Jan 21, 2012 | Article, Michael Lawrence

In some ways Mexico’s full-fledged war against its drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) advances the goals of SSR. Behind the scenes of bloody confrontation, police forces at various levels are undergoing a process of vetting and reform intended to root out corruption and improve capacity and coordination. Similarly, the country’s judicial system is advancing a modernization program by switching to oral (rather than written) trials and striving to harmonize laws and procedures between states. These promising steps notwithstanding, Mexico’s war on drugs poses immense threats to security governance.

The most obvious challenge is that the deployment of the military to directly confront the DTOs has only served to precipitously escalate the violence wracking the country. The Attorney General’s Office recently revealed that 47 515 people have been killed between December 2006, when President Calderon deployed the military en masse, and December 2011. But the military strategy does not just escalate insecurity; it also threatens the rule of law. Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights recently presented to the Congress a long list of serious complaints against security forces received during 2011, including murder, torture and forced disappearance. The Ministry of Defense was the alleged perpetrator of 1879 human rights violations, and the Federal Police 1150. As the Navy has increasingly taken the lead on sophisticated tactical raids against DTO kingpins, the number of human rights complaints directed at the force has increased exponentially to 977 in 2011. The recent Human Rights Watch report Neither Rights nor Security provides a detailed analysis of the human rights violations associated with Mexico’s drug war.

These problems are incredibly prescient for the Central American republics as they follow Mexico’s example and deploy their militaries to confront the challenges of organized crime and transnational gangs (the ‘maras’). Earlier this month, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina announced he would deploy the military to confront drug traffickers as Mexico’s violence travels south. Honduras and El Salvador have already taken such actions. The core problem is that the deployment of the military – ostensibly intended to protect the rule of law – tends to violate and over-ride the rule of law, to the detriment of security governance. This problem is best demonstrated in a recent interview given by retired General  David Munguia Payes, head of El Salvador’s Security Cabinet, who explained:

“Our system of laws, which has very high guarantees of civil liberties, would be ideal for a society which had normal behavior, but it can’t process the entire quantity of crimes that are being committed … Our proposal is to fix this system, to open those bottlenecks, so that the system can process the large amount of crime that we have, to put the criminals where they should be, and take them off the street.”

If the military strategy sacrifices civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law, the cure may prove just as damaging as the ailment in these already fragile states.