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Dec 2, 2011 | Publications

As the drug war continues to expand southward, a growing number of countries (including Honduras, Guatemala and Ecuador) are following Mexico’s lead by deploying the military in an internal security role to directly confront the drug gangs. The D.E.A. even deploys commando-style squads to support counter-narcotics in Central America and the Caribbean. In addition to the dubious efficacy of this strategy, a new joint report from the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, the Center for International Policy and the Washington Office on Latin America draws upon the experience of Plan Colombia and highlights several ways in which the military strategy threatens security governance in these countries.

One of the key recommendations of the report is: “Don’t Militarize. The United States should not promote internal roles for militaries violating the rules that guide it at home and putting human and civil rights in jeopardy. Instead, the United States should support and encourage strategies that strengthen civilian capacities—particularly public security, criminal investigations, and provision of basic services.”

The report also underscores the need to tackle impunity, strengthen the justice sector and support human rights and public safety as essential parts of a counternarcotics strategy that are easily jeopardized by militarization. These recommendations closely follow a new Human Rights Watch ReportNeither Rights nor Security, which chronicles the torture, disappearances, killings and other abuses associated with the military’s role in the war on drugs. Indeed, complaints of military abuses received by Mexico’s Human Rights Commission increased 1000% during Calderón’s presidency. The government responded to the report, in effect, by pointing out that the abuses of criminal gangs are worse. Mexican civil society has requested that the International Criminal Court investigate the President (as well as key drug lords) for crimes against humanity. The response from the Ministry of Interior is hardly reassuring: “The federal government categorically rejects that security policy could be considered an international crime.” Such incidents suggest a dangerous slippery slope that loosens the rule of law and weakens security governance for the sake of expedient war-fighting amidst escalating violence.

An open letter from Poet Javier Sicilia, whose innocent son was killed in the drug war and who led a major protest last May, captures a growing public outcry over the militarization of counternarcotics and its effects on the security architecture of the country:

“We have had it up to here with you, politicians… We have had it up to here because the corruption of the judicial institutions generates the complicity with crime and the impunity to commit it… We have had it up to here because you only have imagination for violence, for weapons, for insults… We have had it up to here because the citizenry has lost confidence in its governors, its police, its army, and is afraid and in pain.”

These events ultimately suggest that the SSR literature, with its focus on security governance,  can make a significant contribution to the design of a more democratic, rights-respecting and sensible enforcement response to the global drug trade.