When Laura García pulled up to the Cherry nightclub in Iguala, Mexico, she saw military trucks and several SUVs speeding away. She went inside to find the offices ransacked and her brother and the club's five other employees gone.
Ms. García spent the rest of that night driving to military posts looking for her brother, Francis. At each stop she was told there had been no operations that night, and that the military was not holding the men from the nightclub.
That was in March 2010. The men are still missing, no one has been charged with their disappearance, and García fears she'll never know what happened.
This is but one of thousands of documented cases of forced disappearances at the hands of Mexico's military forces since 2006, when former President Felipe Calderón put the military on the front line of the country's battle against organized crime and drug cartels. And as a handful of other nations across the region – faced with similar levels of crime and violence – move toward a militarized or hybrid police model, critics are raising concerns about relying on military-trained law enforcement taking on civilian policing duties.
"[Soldiers] are trained for confrontation, to defeat an enemy with force," says Alejandro Hope, a top Mexican security analyst.
Unleashing soldiers in small towns and big cities across Latin America may seem something of an incongruity in a region that not long ago shifted away from decades of military dictatorships and civil wars. Soldiers were responsible for kidnappings, torture, and community-wide massacres from Chile and Argentina to El Salvador and Guatemala. But as governments transitioned to democracy and many civil conflicts drew to an end, policing slowly started moving away from the armed forces back into civilian hands in the 1980s and '90s. Yet before civilian police forces could consolidate their authority, many were overrun by spiraling crime and corruption, often linked to the drug trade.
Latin America is the most insecure region in the world; 1 in every 3 people reported being a victim of a violent crime in 2012, according to a United Nations study. And although it's home to just 8 percent of the world's population, Latin America and the Caribbean account for 31 percent of all homicides worldwide, according to another UN report.
"If you let organized crime reach the point where it threatens the state, you probably do have to take extraordinary measures," including turning to military might, says Adam Isacson, an expert on regional security issues with the Washington Office on Latin America.
To face that threat, Mexico deployed more than 50,000 troops dedicated to counternarcotics operations, Guatemala has repeatedly sent troops to high-crime areas since 2012, and El Salvador assigned the Army to support police in public security matters.
Paraguay passed a so-called militarization law that allows the president to deploy military forces in internal defense operations without enacting a state of emergency, Colombia regularly sends troops to large urban areas beset by crime, and Venezuela assigned an Army general as police chief.
Cop vs. soldier
An obvious answer to the threats facing Latin America today is to bolster police forces. But many countries have tried that – and failed. Police reform takes years, and the corruptive influence and firepower of criminal elements are so strong that the military has become a quick-fix answer.
A 2005 gun battle in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, was a turning point for Mexico's policing strategy, says Jerry Brewer, a Washington, D.C.-based security consultant. "It was the first time we saw the sophistication of the weapons the cartels have. They had all types of artillery: rocket launchers, AK-47s, grenades. It was warlike," Mr. Brewer says.
"No police was ever designed or created ... to face that kind of force."
While both police and the military carry guns, wear uniforms, and command authority, soldiers are trained to rely on the use of force against an enemy and often concentrate on high-value targets. Police are trained to prevent crime and arrest suspects for prosecution, using force as a last resort.
Turning to the armed forces "is a poor choice," Mr. Isacson says. "It's an admission that all other government institutions have failed."
Relying on military might to confront crime is leading to even more violence and widespread abuse, such as torture, disappearances, and a disproportionate use of force, critics say. Mexico's National Commission of Human Rights received more than 7,350 complaints of military abuses between 2007 and 2012, for example.
In Guerrero State, where García's brother was abducted, some say the military's arrival only heightened violence. And human rights activists in Guatemala labeled a joint Army-police operation in October 2012, which killed six civilians, the first Army massacre since the 1996 end of its 30-year civil war.
Furthermore, recent developments in Michoacán, Mexico – where informal vigilante groups have armed themselves in the face of what they say are failed state and federal efforts to curb drug cartel-related kidnappings, rapes, and extortion – have left some suggesting that neither the military nor the police can control the problem.
'Not at war'
Nowhere in the region is violence and insecurity more palpable than in Honduras. Its second largest city, San Pedro Sula, has the highest murder rate in the world, according to the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, a think tank. The capital district surrounding Tegucigalpa has the sixth highest.
Efforts to vet the police force for corrupt officers and practices sputtered in 2013, and only a handful of officers have been weeded out after a battery of psychological and polygraph tests. US funding for the vetting process was suspended in June because of the program's slow pace. Confronted with the failure of the purge, Honduras created an entirely new military police force, with joint police and military training.
But members of the new force look more like soldiers than cops. On a recent day, a unit of the Military Police of Public Order walked among the crowds in Tegucigalpa's central plaza wearing bulletproof vests and carrying military-grade assault rifles. The force has 1,000 soldiers and is expected to increase to 5,000 by the end of the year.
Making good on campaign promises, new President Juan Orlando Hernández ordered the military police and an elite police unit known as Tigres to commence a massive crime-fighting operation, conducting patrols and raids in some of the most violent neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. "The party is over for criminals," Mr. Hernández declared in his inaugural speech.
Xiomara Mendoza, who works in the mayor's office, says she wouldn't mind seeing soldiers in her neighborhood. "There is no confidence in the police," Ms. Mendoza says, "but people do trust the military." The same close community connections that would ideally make police effective in preventing crime also make them vulnerable to corruption, experts say. Soldiers who live in barracks are relatively shielded from those relationships.
But Manuel Bonilla, a shoeshiner, isn't comfortable with the soldiers. "What we need is a good police force," he says. "We don't need soldiers on the streets. We are not at war."
Analysts say the push toward militarization may be thwarting long-term solutions to effective law enforcement.
Governments reacting to citizens who clamor for control over violence are making "rushed decisions" that are merely "palliative and shortsighted," says a citizen security expert for a multilateral organization who asked not to be named because she counsels several regional governments that have opted for militarization.
Using soldiers for law enforcement should not be seen as a long-term solution, says Mr. Hope, the Mexican security expert. "The military is not the solution. The military is substituting [for] the police, who abdicate their responsibilities."
A model for the region?
In the 1980s the police in Colombia were considered as corrupt, inefficient, and poorly trained as today's forces in Honduras, Mexico, or Venezuela. But now Colombia is something of a model for policing and runs regular training sessions – some funded by the United States – for units across Latin America in everything from intelligence gathering to rescuing kidnap victims.
"The Colombian experience is useful for us in the head-on attack against criminals," said David Munguía Payés, the Salvadoran defense minister, after a meeting last year with Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón.
Colombia's police reforms began in the 1990s with an emphasis on intelligence gathering. More recently the national police developed a quadrant strategy in large urban areas, where units are assigned to patrol specific beats.
Still, the lines remain blurred between police and military in Colombia, partially because the police are part of the Defense Ministry rather than a separate civilian agency.
The government frequently deploys Army troops to cities where violence flares up. Some 1,500 soldiers are currently conducting joint patrols with police in Cali, which had the world's fourth highest murder rate in 2013.
At the same time, police are often involved in military-style raids to rescue kidnap victims.
As Colombia approaches the possibility of ending the 50-year insurgency of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – which has been negotiating a peace deal with the government for more than a year – security experts are looking ahead to postconflict police and military roles.
Already a debate has emerged over whether the police should be removed from the Defense Ministry.
But the government should be careful not to make too many reforms too soon, says Armando Barrero of Colombia's Superior War College. "The first stage of a postconflict scenario can be very dangerous," Mr. Barrero says. "Violence and violent actors evolve. Initially the police will still need military support."
Back in Iguala, Mexico, García has not given up hope of finding her brother. But she fears retaliation from the military for so openly denouncing his disappearance.
"Every time I approach a military roadblock, first I feel anger, and then I panic. I fear they may disappear me, too," she says.
• Seth Robbins contributed reporting for this story from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.