Anger and frustration over rampant killings and kidnappings have ignited an improbable debate here over legalizing the death penalty, a punishment that has been effectively banned in Mexico for nearly half a century.
Lawmakers agreed Thursday to hear arguments next week on a proposal to amend the Mexican Constitution to allow for capital punishment in a narrow number of cases.
The initiative from Humberto Moreira, governor of the northern border state of Coahuila, would allow the death penalty for convicted kidnappers who killed or mutilated their victims. He said as far as the people of his state were concerned, the only issue was how to execute convicts, not whether to do so.
It is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that the death penalty could be reinstated because of legal obstacles, experts said. But that is almost beside the point. Moreira has tapped into public panic over soaring crime, a climate of fear that has made law and order the country's No. 1 worry.
Much of the bloodshed is related to Mexico's drug war, as government forces crack down on powerful traffickers and traffickers battle one another over pieces of the lucrative trade.
But violence is spilling into ordinary society. Two recent kidnappings of children of affluent Mexicans -- one turned up dead and the other has not been found -- underlined the public's vulnerability. As much as the crimes themselves, the fact that there are few prosecutions -- impunity and no justice -- riles Mexican society.
"If 98% of criminals escape prosecution for their crimes, it is clear that the population feels wounded and tends to support capital punishment," Gerardo Priego, a legislator from the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, told reporters.
Moreira's initiative received quick support from several state governors from his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
But critics accused Moreira of demagoguery and of taking advantage of the public mood for political gain. Mexico City's Human Rights Commission said a return to state-administered executions would set the country back 200 years.
"Behind this call [for the death penalty] is society's desperation over the climate of insecurity we are living in," said Alberto Herrera, head of the Mexico chapter of Amnesty International. "But the risk is it leads to calls for revenge. Times of desperation are the worst times to go for facile solutions."
Reinstatement of the death penalty is unlikely for legal and political reasons. The last execution in Mexico was in 1961, coincidentally in Coahuila, the state where the current initiative originated. Capital punishment remained on the books, primarily within the military judicial system, but was unused and abolished in 2005.
In 1981, Mexico signed a human rights treaty as part of the Organization of American States that dictated the death penalty, once eliminated, could not be revived.
Furthermore, the PAN, which holds sway in Congress, says it opposes changing the constitution to allow capital punishment.
Recent polls showed support for the death penalty surging to as much as two-thirds of the surveyed population.
Miguel Carbonell, a constitutional law expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University, said that despite public outcry, the chance of imposing the death penalty, given the international treaties that Mexico signed, was "nil."
"We are all very worried about the security situation and want strong measures," he said. "But the state cannot fall into the same criminal behavior as the criminals."
In separate action Thursday, the lower house of Mexico's Congress approved a package of state security measures aimed at strengthening the government's ability to fight drug traffickers and organized crime. Key among the measures were provisions to prevent the infiltration of police forces by criminals.
Wilkinson is a Times staff writer.