FOR the first time in years, there are rumblings from the barracks in Mexico. Human rights groups, and now the Clinton State Department, have charged the Mexican Army with widespread use of torture and the indiscriminate aerial bombing and rocket attacks on the indigenous villages that ring San Cristobal de las Casas in the southerly state of Chiapas in the aftermath of the New Year's rebellion by an Indian army.
The Mexican Army is having none of it. It talks of a spare budget and has issued veiled complaints about being used by the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to quell the revolt, then being left to drift in the winds of contention.
In the past an unwritten agreement between the military and the Mexican government kept the generals out of politics; the politicians kept their hands off the barracks. This understanding -
which spared Mexico the fate of coup-prone Central American neighbors - may be the most important casualty of the uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army.
Chiapas is a symbol of what can go wrong when militaries, even comparatively small armies, are given tasks that they are ill-equipped to carry out, due to their traditional role as a nation's guardians from external enemies. Inappropriate roles and missions, not necessarily size, are what make militaries potentially dangerous actors outside civilian control. In the case of Mexico, the clock is ticking.
The origins of the deteriorating civil-military relationship can be traced to long before the Chiapas uprising. A 1993 report about conditions there by the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights shows why one cannot be anything but pessimistic about the role of the Mexican military in the days ahead unless drastic changes are made. The military's own role in internal security in the poorest state in Mexico itself contributed to popular support for the Zapatista insurgents.
Citing a constitutional prohibition of military involvement in Mexican domestic matters, the report - prepared before the Chiapas revolt - noted ``troubling signs of renewed involvement of the military in civilian affairs during the administration of President Salinas de Gortari.
``Another disturbing development is the deployment of the army among the indigenous populations of southern Mexico - especially in Chiapas - where long-simmering land conflicts have been aggravated by the government's agrarian policy. Lawless practices of the Mexican military have become increasingly tolerated at the highest levels of the Mexican government. The growing acceptance of lawless military involvement in detentions and searches among civilians is a dangerous development.''
Widespread abuses predating an actual guerrilla outbreak are no surprise to those aware of the record of militaries carrying out internal security roles. In the United States, the distinction between national defense and internal security is designed to prevent the military from becoming a politicized praetorian guard.
Since the Mexican Army is trained to use maximum force to destroy an ``enemy,'' illegal practices are almost inevitable - all the more so once the guerrilla insurgency burst upon the scene with unsuspected force. In testimony on Feb. 2, US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck pointed out that, despite reports of hundreds killed in the fighting in Chiapas, the government had not admitted to having captured a single wounded prisoner.
Observers point out that the Salinas government has increasingly used the Army to intervene in political and labor disputes, as well as in the fight against narcotics trafficking.
``The militarization,'' the Minnesota Advocates noted, ``of the drug war is, in large measure, a result of the government's inability or unwillingness to pursue serious reform of the police,'' even as the Army has been implicated in almost surreal episodes of narcotics-related misconduct, including the murder of law enforcement officers. Meanwhile, cash- strapped anti-narcotics police have had to buy their own ammunition, even though most local police make a mere $200 a month.
Throughout Latin America the obsolescence of anti-communist ideologies has sent militaries scrambling to define new threats to security as a means of holding onto budgets and prestige. Because the struggle for indigenous rights means a challenge to the status quo, the enduring influence of the old US-sponsored National Security Doctrine - with its emphasis on internal enemies and the subordination of the police to the military - filters such protest through a distorting light.
Mexico has one of the lowest per capita expenditures on its military in Latin America - less than 6 percent of Mexico's gross national product. Yet the lack of an appropriate mission for its Army is pushing the force to demand more say in major national decisions and leading it to the antechamber of militarism. This trend is exacerbated by its financial independence (a tradition dating back to the Revolution) and now by the events in Chiapas.
Whether it remains mired in antidrug activities and providing welfare services - two missions likely to detract from an Army's primary role of national defense - or shifts into an even more ambitious and more dangerous counterinsurgency role, the outlook is not bright.
In many Latin countries - Argentina and El Salvador are the only two nations with armies that are vigorous exceptions to the rule (Costa Rica and Panama have no military) - the police are still under the control of, or subordinated to, their nations' armed forces. Local civilian justice systems, including the police, need to be strengthened in order to effectively confront abuses.
Native American demands for legal protection through the creation and support of community and regional justice systems, including law enforcement, while representing the possibility of a dramatic shift in attitude toward respect for indigenous peoples, mirror the democratic experience of the US itself, where law enforcement is overwhelmingly civilian and local.
Rather than an increased reliance on the Army in the wake of Chiapas, Mexico needs to demilitarize its internal security apparatus by professionalizing the police and effectively placing them at the service of the people they are supposed to protect. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.