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Mexico putting civilian-led national guard under military control

Members of Mexico's national guard march in the Independence Day military parade in the Zócalo, Mexico City's main plaza, on Sept. 16, 2019. (Marco Ugarte/AP)
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MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s Senate voted Friday to put the army in charge of the 115,000-member national guard as the government abandons plans for a civilian-led federal security agency and further expands the military’s role in tackling the country’s extreme violence.

The move is sparking outrage from human-rights groups, security analysts and legal scholars, who say it’s weakening Mexico’s young democracy but won’t address a principle cause of the explosion in crime: A dysfunctional justice system.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in 2018, created the national guard to replace the 40,000-member federal police. Authorities said the guard would help cement the government’s control over Mexican territory, which is increasingly being challenged by organized-crime groups flush with money from drug trafficking, extortion, oil theft and other illegal activities.

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The president has defended his new plan to place the civilian force under army leadership.

“My proposal isn’t to militarize or move toward authoritarianism, but to guide — under the Defense Ministry’s vigilance — the healthy growth of what should be the main public security institution in the country,” he said last week.

He says army control will ensure the guard doesn’t suffer widespread corruption, as the federal police did. That force became central to crime-fighting strategy under President Felipe Calderón, who served from 2006 through 2012, and it received millions of dollars in training and equipment from the U.S. government. The official in charge of the police, Genaro García Luna, was eventually arrested and charged in U.S. federal court with taking bribes from the Sinaloa cartel of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

García Luna has pleaded not guilty; he’s scheduled to go on trial in New York next year.

For all its problems, the federal police did have a large corps of officers trained to use intelligence to build cases. The national guard, in contrast, has limited capacity to do investigations; it detained 8,258 people last year — “fewer than a medium-sized municipal police force,” wrote Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, in the daily Universal. Just 14 of the arrests were the result of intelligence work, according to government figures.

“By all accounts, it’s a force that patrols and doesn’t investigate,” Hope wrote. That means the guard won’t be effective in reducing impunity in the justice system, Hope and other analysts say.

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Ana Lorena Delgadillo, the human rights activist who heads the Foundation for Justice, said the shift to army control will reduce visibility into the national guard’s budget and activities. “For citizens, there will be a sacrifice of transparency, accountability, respect for human rights,” she wrote in the daily Reforma.

Since Calderón deployed the military to fight drug trafficking gangs, homicides have soared and tens of thousands of people have disappeared. López Obrador says his strategy is making headway, with an about 8-percent drop in homicides this year.

The guard was established as a civilian-led body under a constitutional revision in 2019 that envisioned the force as eventually replacing the military in fighting crime. Yet the guard has drawn most of its members from the army and navy, and its commander is a retired general. Friday’s vote recognized what was already, in practical terms, military control of the guard. The measure was approved several days ago by the Chamber of Deputies.

López Obrador had pushed in recent months for a constitutional revision to shift the guard’s operational and administrative control to the Defense Ministry, but he lacked the supermajority in congress to make that change. In resorting to do it through normal legislation, legal scholars and security analysts said that, he’s violating the constitution and opening the door to years of judicial wrangling.

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“Everything that the National Guard does (detentions, acquisitions, regulations, disciplinary actions et cetera) is going to be caught up in a cloud of legal uncertainty,” Hope wrote.

Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul and Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.