The Mexican Federal Police Don't Have Public Standards on When to Shoot People

06/16/2015 06:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

The Mexican Federal Police, Mexico's primary public security institution, does not have a public manual on the use-of-force, meaning no current standards define when a member of the police can use force, including lethal, on another person. The revelations as reported by Arturo Ángel in Animal Politico raise concerns about the potential misuse of U.S.-supplied training and firearms to the Mexican police.

The only known information on when the 40,000-member Federal Police force can use force is a document published by the Secretary of Federal Public Security (SFPS), a government body dissolved in 2012.

The guidelines distinguish five levels of force, the highest level being lethal, which can only be employed "when the other modes are ineffective," and used in "moderation," with the aim of "reducing injury and harm to a minimum."

But these guidelines leave out a lot of critical information, including:

  • What would constitute an unlawful use of lethal force;
  • What targets can be attacked or not;
  • How firearms should be used; and,
  • If it is permitted to shoot from vehicles, houses, or other moving vehicles.
The SFPS guidelines state that various "police institutions" would provide more detailed manuals on the use of force, but in the three years since SFPS was dissolved and replaced with the National Commission for Security, such a manual has not been publicly produced.

U.S. military and police aid to Mexico has totaled over $2 billion since FY 2006. In addition, the U.S. government authorized a total $4.8 billion in commercial arms sales to Mexico between FY 2008 and FY 2013. The United States does not publish data on which arms go to the army and which go to the Federal Police, but Mérida programs and U.S.-Mexico training collaborations through the DEA clearly involve the Federal Police.

So we know that the Mexican Federal Police are using guns provided by the United States. We just do not know how.

Mexico's army and marines have a manual that provides clear restrictions on the use of force- for example, that troops cannot shoot through walls, windows or barriers, or at moving vehicles, unless there is a death risk. The manual does not require that troops must be attacked first before retaliating.

The manual for the armed forces establishes that the following requirements must justify the use or force:

  • That there is an aggressive intent;
  • That the threat is real and not hypothetical;
  • That the threat is current and imminent;
  • That the possibility of defense is analyzed rationally; and,
  • That the authorities have not provoked targets.
They must observe four principles-- opportunity, proportionality, rationality, and legality. In addition, responses must be proportional to the threat level or aggression received.

But even with the use-of-force manual that the military uses, the most recent statistics from the Secretary of National Defense and the Marines, revealed through transparency requests, found that between December 2006 and 2014, a total of 4,074 alleged aggressors died in confrontations with armed forces. During that same time period, 200 army members died.

A famous case resulting in a high death toll occurred on June 30, 2014, in Tlatlaya, Mexico State, when 22 civilians died at the hands of soldiers. According to La Jornada, military courts tried four of the eight soldiers accused of the Tlatlaya killings not for "human rights abuses," but for "military crimes." The remaining four will be transferred to civilian courts. A Human Rights Watch report noted that in Mexico, "members of the military accused of human rights violations continue to be prosecuted within the biased military justice system, ensuring impunity."

The Mexican National Defense Secretary added that they would not make the Tlatlaya investigation report public for another 12 years.

U.S. law states that up to 15 percent of aid through the Mérida Initiative will not be given if Mexico does not adequately prosecute human rights abuses in civilian courts (read: not military courts). The L.A. Times reported that the United States has since ceased aid to the battalion responsible for the Tlatlaya killings, but there is no public information on other parts of the Mexican military that may have been defunded due to human rights abuses.

It is also unclear how many civilians Federal Police personnel have killed in past years, as the body has chosen not to reveal such statistics.

On Friday, May 22, in Tanhauto, Michoacán, Federal Police shot and killed 42 civilians-- alleged members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel-- while only one Federal Police officer died in the confrontation. Multiple testimonies and the mayor of nearby Puerto de Vargas attest that the Federal Police shot at least some of their targets from helicopters, leaving the victims little chance to defend themselves. We don't know if shooting from the helicopter was legal because there is no information on what constitutes a lawful or unlawful use of force by the police forces.

While local police and government took the heat for the coordinated disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero last September, a Proceso investigation found multiple witnesses saying the Federal Police were involved too.

The lack of transparency and standards on the practices of Mexico's Federal Police is alarming, and a clear avenue for U.S.-supplied training and equipment to be misused. While use-of-force guidelines do not guarantee that security forces will abide by their rulebook, they highlight when lines are being crossed and laws being broken and can make punishment more likely.

The lack of public standards on the use-of-force in the Federal Police force is endemic of an entire security system based on a lack of transparent, enforceable standards. And yet, only a small portion of its billions dollars of aid consider human rights concerns, such as abusive use of force.

By making information about those killed by the Federal Police public and publishing use-of-force guidelines, the Mexican government would move closer to creating a more accountable institution. U.S. aid must be held accountable too. If it isn't happening now, the United States, as a major supporter of Mexico's Federal Police, should consider pushing for these guidelines and information.

A modified version of this post appeared on the Security Assistance Monitor blog, a project of the Center for International Policy.