MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to approve the creation of a new 60,000-member national guard, a proposal embraced by leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador as a crucial tool in the fight against organized crime.
The proposal was approved by about three-quarters of the lower house of Congress, 362 votes in favor and 119 against, with changes to Mexico’s constitution requiring a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
Lopez Obrador’s MORENA party teamed up with smaller leftist allies and lawmakers from the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to approve the new national guard which would replace the armed forces in the fight against crime including drug cartels.
Critics of the new guard fear it could further militarize crime fighting and lead to human rights abuses. Even some reluctant backers of the bill called for changes that would place limits on the force and eliminate protections against prosecutions if members commit crimes against civilians.
In a first phase, the guard will be composed of some 60,000 members transferred from existing military and federal police forces, but it was not clear when it might include new hires.
According to the fine print of the proposal, the head of the force will be a civilian, but operational chiefs will be military officers.
The proposal must still be approved by the Senate, and then a simple majority of state legislatures, but both are seen as likely because of the political strength of MORENA and its allies across Mexico.
Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1, has said he also wants to address Mexico’s long-running battle with gangland violence and lawlessness by tackling poverty and inequality. He has suggested the possibility of an amnesty for some lesser criminals.
The creation of the national guard is not the first time a new government has sought to put its stamp on security with a different policy.
The former administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto created a gendarmerie to oversee the fight against organized crime, but it was later heavily scaled back.
More than a decade ago, former President Felipe Calderon sent in the armed forces to fight warring drug cartels, but while the policy succeeded it killing or capturing cartel leaders, the criminal groups splintered and gang violence has since claimed more than 170,000 lives.
Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by David Alire Garcia; editing by Grant McCool