MEXICO'S army has been thrust into a leading role in the country's ongoing fight against organised crime. The police are poorly organised and, in some states, rotten with corruption, whereas the criminal gangs are continually replenishing their firepower using cash from the lucrative drug trade. As a result, the president, Felipe Calderón, has drafted in the army, which is better-equipped than the police and widely believed to be less corrupt, to confront the gangsters.
The soldiers are heroes to many Mexicans. But the deployment of 50,000 troops into the cities and countryside has brought problems too. A fighting force trained to protect the realm has found itself carrying out policing operations. Shootouts are taking place in residential streets rather than on battlefields. Since Mr Calderón ratcheted up his fight against the mafias in 2006, Mexico's national human rights commission has received more than 4,000 complaints against the military.
These concerns have not gone unnoticed outside Mexico. Anti-drug aid from the United States, which arrives under a programme called the Mérida Initiative, is partly contingent on Mexico's fulfilment of four human-rights requirements. One of them holds that Mexico must try soldiers accused of serious crimes against civilians in civilian courts. In September the United States held back some of the Mérida money for the first time, arguing that Mexico had not done enough to meet this condition. Last year a ruling by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights also made clear that Mexico was obliged to grant civilian courts jurisdiction over its soldiers.
On October 18th, Mr Calderón moved to address these concerns. He sent a proposal to Congress to allow civilian courts to try soldiers charged with rape, torture and organising “disappearances” against civilians. The list's brevity led to widespread accusations of tokenism. “This is a cosmetic gesture meant to give the appearance of reforming what, in practice, will continue to remain the same,” said a joint letter by 13 Mexican human-rights organisations. They argued that the only way to stop abuses would be to remove military jurisdiction from all alleged crimes against civilians. These criticisms were echoed by the Mexico office of the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights.
As long as complaints against the army continue to pile up, Mr Calderón will remain under pressure to go further than this limited reform. Yet preserving the support of the generals is crucial if his war against the bandits is to continue. Mexico's army is loyal. But there is said to be growing frustration in the high command with the bloody mire in which the troops have become bogged down. Alhough soldiers are seen as saviours by many—the military helpline rings more often than the police emergency number in the state of Nuevo León, according to one security expert in Monterrey, its capital—their involvement in the messy conflict, and the lengthening charge-sheet against them, is hurting their image too.
But reforms of this sort are not something for the military to fear. Abuses committed by a minority of corrupt soldiers stain the reputations of the many good ones, and it is unsurprising that the army wants to deal with such crimes in private. But nothing looks more damning than impunity. By making prosecutions of soldiers fair and open, Mexico can better protect its citizens and preserve the reputation of its armed forces at the same time. The president and his colleagues in uniform must make sure that the recent proposals are the beginning, not the end, of reform to the military justice system.