police, the main civilian police force responsible for enforcing drug laws.

Yet many analysts agree that drug trafficking and other organized criminal activities flourished to new heights during the Fox years.

“The depth of the penetration of the agenda of the Fox administration by the Sinaloa Cartel was being investigated,” recently wrote prominent columnist and political analyst Raymundo Riva Palacio. “But a leak from Los Pinos (Mexico’s White House) to a journalist caused the failure of this operation.

Despite previous scandals tainting the Mexican military, most Mexicans still view the armed forces as far more resistant to corruption than are civilian police.

By putting men in uniform in charge of the law in Mexico’s two principal centers of the narco war, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, the Calderon administration, in collaboration with local and state elected officials from both the PRI and PAN political parties, is embarking on a high-stakes gamble that the public security crisis can be calmed with the threat of or the actual application of the iron fist promised by presidential Felipe Calderon candidate during the 2006 presidential campaign.

The policy not only puts the reputation and institutional integrity of the military on the line, but it creates new sets of circumstances that contain uncertain outcomes for the futures of constitutional law and civilian governance.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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