Mexico Approves 60,000-Strong Security Force. Critics Call It More of the Same.

Mexico Approves 60,000-Strong Security Force. Critics Call It More of the Same.

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s Congress on Thursday approved the creation of a 60,000-member National Guard to tackle the nation’s public security crisis, a force that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made a cornerstone of his plan to confront organized crime and curb soaring violence.

The vote capped months of legislative wrangling over the nature of the force and who would control it, with human-rights activists and civil society groups lobbying fiercely to limit the military’s influence on it and warning it could represent the further militarization of policing in Mexico.

In the end, Congress decided the National Guard would have an explicitly civilian, rather than military, character, with the new force lodged under the authority of the civilian Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection.

The makeup of the force would be a hybrid, combining officers from the Federal Police with members of the army and navy’s policing units. While military members of the force would be able to maintain their ranks, those accused of abuses would be tried in civilian courts. The force’s top commander could be a military official but would report to a civilian boss.

The near-unanimous vote in the lower house of Congress followed a unanimous vote on the same proposal in the Senate on Feb. 21. The proposal, which involves reforms to more than a dozen articles in the Mexican Constitution, still needs ratification by a simple majority of Mexico’s state congresses to go into effect.

Giving oversight of the force to a civilian authority helped assuage some critics who had worried that an overtly military National Guard would have represented the continuation of a failed strategy stretching back more than a decade.

In 2006, the president at the time, Ernesto Calderon, declared an all-out war on drug traffickers and deployed the military to lead the battle. He pursued a strategy, continued by his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, of decapitating the groups by taking down their leaders.

But the approach helped to fragment large criminal enterprises into smaller, more violent groups, which branched out into a wider range of crimes. This increasingly complex criminal landscape has led to soaring violence: There were more homicides in Mexico last year than in any other year on record.

Mr. López Obrador initially campaigned on a promise to break from his predecessors by pulling the military off the streets and returning them to their barracks.

But some civil society groups argued Mr. López Obrador’s proposal amounted to yet another iteration of a failed strategy to deploy the blunt weapon of the military to fight crime. Critics noted that the military had a history of human-rights abuses and was not trained for the sort of neighborhood-level, serve-and-protect approach that the public security crisis in Mexico demanded.

Instead, civil society groups wanted the government to invest heavily in the nation’s police forces, and improve the ability of law-enforcement agencies to conduct thorough criminal investigations that result in convictions.

A day after Mr. López Obrador presented his proposal for creating the National Guard, the Mexican Supreme Court struck down a 2017 law that would have expanded and formalized the military’s policing powers.

But the plan approved by Congress on Thursday will allow the military to remain active in the public security fight while the National Guard is made fully operational. After a five-year transition period, the military will be pulled from the streets.

Mexico’s security secretary, Alfonso Durazo, said he hoped approval by the state legislatures would be completed within four months, after which the new force would begin. Its initial ranks would take shape by absorbing 18,000 Federal Police officers, 35,000 military police and 8,000 naval police.

By the end of the year, he said, he hoped to increase the force to 150,000 through intense recruitment and training. The force would be permanently deployed throughout the country.

But some analysts said the force may not be large enough to win the security battle.

“This guard will soon face harsh reality and will be seriously challenged,” said Abelardo Rodríguez, a professor at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. The largest organized crime groups, he said, have tremendous firepower that has at times overwhelmed the Mexican armed forces.

The security secretary acknowledged the size of the force would be a fraction of what the country needs. Ideally, Mr. Durazo said, the National Guard would number at least 360,000.

“We are using what is available,” he said, “and trying to guarantee public security, hoping that in several years we will have a loyal, disciplined body that will serve as an example to the world.”

Some security analysts questioned whether the new entity would be radical enough break from the existing Federal Police — in composition, training and strategy — to alter the security situation.

“Operationally, it doesn’t change anything,” said Jaime López Aranda, a security analyst in Mexico City, noting that the National Guard would be another version of what Mexico has had for years: a hybrid model of civilian and military policing.

As for his assessment of whether the National Guard would have an impact on crime and violence, Mr. López Aranda responded: “Of course not. It’s the same people doing the exact same stuff.”

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