This month, a coalition of business groups in Juarez made a request for a deployment of UN peacekeepers. Juarez, a border city of 1.5 million people, has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. In 2008, over 1,600 people were killed in drug-related violence, an average of almost 31 a week. This year, that rate has soared to 50 people a week, or 1,800 in the first nine months of 2009 alone. Obviously, this type of a death rate warrants some serious armed intervention- hence the call for peacekeepers. What’s unusual about the request, however, is that Juarez is already pretty much under martial law. Currently, 7,000 Mexican soldiers and 2,300 federal policeman patrol the streets, or around 1 federal operative for every 161 people.
So, if Juarez has such a large number of armed government representatives patrolling its streets, why are businessmen calling for UN peacekeeping forces? One possibility is that the whole thing is a publicity stunt by businessmen fed up with living in a real-life version of a slasher flick. The other possibility- the one that has some serious ramifications for the entire Mexican approach to drug violence- is that the Mexican Army is a bigger part of the problem than everyone thought.
Philip Caputo delves into this theory in his excellent article for The Atlantic, bravely heading south to dig up rumors of military misconduct. Although Mexico has pretty much become a black hole for truth, Caputo manages to find some very credible examples of murders, kidnappings and torture carried out by the military. These examples are supported by a smattering of facts that have emerged, most notably the 1,230 complaints of military abuse made to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission in 2008. It’s worth noting that, based on the culture of silence that has permeated the country, the real number of abuses committed by the military is probably much, much higher. Even more damning for the army is the popular belief in Mexico that the army is colluding with the Guzman cartel. One of Caputo’s sources explained, “it’s an open secret in Mexico that the army is fighting the Juarez cartel to weaken them and pave the way for Guzman.” If this is true, it certainly wouldn’t be a first. Past examples of cartel-commando partnerships abound.
If Caputo’s information about the army is accurate, then Mexico’s already bleak prospects look even worse. As the US has learned in its many forays abroad, public trust in security institutions is essential for quelling violence and ensuring public safety. Moreover, the Mexican government’s anti-cartel strategy is pretty much entirely based on using the army, and so a corrupt army means that Calderon will have to seriously rethink his plans to save Mexico from itself. It also means that US assistance to Mexico- meager as it is- should focus less on supporting the army, and more on supporting judicial institutions and federal transparency. Whether or not the army is part of the problem or the solution in Mexico remains to be seen, but the answer will surely carry some important hints about the future of our southern neighbor.