Integrating Human Rights and Public Security: The Challenges Posed by the Militarization of Law Enforcement

By Chavez, Rebecca Bill | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Integrating Human Rights and Public Security: The Challenges Posed by the Militarization of Law Enforcement


Chavez, Rebecca Bill, Joint Force Quarterly


In the wake of an attack against the military in the Mexican state of Michoacan in May 2007, soldiers went on a 3-day rampage. According to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, members of the armed forces arbitrarily detained and held 36 people at a military base for up to 84 hours. The detainees suffered numerous abuses--including torture and rape--as part of an effort to obtain information about alleged links to drug-trafficking organizations. One of the detainees was burned, several were tied to posts, and one had his head submerged repeatedly into a bucket of water. The soldiers beat and raped four girls under the age of 18. In addition, soldiers entered more than 30 homes without warrants, causing property damage and injuring inhabitants.

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Unfortunately, such stories of human rights abuses by military personnel have increased since President Felipe Calderon assumed office in December 2006 and summoned the armed forces to lead the struggle against the violent drug-trafficking organizations that have wreaked havoc on society. Mexico is not alone in its inability to reconcile human rights and public security. A growing public security crisis in much of Latin America and the Caribbean has placed exacting pressures on security forces. The adage that desperate times call for desperate measures could spread as governments search for effective methods to fight the crime epidemic and public insecurity. Across much of the region, the inability of law enforcement to deal with the crisis has led to the deployment of troops to the streets. Police forces in many countries are overwhelmed and underfunded. Worse, police corruption is rampant, and police involvement in illicit trafficking has become commonplace. As a result, a diverse group of nations, including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico, has assigned law enforcement responsibilities to their militaries, and other nations will likely follow suit in the effort to stem the violence associated with powerful criminal organizations. (1)

The integration of human rights and public security into a single coherent agenda is of critical importance. As the Mexican case illustrates so vividly, the militarization of law enforcement increases the potential for confusion and mistakes in the realm of human rights. While the United States should in no way encourage the expansion of the military's domestic role and should focus additional resources on strengthening police forces and judicial institutions, Washington cannot ignore the reinsertion of the armed forces into an internal security role. (2) Given the military's participation in past repression in Latin America and in recognition of the fact that military doctrine is not typically oriented toward the responsibilities of law enforcement, strong human rights programs within the armed forces of Latin America and the Caribbean are essential. (3)

This article makes the case that the reconciliation of human rights and citizen security is critical to the security and stability of the Americas and provides an overview of the daunting public security challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean that have led to military reinsertion. The article then demonstrates how the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) human rights division has advanced the human rights agenda in the region. It argues that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) should assume a greater role in the development of military human rights programs across the globe and draws lessons from the USSOUTHCOM experience that could inform human rights programs in the other regional combatant commands. The article concludes with a reminder that the military is not a long-term solution to public insecurity and that an effective plan must include police reform and the establishment of the rule of law to address the impunity that plagues much of the region.

Why Human Rights Matter

In addition to the obvious moral and ethical reasons for respecting rights, attention to human rights is an essential component of an effective public security campaign. …

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