MONTERREY, Mexico — As Mexico's armed forces get drawn ever deeper into a war against narcotics cartels, they face a separate battle to protect a reputation that is starting to take a beating.
Both are uphill struggles.
In some parts of Mexico, like in the border city of Tijuana and in this northern industrial city, many citizens see the army as the only effective bulwark against emboldened and heavily armed narcotics gangs.
In other cartel hotspots, however, soldiers are growing less popular. The military has been hit by a steady trickle of charges that some units have committed abuses, such as illegal detentions, and even covered up murders. The Mexican congress has taken the first steps to curb the length of deployments.
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More than three years after President Felipe Calderon ordered 50,000 soldiers into the fight against organized crime, Mexico's military, some experts say, is mired in a conflict with no end in sight. Cartel gunmen now dare to harass military garrisons openly. And soldiers used to operating in rural areas now have to conduct security patrols in cities like this one, a metropolis of three million people.
Calderon chose Monterrey as the venue for a vigorous defense of his use of the military in combating the private cartel armies even as some critics accuse him of being on shaky legal ground with the open-ended deployments
"The perception exists among some sectors that the role of the armed forces in the fight for security is not only unneeded but also illegal," Calderon told top elected officials April 28. "And this is mistaken."
Mexico's constitution permits the domestic deployment of soldiers, he asserted, and state leaders have asked for military backup in towns and cities that "have been severely harassed, and in some cases, dominated by criminal activity."
Even as he spoke, Mexican senators last week took action to address worries both about the lengthy deployment of the military and reports of abuses by soldiers.
They voted to require limits on the deployment of troops against the cartels and to hold soldiers accountable in civilian courts for abuses. The proposal must still be voted on in the Chamber of Deputies.
In Ciudad Juarez, a border city across from El Paso, Texas, intense public pressure led last month to the withdrawal of soldiers from policing duties in the city, ending a two-year military occupation. Security functions were largely picked up by 5,000 federal police sent to replace the soldiers.
By nearly all accounts, local and state police in much of Mexico are either too riddled with corruption or simply not up to the task of fighting traffickers, some of whom they consider sponsors and allies.
"The municipal and state police . . . carry out extortions, steal and kidnap, and when citizens complain nothing happens," said Consuelo Morales Elizondo, a Roman Catholic nun who heads Citizens in Support of Human Rights, a local advocacy group. "Amid this scenario, people see the soldiers as their only hope."
However, the army is facing difficulties. Despite a heavy presence on the periphery of this city, and across the surrounding state of Nuevo Leon, drug-related deaths have soared — rising from seven in January, to 12 in February, 62 in March and to 78 in April, the local El Norte newspaper said. Last month's death toll was higher than the toll of all of 2009.
"To put the army in this situation without any exit strategy is to waste one of the few assets in which Mexican society has any confidence," said Jose Luis Garcia Aguilar, a public security expert at the University of Monterrey. "It is a dilemma."
Underscoring the increased vulnerability of the city, several dozen gunmen burst into the 17-story Holiday Inn and another downtown hotel April 21 and searched room-to-room, abducting six people.
The motive for the raid wasn't known, but it could be part of a struggle between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, the cartel's onetime enforcers who've broken off to form their own organization. Monterrey residents are so convinced that Los Zetas have bought off the Monterrey local police that they have dubbed the cops "polizetas."
Both supporters and critics of the army deployment in the region agree that soldiers never received proper training for the public security work thrust upon them.
Calderon said it is "debilitating" for soldiers trained for combat to carry out roadblocks on highways to check for weapons, narcotics or illicit drug profits.
Morales said soldiers have been too quick on the trigger.
"Their goal is to kill, and that is what they are doing in the streets — killing," she said. "If the soldiers go out on a raid and they see you and I talking together, and I am a narco, they'll kill us both and say we are both narcos."
A former deputy national security adviser, Raul Benitez Manaut, said the urban deployments are putting new stresses on the traditionally opaque military hierarchy, and exposing shortcomings of the troops, many of whom have only a primary school education and enlisted more for a paycheck than for a vocation.
"A debate has to take place within the armed forces over their modernization and the military has to open itself up more to civilian society," Benitez said.
In the past two months, cartel gunmen have grown bolder in confronting vulnerable military patrols with small arms fire, and even harassing garrisons with hand- and rocket-propelled grenade attacks or with brief ambushes. They've also commandeered tractor-trailers and SUVs to use in impromptu roadblocks against the military along Monterrey's highways.
Benitez downplayed any threat of open warfare with army units.
"They go by in a vehicle, shoot three times, and drive away," Benitez said, adding that the harassment is often to send a message to a particular officer resisting corruption offers.
Skirmishes in Monterrey itself leave some residents with ambivalent feelings. They say they are thankful soldiers are taking on the cartel gangs, but they also worry that army patrols attract attacks.
Nuria Arias, a 21-year-old architecture student, said her friends grow nervous around soldiers: "They see the military and say, 'Let's go the other way. It's dangerous.'"
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