Killings by Mexican Marines Underscore Lack of Oversight

Recent data shows that Mexican marines have become far more lethal in clashes with armed gangs, raising concerns of accountability at a time when Mexico prepares to send a new National Guard unit into the streets.

During the past 12 years, Mexican marines have engaged in at least 400 battles with allegedly armed civilians, killing over 400 people, according to data obtained by Animal Politico.  All but one of the deaths came within the last seven years, the data from the Navy Secretariat (Secretaria de Marina Armada – Semar) shows.

Marines have also severely increased their use of deadly force, with the ratio of deaths to injuries becoming alarmingly lopsided. Between 2007 and 2011, about 200 civilians were injured in these clashes and only one person was killed. This trend drastically shifted between 2012 and 2019, when the force racked up 445 civilian deaths. By comparison, only 19 people were injured in such clashes.

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The number of clashes involving Mexican marines also leapt up in 2010 and has since remained at an average of between 30 to 60 annually.

InSight Crime Analysis

This data about the increased use of deadly force by marines raises serious questions about the training and oversight of such forces, as Mexico nears the creation of a new National Guard unit to combat rising crime and violence.

The military has long remained key to Mexico’s internal security strategy. As far back as 2006, Mexico’s then-President Felipe Calderón announced that his administration was deploying thousands of federal troops to take on crime in his home state of Michoacán.

Many allegations of torture, excessive use of force, extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations followed the move.

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The latest allegations of abuse include a 2018 report that Marines improperly used a submachine gun, leading to the death of three civilians in Nuevo Laredo. Meanwhile, in the same year and city, it was reported that at least 33 people were forcefully disappeared. Some of the disappearances have been linked to the Mexican Navy.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had expressed dismay at Mexico’s militarization while on the campaign trial before reversing that position in office and pushing for the creation of the National Guard.

Before Congress voted on the creation of the new unit, people alleging serious human rights violations by members of the Mexican Army and the Marines called on lawmakers not to do so.

And a recent report by Amnesty International warned that the armed forces are “a trigger and direct case of increased violence in the municipalities” where they are deployed.

While the new force is supposed to have more of a civilian character, it is not a clean break from the militarized approach of the past 12 years. The National Guard will initially be manned by Mexican military and federal police, and though it operates under the civilian Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection, it may be headed by a military officer.

The quasi-military unit will be deployed throughout the country.

Madeleine Penman, a regional researcher for Amnesty International in Mexico City, told InSight Crime that Mexico has shown itself to be unable to investigate and police its military, especially given the “notoriously secretive nature of the armed forces.”

Mexico’s civilian justice system investigates abuses by the armed forces, but prosecutors have long faced obstruction by military officials, who delay investigations, falsify or tamper with evidence, and withhold testimony.

From 2012 to 2016, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office launched 505 criminal investigations into alleged crimes committed by soldiers against civilians, according to a 2017 report by the the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)  Prosecutors secured just 16 convictions.

“The lack of independent control over the actions of the armed forces,” Penman said, “is of grave concern.”