LATIN AMERICA : Mexican Senate Passes Crime Bill Despite Rights Concerns


An opposition senator denounced the legislation as “Hitlerian.” Another called it “fascist” and warned that the new law “prepares the way for a coup d’etat” and the militarization of Mexico.

But at the end of this week’s rancorous debate over a law creating a new National System of Public Security, the Mexican Senate overrode the objections and approved the first of three bills intended to crack down on organized crime, lawlessness, money laundering and the powerful Mexican drug cartels that authorities say threaten to make key areas of the country ungovernable.

The anti-crime package is sponsored by President Ernesto Zedillo’s government as a first step in its war on organized crime, the cartels and general lawlessness. The government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, argue that the legislation would enable federal law-enforcement authorities to intensify their campaign to improve security in a land where the criminals often have more money and power than the law.

As this week’s Senate debate over the first of those new laws showed so dramatically, however, the issue is fraught with controversy--pitting the need for personal security against a desire to preserve basic freedoms.


The get-tough laws similarly are testing Zedillo’s attempts to balance his commitment to democracy and his promise to rid Mexico of the drug cartels that he calls the top threat to Mexico’s national security.

The public security bill acknowledges the challenge in its preface, conceding that lawlessness is growing, prosecutions are declining and criminal structures are outstripping those of law enforcement.

The bill, which is now pending in Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, creates new structures to foster police coordination. But in its most controversial article, the new law would establish a national security council, which would include the secretaries of the army and navy, to oversee general law-enforcement activities.

“The law is confusing public security and national security; the armed forces would be butting into civilian matters, going against the constitution,” said Sen. Felix Salgado, one of three members of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, who voted against the bill. “The fear is that it will turn the country into a military state.

“The government is declaring itself incapable of taking on rising violence and calling in the military, opening itself to increased repression. It could lead to a government controlled by the army. This is Mexico, not Hitler’s Germany.”


Sen. Heberto Castillo, also a PRD member, argued that the inclusion of the military in the anti-crime drive also opens Mexico’s still-professional armed services to the same corruption that drug cartels have used to buy off key civilian police and prosecutors.

The ruling PRI--which voted in favor of the law, along with the conservative opposition National Action Party--rejected such criticisms. Key party members defended the law as constitutional and stressed that civilian Cabinet secretaries would control the security council.

But similar debates are probable in the weeks ahead, as the Senate and Chamber of Deputies consider two other get-tough measures.

An organized-crime bill sponsored by Zedillo’s attorney general would establish elite narcotics units specially armed, trained and equipped to go after the drug cartels--and those units would include the army. The bill also creates guidelines for government wiretapping, which probably will bring considerable criticism that it infringes on civil liberties.

A third bill submitted by the Mexican Treasury Department attacks money laundering, which law enforcement agencies say has expanded the drug cartels’ influence into many legitimate businesses.

With the PRI’s overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress, though, legislative experts say they expect all three measures will become law before the end of the year.