Foreign Relations & International Law

On Security, Mexico’s New President Brings Old Thinking

Jake Dizard
Wednesday, January 2, 2019, 10:00 AM

Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador—nicknamed AMLO among the public and in the media—took the oath of office on Dec. 1. As the first representative of the political left to be elected president in Mexico’s post-2000 democratic era, AMLO embodies a public that yearns for a dramatic change of direction.

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Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador—nicknamed AMLO among the public and in the media—took the oath of office on Dec. 1. As the first representative of the political left to be elected president in Mexico’s post-2000 democratic era, AMLO embodies a public that yearns for a dramatic change of direction. Yet on perhaps the country’s most vexing public policy issue—the ongoing violence around the country—the new administration’s plans indicate a deepening of the same militarization paradigm that has largely failed over the last twelve years.

AMLO’s plan hinges on the creation of a National Guard, initially composed of up to 60,000 agents drawn from the Military Police, the Naval Police, and the Federal Police, augmented by tens of thousands of new recruits over the subsequent three years. The proposal’s most eye-catching feature is that it gives the lead role to the military. According to the guidelines laid out in the new National Plan for Peace and Security, Mexico’s territory will be divided into 266 regions; in each, a team of civilian officials will collaborate with military officials to manage National Guard operations. The civilians are in charge of “coordinating” the various entities, but training and operational management responsibilities—where the real decision power is likely to reside—rests with military officers.

The strategy of giving Mexico’s armed forces a leading role in combating crime is nothing new. While Mexico’s military has engaged in counternarcotics operations for decades, President Felipe Calderón’s December 2006 decision to significantly expand the Army and Navy’s anti-crime missions, made them the protagonists in combating the country’s increasingly powerful drug trafficking organizations.

Calderón’s strategy was a dramatic failure: The number of homicides increased from 8,867 in 2007 to 27,213 by 2011, with the total number of homicide victims in the last 12 years has reaching an estimated 275,000. The strategy yielded one major purported success: the capture or killing of dozens of so-called “high-value targets,” many of them wanted in both Mexico and the United States. But rather than disrupting criminal operations, those takedowns accelerated the fragmentation of Mexico’s gangs into smaller, less-hierarchical entities—which, in turn, stimulated diversification into an array of criminal activities from extortion to kidnapping to counterfeiting. Meanwhile, allegations of human rights abuses by members of the military spiked dramatically, with evidence of torture, extrajudicial execution, and enforced disappearance, among other serious abuses.

During his campaign in 2012, Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, suggested reforms to these policies. Yet once in office, Peña Nieto—facing bureaucratic obstacles, and perhaps lulled into complacency by homicide rates that fell by more than 25 percent between 2012 and 2014—did little to alter the basic direction of security policy, even when homicides resumed their rise in 2015. Peña Nieto made some attempts to shift gears, including a campaign pledge to build a hybrid military-police forcethat would fall under the command of the civilian-led interior ministry. That group (the “gendermerie”) only reached around 5,000 officers before stagnating, at least in part because the effort was undercut by the Army’s aggressive reconfiguration of the Military Police to serve in a similar role but under military command.

Given AMLO’s leftist credibility and vitriolic rejection of Calderón and Peña Nieto—AMLO was the runner-up in both the 2006 and 2012 elections, and each with each loss, he claimed to have been the victim of fraud—it might seem surprising that he would embrace the central plank of their security policies. Similarly, on numerous occasions over the last decade, he has called for demilitarization and angered the military by referring to human rights abuses. However, during the campaign, AMLO’s rhetoric on the military’s role and security policy was more inconsistent. He engaged in a sharp spat with the chief of the Army, Gen.l Salvador Cienfuegos, but AMLO also discussed creating the National Guard. Within weeks of his overwhelming victory in July, he met with the heads of the armed forces and set a more cooperative tone, including a pledge not to alter Mexico’s anachronistic practice of naming active-duty officers as heads of the Army and Navy.

Still, the military’s central role in the National Guard plan came as an unwelcome surprise.

It was a dismaying development for human rights. Despite a decline in complaints to the National Human Rights Commission in recent years, allegations of grave abuses by the Army and Navy have continued. Furthermore, accountability for these crimes remains elusive. Given this context, assurances that the National Guard will be closely monitored and carefully trained are weak palliatives. (In a bitter irony for rights advocates, the National Guard announcement came the same week that the Supreme Court struck down the 2017 Internal Security Law—which solidified the military’s role in crime efforts—as an unconstitutional extension of military power.)

There are other reasons that the National Guard is a questionable choice. While it is almost universally acknowledged in Mexico that the military cannot currently be withdrawn from a public security role because police remain too weak, there is an equally strong consensus that fixing civilian law enforcement institutions is the only path to a long-term reduction of violence. Notably, AMLO’s National Plan for Peace and Security (of which the National Guard is the central component) justifies creating the National Guard by deriding the discipline, training and professionalism of both federal and regional police agencies—shortcomings that are the results of policy neglect and weak implementation of previous reforms rather than immutable traits of the units. Moreover, many Mexican analysts view the high probability that the National Guard will swallow the 36,000-strong Federal Police as a step backwards in the effort to foment competent civilian police institutions.

Finally, the civil-military repercussions of the militarized security force cannot be overlooked. During the Peña Nieto era, Gen. Cienfuegos engaged in unusually public lobbying for greater legal protection compared to recent predecessors. Some of AMLO’s defenders have portrayed the National Guard plan as a necessary strategy to assert control over the high command, or even as an opportunity to “police-ize” the Army. Far more plausible, however, is that greater dependence on Mexico’s military will give the generals more leverage to defend core institutional prerogatives, including protection from prosecution and postponing structural modernization—not to mention the increased budgets that accompany control of the National Guard.

To be sure, there are understandable political reasons for AMLO’s surprising turn. Desperately needed police and judicial reform efforts have moved slowly while public confidence in the military has remained high and the armed forces are widely believed to be less corrupt than police and prosecutors. In addition, the military’s operational capacity has increased, and there are cases in which military interventions have seemingly contributed to improved security, as in the city of Torreón.

Yet despite these advantages and successes, soldiers are fundamentally not police. They live on bases rather than within the communities they protect, they are primarily accountable to their commanding officers rather than local elected officials, and lethality is the base of their operational training. Despite the proliferation of human rights offices and training within the Army and Navy, many frontline soldiers report that their training is incompatible with a law enforcement mission, along with frustrating working conditions and pressure to produce results.

Mexico’s security crisis is genuine, and the need for a response urgent. And with apathetic policymaking as a notable contributor to an all-time-high homicide rate, AMLO’s attention to security is welcome. But the past 12 years have shown that rather than a more effective, less corrupt version of the police, Mexico’s armed forces are poorly suited for a leading public security role. Militarization has been counterproductive in terms of violence, human rights, and civilian institution building. Doubling down on a strategy that is neither new nor promising signals a disappointing start to the AMLO presidency.

Jake Dizard is a postdoctoral fellow with the Mexico Security Initiative at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. He received his Ph.D. in 2018 from the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. His dissertation focused on the militarization of public security and civil-military relations in Mexico and Colombia. Prior to his doctoral studies he worked as a Latin America political analyst at the NGO Freedom House, where he also managed a cross-national survey of democratic governance in developing countries and wrote pieces for outlets including the Miami Herald, Christian Science Monitor, and Harvard International Review. His research interests include security policy and rule of law systems in Latin America, accountability for state human rights violations, and civil-military relations in developing countries. He holds an MA in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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