Mexican legislators have overwhelmingly voted for the creation of a new 60,000-member national guard, a proposal embraced by leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as a crucial tool in the fight against organised crimes.
The proposal was approved on Wednesday by about three-quarters of the lower house of Congress, 362 votes in favour and 119 against, with changes to Mexico‘s constitution requiring a two-thirds vote in both the chambers.
Obrador’s MORENA party teamed up with smaller leftist allies and legislators from the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to ensure the house’s approval for the new national guard which would replace the armed forces in the fight against crimes, including drug offences.
In the first phase, the national guard will be composed of some 60,000 members transferred from the existing military and federal police forces, but it was not clear when it might include new hires.
According to the fine print of the proposal, the head of the force will be a civilian, but operational chiefs will be military officers.
The proposal must still be approved by the Senate, and then a simple majority of state legislatures, but both are seen as likely because of the political strength of MORENA and its allies across Mexico.
Critics of the new guard fear it could further militarise crime fighting and lead to human rights abuses. Even some reluctant backers of the bill called for changes that would place limits on the force and eliminate protections against prosecutions if members commit crimes against civilians.
According to a study conducted by Flores-Marcia, associate professor of government at Cornell University in the US, the militarisation of public safety in Mexico is not a solution to tackle the country’s record level of violent crimes.
On the contrary, he argues, similar measures adopted in the past have contributed to a sharp increase in violence, while decreasing “the state’s capacity to provide public order”.
Flore-Marci’s research insists that the military is ill-suited for police task since it relies on weapons and tactics that destroy the targeted enemy rather than de-escalate threats to citizen’s security.
The bill was proposed by Obrador to find a solution to organised crimes in the country. Homicides in Mexico rose by 16 percent in the first half of 2018, breaking a new record for violence set in 2017 when over 29,000 homicides were reported.
Obrador, who took office on December 1, has said he also wants to address Mexico’s long-running battle with gangland violence and lawlessness by tackling poverty and inequality. He has suggested the possibility of an amnesty for some lesser criminals.
The creation of the national guard is not the first time a new government has sought to put its stamp on security with a different policy.
The former administration of then-President Enrique Pena Nieto had created a gendarmerie to oversee the fight against organised crimes, but it was later heavily scaled back.
More than a decade ago, former President Felipe Calderon had sent in the armed forces to fight warring drug cartels. But while the policy succeeded in killing or capturing cartel leaders, the criminal groups splintered and gang violence has since claimed more than 170,000 lives.