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Mexico sent in the army to fight the drug war. Many question the toll on society and the army itself

Mexico sent in the army to fight the drug war. Many question the toll on society and the army itself
Mexican soldiers patrol the state of Michoacan in 2006, the year Mexico first deployed the military to fight against drug cartels. (Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated Press)

The handwritten letter addressed to the Mexican president and lawmakers came from a military prison outside the capital.

Its authors were 20 soldiers awaiting sentencing for crimes committed during Mexico’s drug war, which has seen tens of thousands of troops deployed against well-armed criminal gangs in a bloody conflict without apparent end.

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“We … were used by the Mexican state in a failed experiment which resulted in an enormous number of collateral victims and dozens of soldiers of low rank in prison,” the jailed troops wrote. “We are performing a function for which we were not prepared.”

The missive was a rare public expression of disquiet from members of Mexico’s insular military. The plea captured what some call a growing sense of unease and even dissent as Mexico moves toward what appears to be a permanent use of troops in its war on drugs.

Current and former soldiers and officers are joining human rights groups to denounce Mexico’s ever-increasing militarization of civilian law enforcement, a trend solidified with the new Internal Security Law, passed by lawmakers in December. The law is facing challenges in the Supreme Court.

“We don’t want to perform the functions of the police,” retired Army Gen. Jesus Estrada Bustamante said in an interview.

Critics say the military — trained in tactics of war — is ill suited for police tasks, and that its deployment is undercutting trust in the military, long among the nation’s most respected institutions.

Military personnel have been implicated in scores of cases of torture, killings, disappearances and other crimes since being sent to the front lines of the drug cartel battles.

And then there is the escalating number of casualties among troops, mostly from poor and working-class backgrounds, who are now routinely assigned to protracted stints in violence-plagued states such as Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Michoacan and Veracruz.

Drug gangs have mounted complex ambushes against military patrols, kidnapped and beheaded soldiers, and even shot down a pair of helicopters.

Since Mexico launched its offensive against the cartels in 2006, official figures show, more than 500 troops have been killed, about half shot dead and the others lost in vehicle accidents, air crashes and other incidents related to missions against organized crime.

“This clearly generates physical and psychological costs,” noted Javier Oliva Posada, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “You are confronting criminals who have no problem in torturing and destroying their victims, including elements of the armed forces.”

Another 1,500 troops have been wounded, some permanently maimed — among them Oswaldo Ortega, a former special operations military police officer wounded in 2009 in the border city of Ciudad Juarez when narco-traffickers ambushed his convoy.

Ortega’s rifle misfired, sending a bullet through his left foot, which eventually had to be amputated.

“When something like that happens to a soldier, you are no longer useful,” Ortega said. “You become a discarded object.”

Even top commanders concede that counter-narcotics work is not what troops are principally trained to do, and that the arduous mission is causing burnout. While historically hesitant to air grievances in public, they argue that the new security law is needed to provide a “legal framework” for the military’s role in combating cartels.

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“The soldiers think that if they enter into confrontation with criminal groups they face the risk of going to jail accused of human rights violations, or they could be charged with disobeying orders,” Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, Mexico’s defense secretary, said at a 2016 event marking the 10-year anniversary of the military’s direct role in the drug war.

The mission has exacted a heavy toll.

“There’s a wear-and-tear, it’s obvious,” Cienfuegos said at a national defense seminar in 2016, arguing that more troops were needed. “We are working all over the country, at every hour, at every moment, in the mountains, in the cities.”

Backers of the new security statute, however, deny that it opens the door to unchecked deployments.

“The law categorically says armed forces may be employed only as a last recourse, after authorities of the different branches of government have been unable to contain the threat at hand,” Army Gen. Alejandro Ramos Flores, head of the military’s judicial branch, told lawmakers.

Still, the new law, while providing legal cover for military brass, essentially keeps the Army and Navy — whose ranks include 215,000 soldiers and 54,000 marines — as permanent alternatives to police. “Soldiers are going to experience more problems because they … will continue to do a job that doesn’t correspond to them,” argued Cesar Gutierrez-Priego, an attorney who represents troops accused of crimes.

Mexican authorities turned to the military because of the entrenched corruption of local and state police, who are often on gang payrolls. A disturbing sense of lawlessness pervades much of the country.

For state and municipal governments, critics argue, reliance on troops has become a counterproductive crutch and a disincentive to police reform.

“They prefer to build a barracks — and that a battalion is brought to preserve security — instead of improving their police force,” said Estrada, the retired general.

Indeed, authorities in crime-battered Baja California Sur — a major tourist zone where homicides have skyrocketed — boast of plans to open a pair of barracks, injecting more than 850 additional troops into the region.

Meanwhile, critics say, police forces languish, outgunned, underpaid and often compromised. This despite a $2.8-billion U.S. aid effort — the Merida Initiative — that is designed to foster rule of law and a modern police and justice system.

Unlike a professional police presence, experts say, military deployments tend to be short-lived and lack accountability.

“As the military replaces the police, the efforts to reform the police — which data show reduces homicides — have been left behind,” said Catalina Perez, a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching of Economics, a Mexico City-based institution.

Four years into the drug war, even then-President Felipe Calderon privately recognized that “the blunt-force approach of major military deployments has not curbed violence in zones like Ciudad Juarez,” according to an explosive U.S. Embassy cable dated Jan. 9, 2010, and released by WikiLeaks.

“The military was not trained to patrol the streets or carry out law enforcement operations,” the cable concluded. “The result: arrests [in Juarez] skyrocketed, prosecutions remained flat, and both the military and public have become increasingly frustrated.”

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In addition, accusations of extrajudicial killings, torture and other human rights violations against the military soon piled up.

Between 2007 and 2014, at least 3,907 people were killed in confrontations with the Mexican military, according to official statistics that have not been updated since 2014.

The military labels those killed as “civilian aggressors,” but did not break down what percentage were armed or how many were collateral victims caught in crossfire. The relatively small number of reported wounded — 494 — attests to the likelihood of a lethal outcome once the military opens fire.

Human rights activists have accused the military of complicity in two notorious cases: the alleged massacre of at least a dozen civilians in the town of Tlatlaya outside of Mexico City in June 2014, and the disappearance the following September of 43 teacher-trainees abducted in Guerrero state. Courts threw out charges against seven soldiers charged in the Tlatlaya case, and the government denies military culpability in the disappearance of the teacher-trainees.

The 20 jailed soldiers who signed the letter to authorities in December 2016 labeled themselves victims, not criminals. Their ranks included four captains and two lieutenants and, while many details were not available, alleged crimes included homicide and abuse of authority. Almost half still had pending cases, but nine had been sentenced to prison terms of up to 31 years.

“It’s true that we should all insure the well-being of the public,” the soldiers wrote in the letter, which initially was reported in the Mexican daily El Universal. “But only those trained to do so can do it. … None of us joined the armed forces to do this.”

Ortega, the former military policeman, is among those who argue that ill-prepared troops are being wrongly dispatched into a violent vortex. Ortega, 32, is a former amateur boxer, bouncer and butcher who said he always wanted to be a soldier. He retired in 2016 after nine years of service, embittered and an amputee.

“Inside the army you can’t give much of an opinion, but for sure most people are fed up with the treatment,” Ortega said in a interview from his home in Hidalgo state.

Soldiers, he said, are sent out with shoddy equipment — worn-out flak vests, faulty weapons, broken helmets. Echoing the findings of human rights investigators, he said prisoners were subjected to beatings, electric shock and the infamous “Tehuacanazo” — a form of waterboarding, named after a brand of bottled water.

Today, Ortega says he lives on a monthly pension of about $600, which also supports four children. With his disability, he said, he can’t find work.

“What is going to happen when the military goes all-out against the drug cartels?” he asked. “To the government, each of us is just another peon.”

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