In Mexico’s drug war, military has to defend reputation, too.

As Mexico's armed forces get drawn ever deeper into a war…

As Mexico’s armed forces get drawn ever deeper into a war against narcotics cartels, they face a separate battle to protect a reputation that is starting to take a beating.

Both are uphill struggles.

In some parts of Mexico , like in the border city of Tijuana and in this northern industrial city, many citizens see the army as the only effective bulwark against emboldened and heavily armed narcotics gangs.

In other cartel hotspots, however, soldiers are growing less popular. The military has been hit by a steady trickle of charges that some units have committed abuses, such as illegal detentions, and even covered up murders. The Mexican congress has taken the first steps to curb the length of deployments.

More than three years after President Felipe Calderon ordered 50,000 soldiers into the fight against organized crime, Mexico’s military, some experts say, is mired in a conflict with no end in sight. Cartel gunmen now dare to harass military garrisons openly. And soldiers used to operating in rural areas now have to conduct security patrols in cities like this one, a metropolis of three million people.

Calderon chose Monterrey as the venue for a vigorous defense of his use of the military in combating the private cartel armies even as some critics accuse him of being on shaky legal ground with the open-ended deployments

“The perception exists among some sectors that the role of the armed forces in the fight for security is not only unneeded but also illegal,” Calderon told top elected officials April 28 . “And this is mistaken.”

Mexico’s constitution permits the domestic deployment of soldiers, he asserted, and state leaders have asked for military backup in towns and cities that “have been severely harassed, and in some cases, dominated by criminal activity.”

Even as he spoke, Mexican senators last week took action to address worries both about the lengthy deployment of the military and reports of abuses by soldiers.

They voted to require limits on the deployment of troops against the cartels and to hold soldiers accountable in civilian courts for abuses. The proposal must still be voted on in the Chamber of Deputies.

For more on this click over to Tim Johnson’s article at McClatchy.

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