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News > Analysis

Mexico's Controversial Internal Security Law Explained

  • A soldier stands guard next to a crime scene in the municipality of San Nicolas de los Garza, Mexico.

    A soldier stands guard next to a crime scene in the municipality of San Nicolas de los Garza, Mexico. | Photo: Reuters

Published 1 February 2018

The law has been widely criticized by human rights organizations and activists in a country with growing militarization.

Mexico's controversial new Internal Security Law, ISL, has been widely criticized by human rights organizations and activists for the role it gives the army and naval forces in civil security duties. Even the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticized the law and asked the Senate not to pass it.


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On Wednesday organizations, social groups and activists in Mexico City marched against it in a day of protests they called “National Struggle Day.”

In a country where murders and kidnappings take place on daily basis, and mass graves are frequently found, security is one of the population's most urgent concern.

So, why are Mexicans protesting this law and what are its potential consequences?

The Internal Security bill was passed by the Chamber of Representatives on Nov. 30, 2017. Protests erupted shortly after, while both national and international organizations rejected it arguing the law would allow the military to take over issues that normally handled by civilian security forces.

Two weeks later the Senate approved it with minor changes, and it was published and enacted into law on Dec. 21.

The ISL Controversial Articles

Article 11 establishes that Mexico's president, by his own initiative or when asked by the Federal chambers, may order Federal authorities, including the Army and the Navy, to intervene when “threats to internal security” are identified and other federal or local forces' capacities prove insufficient against “the threat.”

According to the next three articles, the president will need the National Security Council's approval and the Human Rights National Commission must be notified. Then, the president will have 72 hours to publish an Internal Security Declaration of Protection, in which a specific geographical zone, a time frame and acting forces must be determined.

Article 15 limits the declaration of protection to one year, with the possibility of extending it if the threat continues.

Article 16 then takes things a little further, investing Mexico's president with the power to immediately publish the security declaration and demand actions from the national armed forces, skipping all the previous steps if the threat merits it. Of course, “under his strict responsibility.”

Article 30 gives the military the ability to carry out intelligence activities, including any “licit information collecting methods,” without specifying which methods are licit or not, and then adding this would fully respect the human rights recognized in Mexico's political constitution.

This article is an example of the ambiguity the ISL has been criticized for. Terms are not specific and allow for a wide interpretation of concepts, situations and actions that would make the ISL a potential threat to human rights in Mexico.

Article 7, for example, states any activity related to the ISL must respect human rights, but also says this may be suspended if a severe disturbance of peace deems it necessary, always respecting article 29 of the Mexican constitution, which basically allows for suspension of rights and freedoms if a recognized serious threat requires it.

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Article 8 poses another ambiguous conflict, stating that peaceful political or electoral protests that respect the constitution will never under any circumstance be considered a threat to Internal Security.

This article should give activists some peace of mind, but if we go back to article 4, we find out that the definition for “legitimate use of force” is intended to “control, repel or neutralize acts of resistance.”

In a violent country where government legitimacy is highly contested and some communities have decided to take over security in their own hands, these ambiguities matter.

The ISL supposedly aims to allow the Armed Forces to intervene with Internal Security Actions when risks and threats to Internal Security are identified, but these definitions are so unclear human rights organizations fear it would only increase the role of the military in the country.

Article 18 states that the Armed Forces should never replace other authorities or engage in normal public security issues. However, their “Internal Security Actions” are loosely defined and the law also doesn't specify when civil security forces' capabilities would be considered as “exceeded.”

Permanent Militarization

Everyday life in Mexico has already seen an increasing militarization, especially since former President Felipe Calderon, 2006-2012, declared “war on drugs,” starting a new period of violence in Mexico's history.

Critics say the new security law would only legalize and extend this period, diminishing civil security forces' role in protecting the population and social order.

“Adopting a new legal framework to regulate the operations of the armed forces in internal security is not the answer. The current draft law risks weakening incentives for the civilian authorities to fully assume their law enforcement roles,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, adding that the law “may be implemented extensively and in an arbitrary manner.”

Local U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights representative Jan Jarab expressed similar concerns. Mexico's Human Rights National Commission has also unsuccessfully tried to stop the law.

When the “drug war” started, the military was supposed to aid civil forces in the fight against drug cartels. Since then, the military has been responsible of massacres, abuse of authority, torture and forced disappearances.

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The Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S. organization researching human rights in the continent, reported 505 criminal investigations against the military, according to official data collected between 2012 and 2016, including 268 for torture, 121 for abuse of authority abuse, 37 for forced dissappearances, 31 for sexual violence and 17 killings, as well as robbery and extortion.

Regarding these cases, only 16 sentences were registered.

However, those are only the numbers revealed by the authorities based on actual criminal investigations in a country where most abuses and crimes are never reported. Thus actual figures could be much higher as has been shown by social organizations. For example, the National Alert System for Human Rights Violations registered 906 complaints only in 2012.

In 2014, the army killed 22 people in a warehouse in Tlatlaya, arguing it had been a confrontation between the armed forces and a criminal organization. Investigations later showed the army had fabricated evidence, placing weapons along the dead bodies.

Witnesses and survivors claimed some people inside the warehouse did belong to a criminal organization, but that they all were sleeping when the army started shooting and surrendered quickly after. The army then came in and executed almost all of them, including minors.

The situation in Mexico does require new measures to tackle security, but the ISL doesn't look promising and worries most of analysts, human rights organizations, as it would give the military more power and extend its presence in the streets.

The military is supposed to safeguard the population, but in a corrupted, violent scenario, it has proved to be not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

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