MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's Senate voted unanimously Thursday to approve a more civilian-oriented version of the militarized National Guard that the government wants to use to combat a rising wave of crime.
Senators want to avoid militarizing law enforcement, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants a force with military discipline. Since taking office Dec. 1, Lopez Obrador has entrusted the army and navy with a wide range of tasks ranging from distributing fuel to building an airport.
Opponents of the plan say the military is ill-suited for police work and they worry the creation of a National Guard could delay a much-needed building of trustworthy civilian police departments.
But some Mexicans feel the military is the only government institution that can handle violent gangs in a country hit by a record 33,341 homicides in 2018 — a 15.5 increase over 2017 and equivalent to about 27 killing per 100,000 inhabitants. The military still commands widespread trust in Mexico, although it also has been implicated in severe human rights abuses.
The Senate adopted changes to the bill passed earlier by the lower house, so the legislation will apparently have to return to a conference committee.
The Senate managed to arrive at a rare consensus to place the new guard under the civilian Public Safety Department. But its members will initially come from the federal police and military police units and will have joint military-civilian command and training. Members of the Guard would preserve their military ranks and benefits, but would be tried in civilian courts for any abuses.
The legislation also sets a five-year limit on using the military for police duties. It was not clear what would happen after those five years, though presumably the National Guard would replace army and navy units in policing. The military turns over all suspects and evidence to civilian prosecutors.
The bill was the product of an odd coalition of forces. Opposition parties that were steam-rolled by Lopez Obrador's crushing 2018 election victory had been wary of the creation of the Guard, but opposition party state governors who have to deal with violent cartels were ardent supporters of the new force. Unlike the U.S. National Guard, governors won't command the force in Mexico but can request it be deployed to their states.
Lopez Obrador has resisted weakening the military discipline for the new corps, and the lower house has indicated it is also loath to water it down.
"There isn't much point in approving a corps that won't give the country the ability to confront violence," said Rep. Mario Delgado, leader in the lower house for Lopez Obrador's Morena party.
"I like the model that we (the lower house) approved, precisely because it was a militarized police, it imbued the best values of the army in the Guard, with a mixed command," Delgado said.
But he indicated there could be flexibility, saying, "In constitutional reforms there have to be negotiations and one doesn't always get everything one wants in negotiations."
Because the bill involves constitutional changes, it also will have to be approved by a majority of state legislatures.