Relying on the military for public security endeavors is not uncommon across Latin America. Governments often convey the merits of this policy without properly acknowledging and acting on the failings of civilian institutions in law enforcement and criminal justice. Likewise, using the military for law enforcement duties is continuously defended by politicians despite the evidence pointing to its ineffectiveness and unintended consequences.

As Mexico approaches the 10-year anniversary (December 2006) of launching an all-out military campaign against drug trafficking organizations, and amid rising uneasiness from the military’s top brass regarding its role in policing the most violent places countrywide, it is both timely and pressing to address the costs of relying on the armed forces to provide public security.


The military has had a diverse and controversial role in contemporary Latin America. Even after achieving independence, various countries in the region continued to experience foreign military interventions (e.g. Chile, Cuba, and Mexico) as well as internal conflicts involving to some extent the armed forces (e.g. Colombia – FARC, Peru – Shining Path, Mexico – Dirty War). Apart from the outlier that is Mexico in terms of 20th century military-civilian relations, the Cold War brought a new period of militarization of politics, ranging from military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Ecuador, to civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. For the most part, the military was used as a tool of internal control, aside from the traditional functions of providing internal and border security.

By the final years of the Cold War, democratic transitions in most of the region led to the demilitarization of politics, which meant large budget cuts and a shifting role of the armed forces. The absence of existential threats or other major strategic risks from foreign interventions also set the armed forces on a path to institutional rediscovery.

As such, emerging threats such as drug trafficking and violent crime began to fill that vacuum. The ‘war on drugs’ and its focus on supply-side policies – an agenda pushed relentlessly by the United States through coercive diplomacy – meant that producing and transit countries south of the US border bore the brunt of the costs.

In many cases, like in Mexico, the government summoned the military to take on the task, yet avoided providing an exit strategy or timetable. Consequently, the growing militarization of public security was seldom accompanied by genuine efforts to reform civilian security institutions, including the police, courts, and intelligence services

Current situation

With more than a decade on the streets, the Mexican armed forces have faced growing criticisms. Mounting cases of human rights abuses, including torture and forced disappearances, have been documented. The lethality rate (i.e. the number of civilians injured for every civilian killed in combat) is not only too high to be considered “normal” (four injured per one dead) but actually reversed. In other words the Mexican army and navy kill eight and 30 opponents, respectively, for every one that they injure. This suggests the armed forces might be literally taking no prisoners, precisely what they are trained to do but the opposite of what they are supposed to do under the circumstances.

Mixed reactions to the military’s role in public security have thus transpired. The harshest criticisms have come from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), both national and international, as well as inter-governmental organizations (IGOs). Besides calling out and documenting the military’s missteps concerning human rights violations, these organizations have actively pushed for reforms to both the civilian and military justice systems.

The latest reform on the latter, signed into law in May 2016, was deemed unconstitutional by many NGOs for not addressing the discretion with which the armed forces can get away with committing human rights abuses. The new law also does little to curb the power of the military jurisdiction in cases where civilians are hurt or killed, or where military officers commit crimes prescribed in the civilian criminal code (i.e. homicide). Furthermore, the United Nations submitted a number of recommendations to the Mexican government regarding additional changes to the military justice code (last revised in 2014) such as allowing civilian courts to address cases of human rights abuses against members of the armed forces and regulating the use of force in accordance to international standards. The government responded by saying these changes are unlikely to be addressed any time soon.

Notwithstanding these issues, public opinion continues to notably support the deployment of the armed forces to tackle organized crime, particularly due to their lack of confidence on law enforcement institutions and the overwhelming sense that the government is losing to organized crime.


The continuous use of the armed forces for law enforcement purposes in Mexico has been largely ineffective in its goal to weaken organized crime, while resulting in unintended consequences such as spiraling violence in some regions. Policies to at least guide the military’s actions have been piecemeal and insufficient, while efforts to transform the justice system and the police have been hindered.

A 2008 reform to the justice system that came into effect on June 18 of this year has been poorly implemented at the state level, and could take more than a decade for it to operate effectively.

Deliberations on what police model to adopt have pit those who support unifying some 1,800 local police forces under 32 centralized state agencies against those arguing for a hybrid model where only the most corrupt or weak forces are absorbed by the state police forces. While the former support the so-called Mando Único under the idea that it would make it harder for criminal groups to intimidate and corrupt local police and politicians, there is no evidence to support that assumption.

On the contrary, many of the failings of local police forces can be found on the state level, including the absence of basic evaluations on skills and aptitudes, as well as confidence and performance evaluations. Meanwhile, public trust on the state police differs slightly from local police forces, with the latest national survey on victimization and public security showing that 67% of Mexicans consider the local police to be corrupt, while 63% say the same for the state police. Despite the need for further analysis on the advantages and disadvantages of such a model, legislation on the Mando Único is already in congress awaiting approval.

The military has also suffered consequences from this prolonged state of affairs. Despite admitting to rising burnout and attrition from 10 years of fighting violent criminal organizations, the country’s Secretary of Defense has said that the military will continue to do its job if asked to, but also demanded greater resources (Mexico has one of the lowest defense budgets in the world) and a legal framework to do so.

Nonetheless, political will is all but absent. Given the possibility to call on the federal government and request support from the armed forces and the Federal Police (FP) whenever security conditions deteriorate, to this day local authorities lack the incentive to pursue ambitious transformations that do not conform to 3-year and 6-year electoral cycles and that require expending significant political capital. Legislators and federal authorities likewise show minimal interest in prioritizing police reform.

Given the significant lack of trust on the police to take over the military, alternative solutions for tackling violent crime are being rolled out. The military police is one option that has gained traction in some countries, including Honduras and Brazil, the latter in which numerous killings and abuses against civilians have been extensively documented. In Mexico, military police units have begun working in joint patrols with state police forces in northeastern Mexico since March of this year, although also without a clear mandate, legal framework, or strategy.


Mexico is at a crossroads concerning the role of its armed forces in public security. For long authorities have neglected the importance of developing effective security and justice institutions. The following are some options of what the Mexican state could do in terms of defining the role of the armed forces in public security.

1. Keep the military deployed for an indefinite period.

As the status quo, this is the path of least resistance. Politicians have gotten used to the pressure and criticisms, and despite the shortcomings of the latest reform on the military justice system, they no longer feel in need to address this particular issue – much less with crucial upcoming elections in 2017 and 2018. On security and justice matters, police reform will be the next big issue on the next legislature.

  • Advantages: All together, few would argue that it’s better to simply pull back the military from public security tasks. The police as an institution is simply not ready to do its job, and even if they could, the justice system is not prepared to investigate and penalize offenders in a fair and transparent process.
  • Disadvantages: Keeping the military doing police work will not quell violence, and might even exacerbate it, while human rights abuses are likely to continue because the armed forces are not trained for policing. Providing a mandate and legal framework might help mitigate violence, but there’s little evidence to support that claim. On the contrary, the case of Brazil shows that police violence can become deeply entrenched if not adequately restrained. Moreover, arguing that the police are not ready to do its job makes it easier for local authorities to avoid taking responsibility for providing security to their citizens.

2. Gradually withdraw the armed forces, keeping them in the most vulnerable locations the longest.

This policy has been suggested previously by the current administration, yet no attempt has been made to execute it.

  • Advantages: The option makes sense but only if accompanied by serious reforms to justice and police institutions. That has not been the case, even after eight years of implementing crucial reforms to the criminal justice system. Furthermore, with no agreement as to what policing model should be embraced and no well-defined legal framework for the armed forces, this policy will be constantly disregarded given the continuously volatile security environment with ebbs and flows of violence.
  • Disadvantages: These parallel efforts are not taking place. The absence of a legal framework makes it easy for local governments to request help from the federal government whenever violence spikes, and the latter has no reason to refuse if the consequence of doing so is swelling violence. Even with crimes that fall under state jurisdiction and it’s not their direct responsibility, the federal government cannot afford to do nothing when things get out of control. The problem lies, again, on political disincentives.

3. Gradually replace the armed forces with military police in highly violent locations for an indefinite period.

A hybrid of this sort could take several forms. First, the military police that already exists inside the armed forces could be given a mandate to conduct policing activities, similar to that already in motion in northeastern Mexico. It’s too soon to assess these operations, but persistent violence in states such as Nuevo León and Tamaulipas suggests security conditions will hardly vary without comprehensive transformations to the justice system as a whole.

Another option involves providing police officers with military training, which is counterintuitive if wanting to avoid one of the key problems with using the army in law enforcement: the extreme use of violence and human rights violations. The recently formed Gendarmerie was supposedly set to become Mexico’s elite police force, an autonomous 40,000-strong institution with both military and policing training. In the end, however, the Gendarmerie had only 5,000 officers and was folded into the FP. As expected, its performance has been rather ineffective.

  • Advantages: Not many, given the precedent of the Gendarmerie and other similar institutions.
  • Disadvantages: There is null evidence that these types of corporations are effective for law enforcement purposes in countries with high levels of corruption and weak rule of law. Brazil is a prime example; its military police is under state jurisdiction and has a solely preventative function, however it is infamous for its brutal tactics against mostly poor civilians.

4. Gradually, but completely, withdraw the armed forces from public security tasks in a predefined period.

This is the most common policy advocated by civil society groups, NGOs and some politicians. It basically calls for the gradual withdrawal of the military from public security tasks, in accordance to a timetable set by the legislative (in conjunction with other relevant state and non-state stakeholders). The conditions for the withdrawal could vary but should be made clear from the outset.

  • Advantages: Despite the support of citizens across Latin America for using the armed forces to tackle violence, this is the expected policy in a time where democratic governance is the ultimate goal for developing countries like Mexico.
  • Disadvantages: Some degree of coercive power is essential in a country such as Mexico where the rule of law is all but absent and criminal violence is commonplace. Supporters of this policy fail to suggest what would replace the military in the short term – the usual claim involves the long-term and arduous task of developing strong police and justice institutions.

Numerous NGOs and citizen groups have pushed this agenda for more than a decade, but it requires much stronger and more focused actions from citizens across the country – and not merely from Mexico City-based cliques – for authorities to act. International pressure is key as well, and here is where the network of embassies and consulates throughout Mexico could play an important role, together with local citizen organizations, and push an agenda for key institutional reforms.