Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mexican Border Ghost Town is Warning for Drawbacks of Army Policing

The Washington Post looks at the efforts of the Mexican armed forces to secure Ciudad Mier, a town on the U.S. border which hit the headlines last year when it became a battleground for rival drug trafficking groups, prompting the exodus of many of its inhabitants.

The town is a symbolic case for President Felipe Calderon’s militarized approach to the war on drugs. He has increasingly used the tactic of sending the army into areas hit by drug violence, a controversial policy which some analysts say has failed to halt violence in these areas, and may even have caused it to rise. Calderon sent troops to Ciudad Mier in November 2010, but according to the WashPo:
So far, though, the army has brought security, not confidence. Everybody knows the soldiers are not supposed to be there forever.
This is a central problem with the policy of using troop surges to combat crime -- they can effectively cut crime in the short term, but what is to stop the criminal groups returning after the soldiers withdraw? As one citizen of Ciudad Mier warned the WashPo, “the narcos are still watching.”

Despite this fundamental drawback, many countries in Latin America are following Mexico’s example and deploying the army on the streets to cut crime. As noted on yesterday’s post, Just the Facts recently listed four examples of this trend -- Peru, Bolivia, Honduras, El Salvador -- who are all currently moving to give the army an expanded role in internal security. In the case of El Salvador and Honduras this is largely a result of crime driven by drug gangs, while for Peru and Bolivia the situation is more complicated. Peru is currently seeing waves of protest opposing development projects, as well as continuing to fight an insurgency fueled by drug trafficking in some rural parts of the country. Ecuador has also recently made similar moves, while bothParaguay and Guatemala have declared states of emergency in the last year, putting the army in charge of public security for a defined time period and in a defined region.

As well as doubts about its long term effectiveness, another issue with using the military for law enforcement is the potential for abuse, as the military is not trained to do police work or to manage relations with the citizens on a day-to-day basis.

One exception to this may be the favela pacification program being implemented in Rio de Janeiro, where the army is first sent in to troubled neighborhoods to clean out the drug gangs that effectively rule there, and then elite military police units are based in the neigborhood to keep order in the long term. This is combined with development projects in the community, and the arrival of services like the Internet.

Rio’s UPP program, as it is known, has been widely praised. Its achievements in cutting crime are due both to the high level of training of its forces, who have received specialized training in working with the local communities, and the permanent nature of the military police presence in occupied areas.

Something with this kind of longevity could be taking place in Mexico. According to the Washington Post, Ciudad Mier is a test case for a new policy of opening “mobile barracks” for troops in these hotspots;

The army says that the entire base can be picked up and reassembled quickly elsewhere, but the buildings’ solid walls give an impression of permanence.

News Briefs
  • story in the Wall Street Journal brings home the issue of abuses by Mexican troops, with the case of a U.S. citizen who was allegedly tortured after being detained by the Mexican army. The U.S. Justice Department found that 24-year-old Shohn Huckabee was subject to torture after being arrested on accusations of possessing marijuana.
  • The New York Times looks at a report on how perceptions of migration rates often clash with reality. In the U.S., people tend to estimate that 39 percent of the population is made up of migrants, when in fact only 14 percent is, according to the International Organization for Migration. Figures quoted in the report show that Mexican migrants make up a quarter of the U.S.’s immigrant population, with about 11.6 million people.Meanwhile the number of undocumented immigrants from any country present in the U.S. was “steady, at 11.2 million in 2010, after a two-year decline from a peak of 12 million in 2007.”
  • The LA Times reports on an immigration law reform that it says “will make American companies more competitive and the immigration system fairer and more welcoming,” by removing the cap on the number of permanent residents who can be admitted from a single country. This will make the system far more reasonable, as previously, according to the newspaper, those from countries with strong ties to the U.S. often had to wait a long time for visas, because all countries in the world had the same cap regardless of size.
  • In a move that seems to be driven by political point-scoring rather than real concern for policy on fighting crime, Congress will open an investigation into the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA’s) tactic of laundering money for drug cartels in order to gain more information and carry out operations against them. This follows the NYT's publication of a piece over the weekend on the issue. The move echoes the controversy around the “Fast and Furious” operation, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed guns to be trafficked over the Mexico border in order to trace their buyers.
  • Honduran reporter Luz Marina Paz was shot dead by assassins on motorbikes, becoming the 17th journalist to be murdered in the country since 2010. Likemany of those killed, she had been a critic of the coup against President Manuel Zelaya.
  • The New York Times reports that Brazil is seeing in slowdown in growth pulled down by falling consumer spending, putting the country on course for a GDP expansion of only 3 percent this year. The newspaper points at issues with China, saying that the country, “Brazil’s largest trading partner, is showing some signs of cooling off, with new reports of weakness in manufacturing and services.”
  • IPS has a piece with more on economic links between Latin America and China, reporting that countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay have all benefited from the Asian country’s growing demand for food and mineral imports. Meanwhile Bolivia and China have agreed to strengthen military cooperation at a meeting in Beijing.
  • Brazil’s Senate has passed a bill lowering the protection of the Amazon rainforest, reports the WSJ; ‘The new forest code would reduce the amount of forest preserves farmers are required to keep when deforesting land, and pardon some past illegal deforestation among other measures.” Environmental bodies have warned that it could encourage fresh deforestation if made law.
  • The Miami Herald has an opinion piece that criticizes the cases of U.S. law enforcement officers who have been dismissed for advocating more liberal drug policy. “Clearly,” the columnist points out “the war on drugs has escalated to a war on talking about the war on drugs.”
  • In a story that illustrates some of Hugo Chavez’s charisma, the Associated Press reports that the Venezuelan leader shared a joke with journalists over the infamous Benetton adverts that showed him kissing Barack Obama. Before seeing the image, Chavez asked, “How does Obama look? With eyes closed, as if he were inspired?” On being shown the ad by journalists, the president said that he wasn’t offended, but that the fashion company ought to send him a tie for Christmas.

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