MEXICO CITY – The celebration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s two-year anniversary as president of Mexico started with a little change of pace. The president skipped the usual mañanera, his daily early morning press conference, and instead addressed the nation about delivering 97% of his campaign promises. But one item went awry.
Despite having promised to demilitarize public security, during his two years in office President López Obrador (widely known as AMLO) has instead expanded the powers of the Mexican armed forces in an unprecedented manner, beyond national security tasks. The recent release from a U.S. jail of General Salvador Cienfuegos, the former head of Mexico’s Ministry of Defense (SEDENA), on foreign relations’ grounds tells us something about the military’s new role in the Mexican government.
Rarely do U.S. justice officials agree to drop charges so readily. Cienfuegos had found himself on the wrong end of well-documented drug trafficking and money laundering accusations. But putting the general on trial in the United States would have shined an uncomfortable light on the Mexican military, casting suspicion over an institution that has become a centerpiece of the government’s strategy.
The first emblematic event of what was to come for the armed forces came during AMLO’s first year in office with the creation of the Mexican National Guard. Despite being constitutionally a civilian-controlled security force, the guard is controlled by a military operational command, sources recruits primarily from the armed forces, uses military weapons and training, and has members accused of crimes taken to military prisons rather than civilian ones (this, despite maintaining its own disciplinary framework). When six members of the National Guard were arrested for undue use of lethal force during a protest at Chihuahua’s Boquilla Dam in October, for example, they were transferred to a military prison in Sinaloa instead of being investigated and brought before a civil judge.
As an institution, the guard holds a troubling amount of power, maintaining 44 vaguely-worded attributions that range from “crime prevention” and “interception of communications” to “the detention of migrants and inspection of their documents” and “participation in joint operations.” The act of concentrating these responsibilities under a single roof is in itself troubling. Handing them over to the military, a body that does not adhere to transparency rules or even respect civil jurisdiction when a member of its ranks takes a civilian’s life, is cause for even graver concern.
In May 2020, AMLO abruptly decreed the armed forces would be “permanently available to carry out public security tasks,” effectively extending their powers beyond national security and into the domestic sphere. Without providing clear regulation or audit mechanisms, the decree authorizes the Army and Navy to make arrests, seize assets, preserve crime scenes, and inspect people’s entry and exit from the country. Oversight of the armed forces is left to the internal bodies of these institutions — that is, to military authorities not subject to transparency laws. The decree sets no clear objectives for deployment, and omits any language subordinating the armed forces to civil authorities in carrying out public security tasks, as required by Mexico’s constitution and by international law. Although included in the document’s title, these principles appear nowhere in the body of the text. The number of military engaged in domestic operations, whether through the guard or operating through the decree, is startling. According to data from the president’s office, October 2020 saw 214,735 members of the armed forces carry out public security tasks.
The powers of the military, however, have expanded way beyond public security tasks into areas of governance. AMLO’s administration has granted them powers over customs offices, waterways, airports, highways, health programs and infrastructure construction. Programa Sembrando Vida, for example, an assistance program for rural communities, is now managed by the armed forces. The military now holds the power to distribute medication and vaccines, attend to COVID-19 patients and distribute textbooks. Meanwhile, military-controlled high schools have sprung up around the country; SEDENA manages at least 22 high schools in 11 states. The military has even got a hand in reforestation efforts.
The current trend must be understood as two parallel and simultaneous processes, that of militarization (the expansion of the military in public security tasks) and militarism (the incursion of the military in governance). The Mexican government’s response to the arrest of General Cienfuegos demonstrates that the armed forces’ reach has even stretched into the realm of foreign policy. While the militarization process shows the incapacity of the Mexican state to halt crime through regular constitutional channels; militarism stokes authoritarianism, hampers transparency, and strips away civilian control over military institutions. It is the democratic viability of the Mexican state that is ultimately at risk.
Pérez Correa is a criminal law researcher and professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) and member of the board of the Global Drug Policy Program (@cataperezcorrea)
Tags: AMLO, Mexico, Military, National Guard