By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 20, 2009
MEXICO CITY, Feb. 19 -- Mexican President Felipe Calderón on Thursday defended the deployment of the military in his fight against drug cartels, vowing that the army would continue to patrol cities until the country's weakened and often-corrupt police forces were retrained and able to do the job themselves.
In a speech commemorating the founding of the Mexican army, Calderón suggested that drug bosses had paid marchers who took to the streets this week to protest the army's presence in a dozen cities, where soldiers man roadblocks, search houses and make frequent arrests.
Calderón, who has sent more than 45,000 troops to fight the cartels, said the military would remain on patrol until the government had control of the most violent parts of the country and civil authorities were fully able "to confront this evil." Only then, he said, "will the army have completed its mission."
Turf battles involving the drug traffickers, who are fighting the army, police and one another in order to secure billion-dollar smuggling routes into the United States, took the lives of more than 6,000 people in Mexico last year. The pace of killing has continued in 2009, with more than 650 dead, most in the violent border cities of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. In the past few days, a running gun battle between soldiers and gunmen through the streets of the northern city of Reynosa, captured live on television, left five people dead. In Ciudad Juarez, the assistant chief of the city police department was ambushed Tuesday and assassinated with three other officers.
For the Calderón administration, the stakes could not be higher. On Wednesday, Economy Secretary Gerardo Ruiz Mateos said the administration believed that the cartels had grown so powerful, and their penetration into society so deep, that unless they were confronted, "the next president of the republic would be a narco-trafficker."
Speaking during a visit to Paris, Ruiz said that "this is a serious problem, so serious that we had to deal with it, while the easiest thing to do would have been to do nothing, to maintain the status quo."
Although the Mexican army has been used since World War II to search out and destroy fields of marijuana in rural areas, Calderón is the first president to deploy so many troops to major cities and to place them in such a prominent law enforcement role.
"The extreme use of the military really does start with Calderón," said Roderic Ai Camp, an expert on the Mexican military and a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "And their use comes with some risk. The military as an institution in Mexico has a high level of confidence among ordinary Mexicans. But when the military comes into an area and the violence increases, which it has, then that confidence goes down."
Human rights monitors and defense attorneys have reported an increase in complaints about abuses by the military in its drug enforcement and police work.
The protests against the military this week, which were generally small by Mexican standards, began in Monterrey and spread to five other cities.
The newspaper Reforma reported that the army had arrested a protester in Monterrey who confessed that he and others had received 200 to 500 pesos each ($15 to $38) to shout and wave signs. Police said many of the protesters were poor women and children.
"Those who see their criminal structure weakened have tried to provoke the army's retreat," Calderón told soldiers at an army base in Monterrey on Thursday. "As cowards, they have even used women and children for their miserable goals."