Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Has Mexico’s Military Taken on Too Much Power?

Photo of Mexican military. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has broadened the role of the country’s military since he took office in 2018. // File Photo: Mexican Government.

The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), the unit tasked with investigating the 2014 disappearance of 43 student teachers in the Mexican state of Guerrero, said in a statement on July 25 that the Mexican Navy and Army “collaborated” in the students’ disappearance and had participated in tampering with key evidence. The Mexican armed forces have long denied involvement in the case. The GIEI also announced that it would terminate its work, saying the state has failed to provide it with access to important information. The developments came as Mexico’s military has increased in size, taken over some traditionally civilian jobs and assumed a greater national security role under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. What does the GIEI report signal about the current state of Mexico’s military? What effect has increased militarization in Mexico had on civilian life? How likely is the military to maintain its increased role after López Obrador leaves office next year?

Rebecca Bill Chavez, president and CEO of the Inter-American Dialogue: “As countries across Latin America and the Caribbean grapple with the very real challenge of criminal violence and growing perceptions of insecurity, Mexico should serve as a cautionary tale that illustrates the dangers of militarization, a major factor in democratic backsliding. When the process in Mexico officially got underway in 2006, it was meant to be a short-term solution. Almost two decades later, and despite its failure (crime and homicide rates have continued to rise), the armed forces’ role in law enforcement and civilian life more generally has increased dramatically, leading to the egregious human rights abuses, corruption and impunity captured by the tragic Ayotzinapa case. Despite his campaign promises to return the military to the barracks, AMLO has deepened militarization in two alarming ways, both of which can weaken civilian control of government. First, he has moved to replace the federal police altogether with the armed forces, which would give the army and navy total command of law enforcement. Second, AMLO has given the military an unprecedented role in Mexico’s politics and economy, including a major stake in lucrative infrastructure projects and control over the operation of airports, seaports and customs. These new roles create opportunities for graft and corruption and concentrate greater power in the military. Perhaps most challenging is that as militarization expands, it becomes more entrenched in civilian life and difficult to reverse. As countries such as Chile consider calling on their armed forces to address public insecurity, they should consider Mexico’s track record and the lasting impact of turning to the military to solve current governing challenges. The only long-term solution is to strengthen the police and judiciary, focus on crime prevention and rehabilitation, and invest in creating and supporting effective government institutions that are free of corruption.”

Arantza Alonso, senior Americas analyst at Verisk Maplecroft: “The GIEI report implies that the military has amassed so much influence over the state that not even its commander in chief, President López Obrador, can force it to hand in key evidence on the disappearance of the students. Despite AMLO’s campaign promise to uncover what happened in Iguala, the military continues to obstruct justice by limiting access to information, concealing evidence and protecting its personnel. By going to such lengths to hide its involvement, the military is inadvertently confirming its responsibility. Mexico is among the worst five performers in the Americas—after Honduras, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua—on Verisk Maplecroft’s Security Forces and Human Rights Index, which measures the involvement of both state and private security forces in human rights violations. Yet, under AMLO, the military has affirmed its role as the backbone of the country’s national security strategy. The constant deployment of an unaccountable military across the country exposes civilians to human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. AMLO has also ordered the military to take over traditional civilian tasks, such as infrastructure building and the administration of land and seaports. The direct assignment of these tasks, which fall beyond the military’s core activities, has undermined efficiency, competitiveness and transparency. It is still too soon to determine who AMLO’s successor will be and what their stance on the role of the military will be. However, given the military’s current sizable responsibilities and influence in multiple spheres, it would take considerable time and resources to reduce them.” 

Raúl Benítez Manaut, researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico: “There has been a process of progressive militarization in Mexico since the late 1990s. Militarization during the administration of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), included a takeover of civilian security positions by army personnel at the municipal police level in large cities and at the top of command level in the states. The United States and the Mérida Initiative indirectly supported this, and it had the legislative backing of Mexico’s main political parties—the PRI, PAN and PRD. In 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised to remove military personnel from the streets as part of his presidential campaign. At that time, he made public the idea of creating a National Guard and dissolving the federal police. Consequently, a vacuum in federal police management was created. Homicides increased across the country. As president, in 2019, López Obrador initiated a second militarization, increasing the participation of the army in the construction of large infrastructure projects, taking that authority away from the Infrastructure, Communications and Transportation Ministries. The political opposition, mainly the PRI and PAN, support the creation of the National Guard in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies. The military’s presence has increased across more than 20 nonmilitary missions and is heavily criticized by the opposition. This gives the armed forces, aside from the economic resources to administer the projects, great power politically. The big question all analysts ask is: can this militarization be stopped after 2024? The campaign will be driven by the debates around security and militarization.” 

Tyler Mattiace, researcher in the Americas division at Human Rights Watch: “The final Ayotzinapa report issued by the group of experts before it ended its mandate in July raises serious questions about the extent to which Mexico’s military is under civilian control and highlights the dangers of President López Obrador’s vast expansion of the military’s role in public life. Successive Mexican presidents have deployed the military domestically to fight organized crime, arguing it is ‘incorruptible’ and always follows the orders of civilian leaders. President López Obrador has repeated these claims to justify giving even more responsibility to the military, putting unelected soldiers in charge of hundreds of civilian tasks and billions of dollars in public revenue while allowing them to avoid transparency rules under the pretext of ‘national security.’ The Ayotzinapa report demonstrated that the military is not incorruptible. It revealed evidence that soldiers had been working together with the criminal cartel at the center of the case when the disappearance took place. It also raises questions about the military’s accountability to civilian authorities. The army not only participated in the initial cover up in 2014, it has continued to systematically obstruct the investigation since then, refusing to turn over key evidence and lying to investigators even after López Obrador issued an executive order instructing the entire government to cooperate. Worryingly, López Obrador has responded by defending the military, rather than pushing for accountability. President López Obrador’s empowerment of the military may be one of the most negative and difficult to reverse legacies of his presidency.” 

Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy: “One of the most puzzling aspects of the Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration, which came into office as a leftist government, is the radical militarization of the country’s life. The AMLO government did away with all civilian police forces at the federal level, sectioning off a portion of the armed forces into a National Guard and, unconstitutionally, placing them under military command. The result of this right turn in the management of the country’s security is not only a continued high level of crime and violence but also a steady violation of human and due process rights in the hands of the military. In addition, the Mexican president has also handed over to the military a number of civilian tasks, including seaport, airport and land-port operations, and numerous other functions, such as customs and major national project construction. That includes refineries, airports and roads, among others. That gives the military additional sources of income that do not depend on the congressional budgetary process or oversight. Moreover, the military’s prominence has also opened new doors for deeper corruption in the armed forces, as it has access to enormous resources with no accountability. Furthermore, the president has granted the military absolute immunity against any criminal responsibility past or present, as it became evident in the report of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts. This is an unprecedented and dangerous turn in Mexico’s still-fragile democracy, and undoing the power of the military in the next administration will be difficult to do, as it will be one of the greatest challenges to Mexico’s future.” 


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