Mexico protest Internal Security Law
© AFP
A masked demonstrator in Mexico City participates in a protest against the approval of Mexico’s Internal Security Law, which empowers the army with police powers.
It is not without good reason that modern political systems separate the armed forces from the three branches of the state: the executive, legislature and judiciary. Under this model, the executive is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces; only the legislature can declare war; and police duties are overseen by the judiciary. This system of checks and balances enables the branches of government to regulate each other. Notice that military power is always subordinated to the executive and legislature, and is independent from the judiciary. One could say that the military - a professional organism designed to kill and destroy - is a necessary evil given the potential external threats to a state. It is a beast that must remain domesticated, to be unleashed only in extraordinary situations, and never against its own people. And woe unto those who break these rules!

On Friday 15 December both Mexico's Senate and the Chamber of Deputies approved the Internal Security Law, thanks to the majority held by the party in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the support of some legislators from other parties. The law breaks with the principles of the modern state and sets Mexico on a course for tragedy because it grants police powers to the army.

The main point of the law is that the president can make use of the armed forces in case of a "threat to the internal security." The ambiguous language reminds us of the US Patriot Act that was approved (although most members of the US congress didn't even read it) during the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But who is to determine what constitutes a "threat to internal security"? The president, who in Mexico has historically been associated with corruption, working for the interests of an oligarchy and perennial submission to the United States. As the representative of the High Commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights, Jan Jarab, declared back in February:
"We should step back and ask, 'is internal security the right conceptual framework to tackle the challenges of criminality and violence faced by Mexico?' The concept of 'internal security' is associated with an understanding of security held by authoritarian regimes."
The Justification: A Country Immersed in Chaos

The Mexican website Animal Político reports that:
From January to October this year, 1,515,074 crimes were denounced to the country's 32 attorney offices; violent robberies on businesses grew 62%; violent robberies on highways 54%, and attacks with firearms 39%. [...]

There is an average of 4,208 crimes a day - that is to say, 175 crimes every hour.
Clearly, the wave of crimes and violence that has been swept through Mexico in recent years shows no signs of abating.

The increase in violence is associated with the introduction in 2006 of the Mérida Initiative or "Plan Mexico", when the then newly-elected president Felipe Calderón made 'war on organized crime' his priority. The US contributed $1.6 million in aid to support the initiative between 2008 and 2017, most of which was used to purchase equipment and training to fight organized crime and drug trafficking. This translated into military toys for the Federal Police, which now patrols the country side-by-side with the Mexican Army. The army has been involved in operations against organized crime since then, although without a clear legal framework, hence the new law which provides legal clarification and justification for the army's participation in police duties.

While ostensibly a recognition of facts on the ground, this internal security law is nevertheless a dangerous development. Instead of returning to the rule of law, the government and legislators have simply made what was formerly illegal, legal. What makes this decision even worse is that in Mexico it is common practice to make exceptions to rules and to bend or break existing laws. So passing a law like this that gives powers of arrest to the military means that it is highly likely that this law will also be abused. Under the guise of fighting drug dealers, the way is also open for the military to be used to deal with disgruntled citizens.

Interestingly, two of the main promoters of the law, congressmen César Camacho Quiroz (PRI) and Roberto Gil Zuarth (National Action Party, or PAN) publicly recognized that the law will not solve the problems of public security in Mexico. No doubt! Three years after the launch of the Mérida Initiative and the introduction of military forces on the domestic scene, the violence rate exploded, reaching a staggering 11,397 murders in 2011.

The obvious point that congressmen are ignoring is that drug trafficking is so hard to eliminate because of the ease with which state functionaries can be bribed with astronomical amounts of money (relative to their salaries). In other words, bigger weapons and more training for combat will be useless if the political corruption is not dealt with. Proof of this is that one of the most dangerous cartels in Mexico, Los Zetas, was formed when elite soldiers changed sides and joined organized crime, lured by the handsome profits.

Highlights of the Internal Security Law

Mexican media have been highlighting the following five issues:
  1. The armed forces will be present in states or municipalities for a period of one year. At the end of this year the president may decide to extend the period. In other words: The time limit is decided by the president - which, in Mexico, is to say that there is no time limit.
  2. Article 4 stipulates that the armed forces will make rational and proportional use of their techniques, tactics, methods, weaponry and protocols in order to repeal or neutralize acts of resistance, according to their characteristics and modes of execution. This was one of the points that generated the most outcry from international organizations and Mexican activists, because any popular demonstration could be considered an "act of resistance" and the army would have the right to use its weapons and methods to "neutralize" it. Of course, it will be the army that decides what is to be considered "rational and proportional". It is not hard to see how this could lead to brutal repression and bloodbaths.
  3. The armed forces will adopt measures to provide urgent medical attention if people are injured, and will take those detained to the appropriate authorities. Until now, Mexican authorities have not excelled at providing expedient medical care for those who have been hurt in clashes between social groups or with police forces, so there is no reason to think that things will be any different under this new law. At least they admit beforehand that there will be people wounded!
  4. The federal and armed forces will carry out intelligence activities in regards to internal security, according to their respective competencies, and make use of any legal means of information gathering. So they are not just going to "keep the peace", they will effectively take over police investigation - despite the fact that the same law stipulates that the military will not involve itself in police investigations. How else could we interpret the phrase "intelligence activities"? It is this under this kind of ambiguity that illegal activities thrive.
  5. The armed forces will inform the Public Ministry and the police if a crime has been committed so that the latter can intervene. Although the intention seems to be that the army will not interfere in the judiciary's role, the implication is that the military will have the authority to determine if a crime has been committed or not.
UN infographic: Why is the UN against the Internal Security Law in Mexico?
  • It allows the military to perform duties that are not theirs.
  • Its concepts are ambiguous and the army could be used in arbitrary ways.
  • Its understanding of "the legitimate use of force" does not meet international standards.
  • It allows the armed forces to act without being subordinate to civilian authorities.
  • Its controls and mechanisms of accountability are fragile and limited.
  • It compromises the right to social protest.
  • It inhibits transparency and access to information.
  • It makes use of the concept of "internal security" associated with authoritarian regimes.
  • For these and other reasons, the UN opposes the Law of Internal Security of Mexico.
Several NGOs and citizens joined forces to create the association #SeguridadSinGuerra (Security without War), which called for a protest on Sunday 17th of December to demand that president Enrique Peña Nieto vetoes the law. These are the ten points they identify where the law is in violation of human rights:


Internal Security Law - 10 serious threats
  • It gives police faculties to the armed forces, including "preventive" actions.
  • It does not have controls to verify that human rights are respected.
  • It allows Federal Forces, including the military, to intervene against social protests.
  • It provides poor regulation of the use of force.
  • It determines that all information about internal security measures will be confidential.
  • There are no time limits to internal security deployments.
  • It does not require local authorities to improve their civilian police forces.
  • It encourages military intervention in civil intelligence.
  • It does not establish robust checks and balances.
  • Its imprecise definitions allow multiple interpretations of internal security.
A glimpse into the future

Mexican journalist Julio Astillero tweeted this prediction:
"Time will tell if I am mistaken, but I think that the outcome of the next presidential election has been sealed this morning with the virtual approval of the Internal Security Law: "Legalized" military force against those protesting against evidence of fraud in the elections."
It is a valid point. The idea is reinforced by another legal change that took place on the same day, December 15. It is effectively a Gag Law. Members of Congress modified the Federal Civil Code so that, regarding moral damage, it is now a crime to communicate "via any means, traditional or electronic, a fact, whether true or false, determinate or indeterminate, that could cause dishonour, discredit, prejudice or cause someone's contempt." Such as, for example, calling out fraud in the elections - even if it is true?

Public demonstrations are extremely common in Mexico and it is common knowledge that rigging elections - normally in favour of the PRI - happens routinely. Whether or not the 2018 presidential elections are stolen, in the current social climate public dissatisfaction is practically guaranteed. Would a new president be tempted to make use of his new powers over the army to "neutralize acts of resistance" that threaten "internal security"? Was this the real purpose of the law? And if it is used for political purposes, how different is that to the military dictatorships several other Latin American countries had to endure during the 20th century?