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Mexican military officials recruiting civilians for newly formed National Guard in Baja California

Mexican soldiers stand by at a military checkpoint in the outskirts of Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico, on June 8, 2019. The United States and Mexico reached an 11th-hour deal late Friday to crack down on migration from Central America, with President Donald Trump relenting on threats to slap potentially devastating tariffs on Mexican goods.

PEDRO PARDO/AFP (TNS)

By WENDY FRY | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: June 13, 2019

TIJUANA, Mexico (Tribune News Service) — In Baja California, recruitment is underway from Tijuana to Ensenada for civilians to join Mexico’s recently created National Guard, military officials confirmed Wednesday.

Mexican military officials in Baja California said the recruitment operations have been ongoing since January when the country’s president announced the government would enlist 50,000 civilians nationwide to serve.

The newly formed agency is also a key component in a deal struck between the United States and Mexico after the Trump administration threatened to impose an escalating tax on all Mexican imports unless the flow of migrants reaching the U.S. border wanes. Mexico responded by promising to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern border.

Since then, Mexican leaders have struggled to reassure their citizens that they are not militarizing their southern border.

“I want to underscore it because I have seen comments in the media of some people who say that we are going to militarize the southern border. Well, that’s inaccurate,” said Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard at a news conference Monday in Mexico City.

Meanwhile, armed military forces and federal police have been given arm bands that say “National Guard,” Baja California military officials said Wednesday.

The Mexican government has not said how many National Guard troops are trained and ready to serve. Its Congress just ratified laws on how the agency can use force and report detentions on May 23.

Exactly how the troops will address the thousands of Central American migrants arriving at Mexico’s 541-mile stretch of border with Guatemala remains unclear, and the Mexican government has not yet come up with any protocols for the brand-new agency.

Human rights advocates say the situation is a disaster waiting to happen.

“Mexico is entitled to secure its borders, but it is hard to think of a less appropriate test for its new National Guard,” said Daniel Wilkinson, the managing director of Human Rights Watch. “Given the deplorable human rights record of Mexican security forces in recent years — and especially the military — it’s predictable that the deployment will result in serious abuses.”

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has drastically different ideas on how to address what he calls the “migrant phenomenon” than U.S. President Donald Trump, but he said he could not allow Trump’s tariffs to go into effect.

Mexican officials said if U.S. tariffs reached 25%, it would cripple their economy.

Lopez Obrador appears to view the promise to deploy the National Guard as only a temporary concession that will buy time while he proves his methods of addressing migration are more effective.

The president wants to pour foreign aid into Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to stabilize the violence there and help stimulate the economy.

“What is also important is a challenge because we have to demonstrate in a time frame that there is another way … which we could call the Mexican way, which is to address the causes,” he said Wednesday. “Not to only bet on the use of force or coercive measures, but to give options … so that they can work and be happy where they were born, where their relatives are and where there are their customs, their cultures.”

Since January, only about 1,500 civilians nationwide have entered training into the National Guard. They are scheduled to graduate and be officially inaugurated on June 30, according to government documents.

At a military base in Tijuana’s Colonia Morelos on Wednesday, a handful of men and women were submitting their health record as part of the initial process to apply.

Some residents reported seeing recruitment booths at a Soriana supermarket in Ensenada over the weekend.

“It is a process. You don’t just create a National Guard overnight,” said a military commander in Tijuana who was not authorized to give his name. “We are starting the process of collecting health information; they have to pass a criminal background check and go through training, but it is a project of the president’s that we’re working toward little by little.”

Gaining congressional approval for the National Guard in March was one of the first major political wins for Lopez Obrador, after he was sworn into office in December. It was meant to be a combination of civilians, federal police officers, and members of the Army and Navy’s policing force that would tackle the country’s skyrocketing violence.

Opponents worried the agency would expand the militarization of policing in Mexico, which is largely viewed as ineffective and prone to civil rights abuses. After months of political fighting, Mexico’s Congress approved the creation of a National Guard with limits that the agency would have a distinctly civilian structure.

Murders in Mexico reached unprecedented levels last year and the trend has continued through the first part of 2019 with 8,493 in the first three months. But military offensives don’t have a great track record in Mexico. Former President Felipe Calderon’s war against drug cartels left a 60,000-person death toll of mostly civilians.

In late March, Lopez Obrador came to Tijuana to tout the success of a pilot program that included what he said was 2,000 National Guard troops working in the city to reduce crime. Lopez Obrador said the test project reduced daily averages of homicides by about 20%.

This week, he said the National Guard will still be tasked with curtailing the country’s soaring homicide rates while also securing the country’s southern border.

Ebrard said the pledged troops were deployed to Mexico’s southern border on Wednesday, but Reuters reported there were no visible signs of them in Tapachula, Chiapas as of late Wednesday.

The foreign minister stressed to the Mexican media on Monday that during his negotiations with the U.S., he merely informed the United States officials about Mexico’s plan that was already in the works “which is that the Mexican National Guard will cover the entire national territory and also the southern border.”

“That does not stem from the agreement with the United States, because it was already established,” he said. “What is going to be done? Make the deployments faster, yes, but nothing more.”

Ebrard said protocols were still being discussed this week and would be released Friday, but in general the troops would support migration agents.

“They will also have another series of activities that we will be announcing … which have to do with healthcare, education and other issues,” he said.

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