On the road with Mexico’s young military

on the road to tulum 630x250

At the end of last month, my partner Ulises and I were lucky enough to hit the road for a week’s break here in Mexico, and headed down to Tulum on the Caribbean.

I was a loooooooong drive that, in retrospect, we won’t do again unless we have more time.

President Felipe Calderon’s military campaign against Mexico’s narcos is much more obvious once you leave the confines of Mexico City.

We drove through a number of states including Tabasco, Veracruz and Campeche and encountered at least 10 military checkpoints along the way, all of which were furnished by signs in both English and Spanish as to their purpose.

“The Mexican Army is carrying out President Felipe Calderon’s campaign against Mexico’s drug traffickers…..,” and they even invited complaints and recommendations from people passing through.

Oh, if only.

Complaints of human rights abuses by the Mexican military have surged since Calderon started this campaign in 2006. So much so that money for the Merida Initiative, the cash injection from the U.S intended to help fund the fight against Mexico’s organized crime industry, could be held off until Mexico cleans up its human rights record.

When a kid with a machine gun in the middle of nowhere (Mexico’s long, straight highways, or carreteras, are pretty isolated) asks for permission to search your car, it never seems like a good idea to say no.

Which brings me to my main point. The soldiers who are on at least part of the frontline of this military campaign are extremely young. The vast majority of the military personnel that we encountered at the checkpoints, standing in the tropical heat, sweating into their combats with machine guns strapped onto their shoulders, were only just out of their teens.

On the way to the Yucatan, heading out of Mexico City to the coast, we weren’t stopped once. Ulises thinks that because I’m a ‘güera’ (a term that refers to light-skinned or light-haired people, although I don’t regard myself as either of those) that they waved us through.

Not so on the way back, disproving that theory. We were stopped four times by different checkpoints. There didn’t seem much point in trying to explain to the 18-year-old searching our trunk the second, third and fourth time that we’d just been searched in the neighboring state.

The logic goes that if we’re on our way back from the coast, or the coastal states, we could well be bringing something back that we picked up via sea.

It was disconcerting to see the age of the soldiers executing Calderon’s stop and search policy. How much experience could they have gained in the field before now? Older soldiers may be as likely to mess up as their younger counterparts, but it’s easy to see how situations might get out of control when those directing them are fresh out of the barracks.

— Deborah Bonello in Mexico City for MexicoReporter.com

Image: On the road in Veracruz. Deborah Bonello / MexicoReporter.com