Contrary to his campaign promises to “return the army to its barracks,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has announced his intention to reform the National Guard so that it is “completely under” the authority of the Ministry of Defense (Sedena). Thus, the current government threatens to continue deepening the militarization of public security despite the high human rights costs of this strategy and its proven failure to address violence and drug trafficking, two major challenges in the country.
We spoke with WOLA’s Director for Mexico Stephanie Brewer about the present, past, and potential future of militarization as a security strategy in the country and the state of bilateral relations with the United States.
Let’s start with the context. Mexico faces high levels of insecurity and violence, with more than 35,000 homicides registered annually, a huge increase in the last 15 years, and more than 100,000 people recognized as missing or disappeared. Violence, including homicides, disappearances, and other forms of violence, has become a sadly common tool used by different actors and groups to impose their will, send messages, and seek to control illegal markets and territories.
In this context, President López Obrador says that the deployment of military forces in police tasks throughout the country must be expanded and made practically permanent. He says that the armed forces are the only ones who can take care of this serious problem, and that local and civilian institutions can’t handle it.
This is the same argument that Mexico’s federal government has pushed for the last decade and a half, at least, with disastrous security and human rights consequences. When Felipe Calderón became president in 2006, he announced militarization as a temporary measure that would supposedly allow the government to strengthen police and other institutions and regain territorial control in certain areas of the country. What actually happened was that military deployment was prolonged throughout the Calderón administration, and then continued with the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Yes, that’s what he had promised prior to being elected, but, on the contrary, one of his first actions was the creation of a National Guard to replace the Federal Police. This National Guard was constitutionally established as a civilian security force, but it has been managed from the start as a military force. The vast majority of its more than 100,000 members are military and, in practice, it is already under the operational control of Sedena. And that’s not all: in addition to the National Guard, the armed forces (the army and the navy) are still deployed. So today, military deployment is at its highest in recent history.
With López Obrador, we can see certain changes in the way the armed forces are used. Armed confrontations between security forces and civilians, for example, have dropped in absolute terms. The strategy, especially with the National Guard, has been to increase the territorial presence of state forces, which may be relevant, especially in certain areas, but it is far from enough to have a significant impact on the situation of insecurity and crime.
There’s another change with López Obrador: he doesn’t speak of militarization as a temporary measure, but rather has insisted that the National Guard become part of Sedena, that it become an armed force, so that there is no longer any federal civilian police force in Mexico. He says that what he wants is to make it very difficult or impossible for future governments to reverse this model. And he has also said in recent weeks that the deployment of the army and the navy must also continue long term, beyond 2024, which is currently the deadline established by a transitory article of the constitutional reform that created the National Guard in 2019.
Of course. López Obrador has already sent a bill to the Mexican Congress to reform a series of laws to give Sedena operational and administrative control of the National Guard, seeking to make it a body made up entirely of military personnel, which could even assist the armed forces in purely military missions.
This goes against the Constitution of Mexico, which, in article 21, establishes that the National Guard is a civilian police institution.
What these proposals seem to seek is to deepen the government’s clear tendency to grant more and more civilian functions and budget, and thus more power, to military institutions, especially Sedena.
Under this model, the armed forces are not only deployed in policing tasks, but also have a very important role in migration control tasks at the borders, are in charge of ports and customs, and build and manage large infrastructure projects, among others.
It would seem that, instead of investing in the consolidation of the institutions that any democratic government should have, the answer is to skip that necessary step and deploy the armed forces instead. Certainly, militarization seems to offer an easy or quick way to present solutions to the population and say, “look, I’m taking firm actions, this is how we’re going to end corruption, this is how we’re going to provide security”, but all the evidence so far tells us that the desired results will not be achieved this way. On the contrary, this path of militarization is intensifying a dynamic in which the Mexican armed forces, which have always enjoyed a worrying degree of autonomy and lack of transparency and accountability, will now have more and more power vis-à-vis civilian authorities.
President López Obrador has said that he has given instructions for the armed forces not to repress and not to violate human rights. Of course, even with instructions, there continue to be cases of excessive use of force and arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the armed forces and the National Guard during his government.
At the same time, available data show a reduction, in absolute terms, in the levels of serious human rights violations such as torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions as compared to ten years ago, for example, during the Calderón administration.
What we have to remember, however, is that these military institutions are the same ones responsible for the levels of abuses seen just a few years ago and they have not undergone any effective accountability process. Nor have they been reformed to guarantee transparency and build effective control mechanisms. In the case of the National Guard, for example, the government has even refused to comply with a ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that mandated the creation of an external oversight mechanism.
Additionally, neither the National Human Rights Commission nor the National Prosecutor’s Office have been effective control mechanisms in terms of investigations of military abuses.
Violence and the operational capacity of criminal groups persist in Mexico essentially because the country has not consolidated a reliable, capable, and well-resourced criminal investigation system that solves and punishes crimes and can investigate complex criminal phenomena.
Security and justice institutions operate, especially in the states, in often precarious conditions, with deep-rooted problems of lack of capacity, but also frequently of corruption. This contributes to the fact that the overwhelming majority of crimes committed against the population go unpunished.
The key pending task, and I’m not saying anything new here, is to strengthen and reform civil institutions so that the country has a system capable of responding to and preventing crimes. I’m not saying there are no efforts and projects in that direction, but so far militarization has captured political and financial resources while the strengthening of civilian institutions does not receive sufficient attention.
There are many commitments and opportunities. The question is how to ensure that bilateral cooperation not only generates positive actions, but also overcomes obstacles on both sides of the border that interfere with the progress that could be made.
In 2021, the United States and Mexico replaced the “Merida Initiative” with the “Bicentennial Framework,” which promises a public health approach to drugs and actions to reduce the violence affecting the population.
If you read the announcement of the Bicentennial Framework, you might almost think that militarization no longer exists because almost the entire text speaks of other types of actions. But what exists is rather a gap between the areas and actions of cooperation foreseen in the agreement, and the Mexican federal government’s main security strategy. That is going to be an increasingly acute problem if the National Guard is formally placed under the control of Sedena and there are no longer any remnants of civilian police institutions at the federal level, because the U.S. Congress has also instructed that rule of law cooperation funds for Mexico should not be used to support the participation of military forces in police tasks.
Now, on the U.S. side, the Bicentennial Framework was adopted in the midst of a broader context in which the Biden administration’s priority for Mexico is for the Mexican government to take steps to reduce the number of migrants and asylum seekers arriving at the U.S. southern border. The weight and priority given to the issue of immigration control can only make it more difficult to address other issues with the Mexican government, especially uncomfortable issues.
So, both governments need to move towards comprehensive cooperation on migration issues that prioritizes human rights and international protection, more along the lines of the Declaration adopted by the countries of the region at the Summit of the Americas last June, for example. But in addition, both sides need to collaborate to overcome errors and implement effective models in other areas, such as public security strategies.