Y entonces dijo: “Soldados, ¡a las calles!” (And then he said: “Soldiers, take the streets!”)

An Overview of Mexico’s Internal Security Law

By Verónica A. Lira Ortiz


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was a hot and sunny day in Morelos, Mexico. Valeria and her mother, Isabel, were sitting inside their small shop waiting for clients to stop by. There wasn’t a soul on the streets. After sipping their ice-cold Coca-Cola’s, they noticed a military convoy parking a couple of feet away from the shop. It was not unusual to see soldiers on that side of town, they always got something to eat from Doña Susy in the corner. This time, instead of getting refreshments, soldiers spread out strategically and stood in front of every shop on the street while holding their weapons. Valeria and Isabel were frightened, they had never seen soldiers act so nervously or talk about strategies near civilians. As shops started closing and people emptied the streets, they quickly left through their back door. After a few minutes the soldiers were ordered to board their vehicle and rapidly drove away.

Until recently the preservation of public security in Mexico had been in the hands of the civilian forces. However, due to institutional debility, corruption and growing organized crime schemes, these civil organizations proved to be ineffective in solving security issues arising all over the country. In 2006 President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa declared the ‘war on drugs’ and ordered the deployment of military forces in several states – mainly the frontera chica in Tamaulipas and Tierra Caliente in Michoacán. There were around 150,000 casualties and more than 270,000 people displaced during his presidential term (2006 – 2012). The current president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, continues the deployment of armed forces throughout his term. Following the decisions of both the Calderón and the Peña Nieto administrations, the Mexican Armed Forces have taken a fundamental role in the procurement of public security by performing coordinated operations in accordance with the federal, state and municipal policies, as well as prosecuting, investigating, detaining and interrogating criminal suspects. The overwhelming presence of armed forces in different regions of the country sparked a debate in the Mexican Congress about the real functions of the military and whether it should take care of both public and national security. Following the debates, the Congress recently approved the Ley de Seguridad Interior (Internal Security Law) with which the president acquired unilateral power to command the use of armed forces on the streets. With the passing of the new law, questions arose: Will this law grant excessive power and authority to the executive? Will it perpetuate the militarization of public security and derive in further violence? Is it a mechanism that gives full autonomy to the Mexican military inside the whole country?


Security expert and professor at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, Carlos García Cueva, explains that, in order to understand the new legal mechanism, it is important to differentiate public and national security. Public Security refers to the prevention and sanction of crimes through the use of police forces and prosecutors (federal and local criminal codes), as well as the social reintegration of offenders. The three branches of government share responsibility in issues of public security as it is intrinsically related to citizens. On the other hand, actions of National Security must maintain the integrity, permanence and stability of the Mexican State through intelligence operations that may prevent or neutralize possible threats. In short, National Security is a matter of the national government and not the local forces. “Even when there are two very distinct dimensions of security procurement, problems of public security – such as organized crime – may also be considered as an attempt against national security. Some security problems [produce] risks and threats that should be treated by institutions on both levels”, explains Mr. García Cueva.

Approval, criticisms and further debate

On November 30, 2017 the Mexican Congress approved the Internal Security Law (LSI) with 248 votes in favor. The law allows the president to order the intervention of Armed Forces in any place where there are “internal threats” that federal or local forces are incapable of handling. According to Rodolfo Aceves Jiménez, an expert in Mexican National Security, “the LSI responds to a need of the State to have stronger mechanisms when it is faced with overwhelming organized crime and weak public policies.” However, he argues that the objective of the newly approved law should be “strengthening the attributes and faculties of local police forces, prosecuting agencies and the federal police. It should also be more specific about the conditions in which the armed forces may intervene conjunctively with local authorities when their capacities have been overcome.”

For Alejandro Madrazo, Schell Center Visiting Human Rights Fellow at Yale and researcher at the Center for Economic Investigation and Teaching in Mexico, the LSI is “the culmination of a de facto legal process which began with the 2009 constitutional reforms and resumed in early 2017 inside the Mexican Congress.” Madrazo insists the LSI is unnecessary and should be repealed to avoid any potential risks and harms to the civilian population: “I suspect the law was passed after the pressure of a highly politicized army which has rooted in favor of a specific candidate and political coalitions inside the Congress.”

The law has been heavily criticized by politicians, journalists and advocacy groups for the potential human rights violations that may be more easily ‘covered up’ by the authorities. The Inter American Court of Human Rights and the National Commission on Human Rights expressed their reserves against the newly approved Internal Security Law. They are concerned that the law may lead to an excessive and unilateral use of power from the Mexican executive, and with this, a stronger militarization and possibility of human rights violations. However, because the law has not been fully adopted, the IACHR statements are regarded as suggestions that may or may not be taken into account by the Supreme Court. García Cueva explains that a system of checks and balances is being established to prevent any human rights violation – “in case there is an abuse of the LSI, the IACHR can take binding action against Mexico and demand damage reparations. Until the law is not set into place and any action committed, the opinions of international organizations are just that, opinions.”

Madrazo, on the other hand, encourages civil organization and advocacy groups to raise their voice against the law and demand it is repealed.  “The fact that a highly trained army is in charge of public security actions has caused lethality to rise in municipalities where there is an active presence of armed forces. The LSI practically gives full autonomy to the army; they may decide in which situations to intervene without needing any approval or revisions. The system of checks-and-balances is nearly nullified”, argues Madrazo. He also states that one of the main problems is how everything is labeled both in the constitutional reforms and in the newly approved law. “It seems that the law was created in order to justify the actions of the army, after events like Tlatlaya and Ayotzinapa, and grant an authoritarian power to the president.” On the same note, Aceves suggests that the LSI should be accompanied with a constitutional reform to elevate security as a function of the State in order to have a better conceptual ordering and avoid discrepancies or misinterpretations of the Constitution – especially regarding article 21 of the Mexican Constitution.

Mexican-American Relations

The Internal Security Law was designed to deal with domestic problems, however security issues have both international and domestic components and consequences. According to García Cueva, the new law does not modify the Mexican – American relations, however he states that if the US fails to implement stricter policies for drug traffic and consumption, security problems in Mexico will remain as they are. “The LSI is similar to the concept of Homeland Security, in fact it is the ‘tropicalization’ of such at the level of federal forces. The Mexican Congress has passed an internal mechanism of military regulation and response to security threats, however this does not mean that it can control market demand for drugs, international threats or security issues shared between borders”, says García Cueva.

The law is still being revised by the Mexican Supreme Court; different international opinions and concerns are being taken into account for its final approval. Even when it does not have direct implications within US – Mexico relations, the LSI can be seen as an effort to prevent and attend security threats that may also become a potential problem for the United States – such as drug trafficking and narco-violence. “Perhaps the Mexican government wants to signal that it possess a tactical and operative organization between its security forces and the army, which would eventually improve the overall security of the country”, explains Aceves. He says that although the US government has not had a clear stance, it is possible that in the future it demands proof about security being under control, especially in the areas near the Mexican-American border.

Election year and the debate of the LSI

On July 1st, Mexicans will choose a new president in one of the most controversial elections ever. The presidential candidates have had little to say on the Internal Security Law and their silence worries the public, creating even more uncertainty about its consequences. Madrazo argues that if the Mexican army becomes more politicized, it can impact the way elections are held, specifically by declaring certain zones as ‘too dangerous’ to have polling booths installed or by creating acts of violence which would discourage people on going out to vote.

Aceves explains that there is a tangible risk of organized crime infiltrating the election process, especially after the homicides of local candidates. He worries that the presidential candidates “substitute viable proposals on security and change them in ‘electoral garbage’ in order to gain more popular votes.”


As any public policy, the Internal Security Law impacts the livelihood of citizens directly. Specifically on those who have experienced the elimination of police forces on their streets and have witnessed a militarization of their hometowns. The biggest problem is the lack of public policies that encourage the training and funding of civilian forces. As well as the inability of the Mexican government to create a system of checks-and-balances and make ‘risky’ areas more secure. This inability comes from crippling institutions that allow corrupt politicians to be a part of major decision making.


It was another hot and sunny day in Morelos, Mexico. Now, two days after witnessing soldiers holding weapons on their street, Valeria and Isabel did not open their shop. They heard in the local news of a gunfight between military forces and civilians – who were allegedly implicated in organized crime. Three people died that day, two soldiers and one civilian. Some years back lethality had grown exponentially inside municipalities and one of the largest fears with the implementation of Mexico’s Internal Security Law is that lethality will continue to grow. People like Valeria and Isabel can either fully rely on their government to do its job, that military armed forces will not abuse their power, or live in constant fear of the good guys.


Veronica A. Lira Ortiz ‘18 is a visiting international student in Branford College. Contact her at veronica.liraortiz@yale.edu.