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Military madness …

10 July 2009

Kick ’em when they’re up, kick ’em when they’re down.

With the recent Human Rights Watch report (“Uniform Impunity:  Mexico’s Misuse of Military Justice to Prosecute Abuses in Counternarcotics and Public Security Operations“, pdf only) seeming to give the U.S. media outlets carte blanche to suddenly discover that using military forces in police operations leads to human rights abuses.

While some articles, such as Charles Bowden’s piece in Mother Jones — as Ganchoblog lightly put it — “seemed to want to make up for the narrowness of his facts with broad, poorly supported accusations” — most are simply confirming the same thing the Mex Files has been sayingover and over and over and over and over and over again (just in the last year) the using the military as police would have a negative impact, both on the military and on civilian life.

The U.S. press is suddenly waking up to what Mexican voters have known (and was a major factor in the poor showing by PAN in the election) … MILITARY UNITS ARE NOT CIVILIAN POLICE. I know I’m supposed to be (as one recent commentator put it) an “Obamazombie” — which I suppose means I tend more to the left than the right (though I don’t see the Obama connection —  as I’ve written, while an improvement over the last U.S. administration, Obama’s Mexico policy is uncomfortably reminiscent of the worst U.S. administration in Mexican  history and like others, think the State Department’s dealings with Latin America are ham-handed at best).  Which should make me — being a lefty kind of guy and all — a knee-jerk anti-miliary type.  Which I’m not.

Like Mexicans in general, I have a lot of respect for the Mexican military.  It does its core mission well… there are no serious external threats to the nation, no particularly looming miliary dangers.  Strategic national interests (the oil wells, roads, ports, waterways) are relatively safe.  And, in natural disasters, the Army is extremely quick to respond, and responds competently.

Which is about all one can expect one of the smallest military forces in the world (per capita) to do.  And, although surveys consistenly show that Mexicans respect the military as an institution, it is not a popular career choice.  The respect is for people doing a necessary job for very little reward.  Pay sucks, even for the officer corps.  Most of the soldiers are draftees.   While all Mexican men have to perform national service, very few opt for the Army, Navy or Air Force… most middle-class kids find a low-level task in a government or academic office that will satisfy the requirements … filing papers, teacher’s aides, door to door public health workers, etc.

Others do Servicio Nacional Militar,  before they turn 18, and exempts them from the draft .  This is especially popular with city kids — kind of a big sleepover/scout camp (most of their activity is planting trees along watersheds).  And, even draftees may not be doing “military type” activities … anything from clerking in the military bank to … as a friend of mine did, working on his doctoral dissertation in sex and gender studies.

Juan Soldado (the basic G.I.) is generally poorer, less educated, more “country” and has fewer life prospects than the average Mexican youth.   Most are not bad kids but, of course, you’re going to get some who don’t turn out well in later life.  Every U.S. newspaper, when talking about Mexican gangsters seems to add “xx number of the gangsters were ex-soldiers”…which doesn’t mean anything.  Even the feared Zetas, while probably they were orignally trained by special forces guys, are unlikely to be Rambo.  For one thing, there are very, very few “special forces” guys in the Mexican military, and there are a lot of Zetas.  Maybe.

I have my doubts about the strength of the Zetas and the other gangs, wondering if the need to keep justifying an increasingly unpopular program hasn’t led the government to label all gangsters as members of some supposedly ferocious super-gang.  Or, whether the simple fact that using the military against the people (and one forgets narcotics smuggling is one of the few lucrative industries in rural Mexico, meaning it’s one of the larger employers in much of the country) hasn’t created informal (or formal) ties between what would otherwise be small time baddies (or even “corner cutting”) groups… i.e.,  it’s better for your local car thief to become a “Zeta” than to go free-lance when the Army’s hanging around.

The point is that the Calderon Administration decided to use the military for this task, to the detriment of other — more traditional tasks that the military does well.  I think it’s a shame, given that progress was being made in watershed and forest protection (and protecting natural resources comes under the heading of “national security” so forest protection is a military occupation).

The results have been too much for the military to handle, and a decline in military morale (and civilian respect for the institution).  Although  Calderon increased the military budget (though I thought the soldiers and sailors and marines certainly deserved better pay and benefits, usually military expenditures are one of the smaller budget items in Mexico), went shopping for more weapons, and sent the military out to chase drug exporters…  he was anxious to use the military before he was even sworn into office (or it was even clear he would be), against not any particular threat to Mexican security or the nation’s resources, but against “insecurity” in Oaxaca.  That ended, he needed to find some other “security threat.”  Gangsters.

What’s interesting … and what I think the U.S. media types miss (and many of the commentators here in Mexico as well) is that the sudden spike in “Mexican Miltiary Misdeeds” stories are surfacing at the same time that it’s becoming clear the Administration here will not be able to continue it’s “war on (some) drug (exporters which keeps the United States from having to deal with its out of control drug addiction problem)” and the United States is discovering that the “Plan Merida” funding — like other Bush Administration funding programs — was mostly smoke and mirrors.  One wonders if the U.S. isn’t — as it’s prone to do — seek to blame outsiders for its drug addiction problem … and having failed in it’s own “war on drugs” seeks to now blame the Mexican military for pursuing it either too harshly, or not harshly enough.

Had the Merida funding really been for police training and upgrade (things that will take years to pay off) and not about selling hardware (and “services”) it might have been worthwhile.  As it is, PRI — after being accused of being in cahoots with the gangsters — is going to have to clean up the mess.  With what I expect will be some “human rights concerns” that give the U.S. a plausible way to back out of the Merida Iniative, Mexican taxpayers will have to pay the price… and that could bounce back on the party as it rebuilds.   Not that I care much about the PRI’s prospects, but I don’t want my taxes to go up.

There is a bright spot in all this.  The Mexican Supreme Court has agreed to consider the military justice code.  President Fox — who was suprisingly anti-militarist (going so far as to try to make the Revolution Day parade a celebration of sports and physical fitness programs) — made some changes to the Military Code of Justice here.  He never complained when the Supreme Court gave HIV positive soldiers the right to remain in the service (and receive care in military health facilities), nor when a military tribunal was broadcast live on national televison (three Generals were court-martialed for corruption).  And Fox, without any protest, commuted all the death sentences handed down by the miltiary tribunals (which still have a death sentence, though no one has been executed in several years).

There is a real possiblity, that — as in Argentina — military courts will be abolished, and misbehaving soldiers will face the same courts any other miscreant does.  This is also, as Lilly pointed out when Argentina made the change, a victory for the common soldier, who will receive the same civil rights as any other citizen.

Which, once the soldiers are off the streets, should improve for all of us.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 July 2009 8:09 am

    I had heard…but I’m not sure…that the US was involved with some sort of scuffle in Iraq where they found themselves as law enforcement officers after “changing” a regime and that said approach worked poorly for them. One would assume that US journalists would pick that up with more speed…or at least that would be the assumption in a sane world.

  2. 10 July 2009 8:42 am

    This should be required reading for everyone from the US Administration to all reporters in the US writing about Mexico.

  3. Timo permalink
    12 July 2009 9:30 am

    Why do you think that “US media” is only now waking up to the dangers of using military forces in police matters? That’s completely false. Every account I’ve read in the US about Calderon’s decision to deploy the army to fight the drug dealers has mentioned the dangers involved in this strategy. Here’s just one example:,0,7439731.story

    It would be easy to find more.

  4. 12 July 2009 4:10 pm

    The Zeta hysteria is getting a bit tough to take.

    Most of the original 30-40 Zetas were airmobile special forces commandos who had received extra training as drug warriors. Osiel Cardenas started wooing them in late 1997. He wanted some muscle to take over the Gulf Cartel after the U.S., in its infinite wisdom, extradited the old leader.

    The story of the Zetas illustrates all the problems with using the military to hunt down drug traffickers. One, it doesn’t work. When Zedillo sent the drug warriors to the border about 70% of U.S.-bound cocaine transshipped Mexico, today that figure is closer to 90%.

    Two, the more training and technology you pour into this fight, the harder it will blow back at you. In the late 90’s it was a new thing for a drug lord to literally have a private army. Nowadays, every cartel has one–Los Pelones, Los Negroes, the Special Forces of Arturo….

  5. 12 July 2009 10:52 pm

    I forgot to mention that most of the original Mexican special forces guys have been killed or jailed over the years. Also, the Zetas have morphed into a typical drug trafficking organization. They’re no longer a private security force that just happens to work for a drug lord. They’re a drug cartel with all the usual divisions of labor that entails. They’ve got footsoldiers and little kid lookouts on bicycles and accountants and the whole bit. Not everyone in the Zetas organization is a soldier of any kind, although they do still recruit cops and soldiers when they can. But as Rich has pointed out several times, a lot of Mexicans have military experience of some description, but seldom the special forces training that Zeta mythologists would have you believe.


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