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La Semana: Sunday, Aug 14
The week in militarization in Mexico
Welcome to the Sunday edition of The Mexpatriate.
In today’s newsletter:
The Military in Mexico’s Public Life
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“This is something like a political ‘narco-tunnel’, which consists of trying to use a tunnel of the law to pass underneath the Constitution.”
—Carlos Bravo Regidor (journalist) on President López Obrador’s decision to use alternative legal avenues to put the Guardia Nacional under military control
“The opposition can only win in an alliance. This doesn’t mean they will win, but their only option is to unite.”
—Héctor Aguilar Camín (author, analyst) on the much-anticipated 2023 elections in the state of México
The Military in Mexico’s Public Life
“A necessary evil”. “A temporary measure”. “Lo menos peor”. This is the language that has been used in justifying the delegation of public safety to the armed forces since President Calderón deployed troops on Mexico’s streets in 2006. Last week’s announcement by President López Obrador that he will seek to fully absorb the Guardia Nacional into the Department of Defense (Sedena), either by decree or other legislative means, seems to signal the abandonment of putting any expiration date on the military’s presence in public life. How much could this polemic policy affect law enforcement and the fight against organized crime? Is this militarization of not just security, but also public works, simply a naked contradiction of López Obrador’s campaign promises, or a logical consequence of his approach to governance?
The Guardia Nacional (GN) was born in March 2019 after the dissolution of the Policía Federal, which had been formed ten years earlier to replace the Policía Federal Preventiva. “We have not been able to construct an institutionalized police force capable of confronting organized crime,” according to security analyst Eduardo Guerrero. AMLO essentially argued this point—along with the penetration by traffickers into the federal police force—to push for its disbandment. The new law enforcement agency was created, with a civil mandate, through a constitutional reform bill passed unanimously by the Mexican Senate. At the time, opposition party members expressed their support of the initiative because the GN would answer to civilian authorities as part of the Department of Public Safety and Citizen Protection (SSPC). While it was acknowledged that the military would be involved in training and in operations for the first five years of the GN, legislators insisted that this would be transitional on the path to ending militarization.
However, the members of the GN—which began 70,000 strong and has grown to 118,000 as of 2022—come mostly from the armed forces (approximately 75%) and a mere 10% have received any certification in police training. It should come as no surprise that in its three years of operations, the GN has had an abysmal record when it comes to police work: “...the Guardia Nacional, which is three times the size of the Policía Federal, has made only one-third the number of arrests,” points out security analyst Ricardo Márquez Blas. Meanwhile, the number of homicides has continued to rise inexorably, putting this sexenio on the trajectory to become the most violent in Mexico’s modern history.
Could it be that López Obrador, more than contradicting his own beliefs about the military, has come to believe he can mold the armed forces in his image? There is a dissonance in AMLO’s security strategy that is hard to ignore: “abrazos, no balazos” does not sound like a military creed. There have been numerous examples of the GN retreating from and avoiding confrontation with cartels; instead of fighting a war, it seems these soldiers are observing one from the sidelines. And yet, one of the most frequent justifications for the need to have the armed forces in charge—not just from this administration, but from other observers taking a “pragmatic” stance—is that the cartels have a level of firepower that can only be matched by the military. This narrative may be one of the most insidious in the history of Mexico’s drug war, bolstered by dramatic footage that distorts public perceptions: a drone used to drop explosives (and film the attack) in Michoacán, retrofitted pick-up trucks with armor plating and machine gun turrets (“narco-tanks”), or the infamous “narco-submarines” moving millions of dollars worth of drugs beneath the waters of the Pacific. According to a survey conducted by the Center for Mexican Studies at UC San Diego, 70% of Mexicans polled agreed with the statement that cartels have more and better weapons than the armed forces, which despite their intimidating firepower, is definitely inaccurate. “If people perceive criminal groups to have greater firepower, then the armed forces can call for more ‘mano dura’ approaches that we know are ineffective in reducing violence but certainly result in human rights violations,” notes analyst Cecilia Farfán Méndez, head of Security Research Programs at the Center for Mexican Studies.
This story of cartels operating with the same capabilities as the armed forces has justified not only the abandonment of policing, but also a ramped-up military response, bolstered by the U.S. government as well as the Mexican one. It is also fueled by the cartels themselves, part of their strategy to terrorize citizens and reinforce their appearance of omnipotence. But as Alejandro Hope, security analyst, noted in an article about the rash of frightening “narco-bloqueos” in Jalisco and Guanajuato this past week: “the attacks demonstrate the level of disorganization on the part of authorities more than the colossal powers of the criminals (after all, they are attacking Oxxos, not military bases).”
So if AMLO isn’t deploying the military for “war”, then why is it increasingly the beneficiary of public funds and power? Analysts from many watchdogs have expressed concern about their expanding role in administering public monies and in governance. The GN budget increased by 70% between 2021 and 2022, and this year, the armed forces are managing the second-largest federal public administration budget.
AMLO’s administration has “normalized the exception to the rule” by not just continuing the militarization that began in 2006, but by taking it wider and deeper. The commander in chief has relied on the military to help build his megaprojects, to run customs at ports of entry, to operate the Bancos del Bienestar (Welfare Banks), where eligible citizens receive monies from social programs, and to take on other formerly civil responsibilities across government departments. The military is presented as more efficient and less corruptible, an image that public opinion seems to broadly support. The armed forces enjoy some of the highest public approval ratings of any Mexican institution.
In a way, I think that AMLO’s affinity with the military should not come as such a surprise. First of all, they both share a resilient popularity, despite delivering poor results. And even though AMLO promised to “send the soldiers back to their barracks” while on the campaign trail, he clearly identifies with the nationalist ideals represented by the military, as well as values such as frugality, loyalty and solidarity. The lack of transparency, accountability and democracy inherent in a hierarchical entity like the military does not seem to trouble López Obrador, or cloud his vision of the “cuarta transformación”. In fact, his emphatic insistence on reinforcing the military nature of the GN by removing civilian oversight—contradicting the Constitution itself—demonstrates how essential the military has become to his legacy.