Mexico Proposes Expanding Army's Power In Drug War

By: Mark Stevenson, Associated Press Email
By: Mark Stevenson, Associated Press Email

MEXICO CITY (AP) - A bill that would let Mexico declare temporary states of emergency and expand the army's power in a bloody fight against powerful drug gangs drew immediate fire Thursday from human rights activists who say soldiers should not be doing the job of police.

President Felipe Calderon's proposal, which centers on the idea of declaring drug trafficking hotspots "domestic security" zones, would give the army access to civilian court and police files.

The measure was submitted to Congress late Wednesday.

"The expansion of organized crime poses new challenges for democratic societies," it reads. "That requires the government to bring to bear all the force of the state to confront it."

Calderon's government has already dispatched 45,000 troops to
drug-plagued areas - mostly along the U.S. border - where cartel battles have cost more than 10,700 lives since Calderon took office in December 2006.

On Thursday morning, police found a man's decapitated body in the middle of a road in Tijuana, a gang-ridden city across the border from San Diego. The body was wrapped in a sheet, and the head had been placed on his chest inside a plastic bag.

By law, soldiers are limited to playing a support role for police.

The proposal would officially place army troops at the head of anti-crime efforts in some areas - formalizing the reality that in some places the military has effectively replaced weak or corrupt local forces.

But soldiers have been implicated in human rights abuses such as shooting civilians at checkpoints and conducting illegal searches. Human rights groups say the bill may be a sign that Calderon is reversing a promise to get the army off the streets as soon as possible.

In a February interview with The Associated Press, Calderon said he hoped to beat back the cartels by 2012 to a point that the army and federal police can withdraw and leave the problem in the hands of local law enforcement.

"It is worrisome that they could declare a state of emergency or give the army more power, given the experiences we have already had," said Consuelo Morales, director of the Monterrey-based Citizens in Support of Human Rights.

However, Morales acknowledged that many Mexicans support army involvement in drug-plagued cities.

"People like the military because they say the police are corrupt," she said.

The idea that the military would have access to civilian legal files angered defense lawyers like Raquenel Villanueva, a Monterrey-based attorney who has served as defense council in a number of high-profile drug cases.

"The army doesn't have the training to do that," Villanueva said, citing a history of due-process violations and illegal detentions that could make it risky for the military to have access to all police files.

Former federal anti-drug prosecutor Samuel Gonzalez agreed the proposal introduced gray areas that could lead to abuses.

"The fact that the military has access to civilian legal files isn't of itself a violation of human rights," said Gonzalez. "Now, what the military does with that information, that is another problem."

The bill says "public servants should respect human rights" and pledged to advise human rights groups when the emergency decrees are issued. Rebellion, attacks on law enforcement agencies, a breakdown in public safety or the incapacity of local authorities would be conditions for declaring a state of emergency.

It would let the country's national intelligence agency engage in "counterintelligence investigations" in cases of arms trafficking, terrorism or terrorist financing, foreign interference, attacks by organized crime gangs against authorities and intelligence agents, or attacks on shipping or aviation.

The measure establishes tougher penalties for soldiers who desert the army to work for cartels, illegal weapons possession and threatening public officials or their families.

The bill would also allow groups of suspects to be charged individually for weapons found in a vehicle or house they all shared; and lay out special punishments for possession of more than 50 rounds of ammunition or for using guns altered to be more deadly.

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