MEXICO CITY -- The Mexican army _ the country’s last line of defense against violent gangs _ is struggling with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s desire to avoid confrontation while simultaneously dealing with gangs that have become more aggressive and often use townspeople as human shields.
López Obrador has given the army a bigger role than it has had in decades, but he also given it the mandate of avoiding civilian casualties. For months, that has meant allowing army patrols to be slapped around by crowds, disarmed and humiliated. But the army’s patience appears to be running out, with soldiers firing warning shots in some recent confrontations.
The issue came to a head recently when a patrol carrying out the army’s bread-and-butter role — drug crop eradication — was ambushed in the southern state of Guerrero, killing three soldiers.
Whereas previous administrations might have flooded the area with heavily armed troops, López Obrador said he wants to avoid confrontations; the one thing he doesn’t want in his term is an army massacre of the kind that has occurred in the past in Mexico.
But it leaves the army with a conundrum: Drug cartels and criminal gangs have learned to use crowds of townspeople armed with stones and cudgels as human shields, while the army has made little or no progress in the use of non-lethal force — tear gas or Tasers — to handle such situations.
This has put to the test the president’s campaign slogan of “hugs, not bullets” in dealing with Mexico’s violence, part of an ambitious vision for helping the country regain its moral compass that he has dubbed the "Fourth Transformation." He sees the change being brought to Mexico as akin to its 1810 independence uprising, 1857 Liberal movement and 1910 revolution.
Over and over, crowds of townspeople — often in the pay of gangs — have confronted soldiers and marines, with troops not fighting back. In May a video emerged of a squad of a half dozen soldiers being abducted and disarmed by vigilantes linked to a gang in western Mexico. The soldiers are pushed and insulted by the vigilantes until they agree to return a .50 caliber sniper rifle that had been seized by a previous patrol.
While some saw it as a humiliation, López Obrador invited the soldiers to the presidential offices and congratulated them for keeping their heads and not firing their weapons.
“We do not want a peace imposed by authoritarianism, by the use of force; we do not want the peace of the graveyard,” said López Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1 promising to reduce the sky-high levels of violence and human rights abuses amid the country’s militarized war on drug cartels. “We have to draw youth to us, to embrace youths” by providing jobs, training programs and scholarships to avoid them being recruited by gangs.
But there are signs the military is tiring of turning the other cheek. The possible change in sentiment has generated fears of a return of rights abuses, such as in 2014, when soldiers executed at least a dozen gang suspects after they surrendered, and other cases.
“This is a structural problem of the Mexican government,” said security analyst Alejandro Hope, noting that in the past, “law enforcement forces either used excessive force, or did nothing at all.”
Hope says two incidents in early September suggest the honeymoon of apparent army passivity may be over.
On Sept. 7, in the hamlet of La Llave in the state of Queretaro, a group of about 50 townspeople gathered on the local railroad tracks to loot train cars, a scene that has become increasingly frequent in Mexico. Residents often pile stones, tree trunks or tires on tracks to force trains to stop, then pry open containers to steal household goods or grain from the cars.
When an army patrol showed up to stop the looting, the townspeople turned on the soldiers, tossing stones at them and swinging cudgels. In the past, that kind of action worked, leaving the army to look on helplessly as looting continued. But this time the residents injured two soldiers and tried to take their guns. At that point, the army said, someone fired gunshots — it wasn’t clear who — and the officer leading the patrol fired at the ground; two civilians suffered gunshot wounds, though the army didn’t specify that the officer shot them.
A day later, in the state of Puebla, the army again defended its use of force — firing warning shots — after a crowd of about 150 townspeople fought soldiers with clubs and stones, to try to gain control of a warehouse holding stolen tractor-trailers filled with merchandise that had been seized by the army. No one was injured, but it was clear change from just a few months ago.
Juan Ibarrola, a newspaper columnist and expert on Mexico’s armed forces, said he believes the confrontations are part of a strategy by drug cartels.
“The drug cartels have created a social base to serve as human shields, to limit the army’s presence in certain areas,” Ibarrola said, noting that farm workers or housewives can get money from gangs for participating in these confrontations. “For example, if a woman or a child dies and it was a soldier who killed them, imagine, that would change the whole narrative ... It would be madness.”
Ibarrola said that while Mexico’s president likely never directly ordered military leaders to not respond to confrontations, they got the message loud and clear from his words and actions.
Now the question is how much longer they will stick with this commitment despite what many see as rising provocations and a homicide rate that has risen since López Obrador took office.
Ibarrola thinks they will. After all, he says, López Obrador has given the defense department a bigger role in the nation’s economy and politics than it has had in decades. He routinely praises soldiers as “the people in uniform.”
And while it was previous governments that roped soldiers and marines into law enforcement duties, largely because civilian police were often either bought off or killed by heavily armed cartels, López Obrador surprised many by leaving them in the role after he took office.
“I think there is a commitment (in the military) to show the president that the armed forces will not be the ones to start a fire,” he said.
It has become common to see army and National Guard personnel “patrolling” crime-ridden areas simply by driving around in trucks, but seldom descending to perform foot patrols, as if their mere presence would discourage crime.
“We are avoiding confrontations; more and more, there is intelligence work,” López Obrador said Friday.
But there are also doubts whether the military — despite its bigger role in the newly-formed National Guard — will try to avoid confrontations completely. Some critics say simply withdrawing won’t work, especially in dangerous rural areas where the army eradicates drug plantations.
There is a third way, which Mexico has little explored: the use of dissuasive, non-lethal force.
Mexico’s use-of-force manual for the armed forces allows them to fire in self-defense, but requires them to use “proportional” force. It is unclear whether soldiers have the means or the training to use proportional force.
The Defense Department did not respond to questions about whether soldiers are equipped or trained to use non-lethal force, although Ibarrola reports army units are getting riot equipment like shields.
The May incident in which soldiers didn’t fire and were abducted by vigilantes, highlights this uncertainty over how the military should handle confrontations with civilians.
While it generally opposes using the army to fight crime, even Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission “totally rejected” the incident, saying the vigilantes were wrong to attack soldiers.
“The authorities have to come up with protocols and strategies to handle these cases,” the commission said.
While nobody expects the president’s colorful rhetoric to change — he includes “family values” as a way to fight violence — some feel there is a changing sentiment among security forces.
The military response on Sept. 7 and 8 “does appear to mark a policy shift, toward something more practical,” said Hope. “It appears they are loosening the reins on the army.”