Mexican president-elect's party presents national guard plan

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Lawmakers from Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) on Tuesday submitted a bill for a new national guard that aims to replace the armed forces in the fight against organized crime.

FILE PHOTO: President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador talks about his security plan to the media, before he takes office as Mexican President on the December 1, in Mexico City, Mexico November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

The bill aims to create a new 50,000-strong force drawn from the ranks of the armed forces and federal police, a step requiring changes to the constitution. Critics fear it could further militarize the fight against criminal gangs.

Former President Felipe Calderon sent in the armed forces to fight warring drug cartels at the end of 2006, but the gang violence has since claimed more than 170,000 lives.

“More than 90 percent of crimes end up going unpunished, and the country is still seriously suffering from not having a professional police force,” said MORENA congresswoman Maria Alvarado as she set out the grounds for the initiative.

Trying to stem the bloodshed, successive Mexican governments have made changes to police and security forces. The deployment of the armed forces was only intended to be temporary.

The outgoing administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto created a gendarmerie to oversee the fight against organized crime. It was later heavily scaled back.

The crackdown against gangs has led to frequent accusations of human rights abuses by the armed forces.

Pena Nieto’s administration has been condemned for its handling of a number of cases, in particular the 2014 abduction and disappearance of 43 student teachers by a drug gang in cahoots with local police in southwest Mexico.

Lopez Obrador, a leftist who takes office on Dec. 1, wants to curb the violence by tackling poverty and inequality, and has floated the idea of an amnesty for some lesser criminals.

To complement that push, his government also aims to liberalize laws for drugs including marijuana.

But the national guard plan has sparked criticism from some human rights groups and opposition politicians, who see it as a continuation of the existing policy under a different guise.

With the national guard, “the strategy of militarization is deepened,” said Lucia Riojas, an independent opposition congresswoman. “And it’s become clear in the last 12 years that there’s absolutely no evidence that having the army on the streets helps to reduce the violence,” she told Reuters.

The draft bill contemplates changes to the constitution that would mean that national guard members receive human rights training, are tried by civil courts and will not be able to move detainees to military institutions.

Reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Phil Berlowitz