The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has drastically intensified militarization in Mexico, solidifying the concentration of civilian activities in military hands.
This is the analysis offered in the investigation carried out by the non-governmental organization, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), based on public government data and requests for access to public information. The results were presented this month of September in the report, Militarized Transformation: Human Rights and Democratic Controls in a Context of Increasing Militarization in Mexico.
According to the report, the government of López Obrador has achieved what his predecessors didn’t: approving laws and norms institutionalizing militarization. In 2017, the then president, Enrique Peña Nieto, approved the Law of Interior Security, which was overturned in its totality by the Supreme Court in 2018 for seeking to normalize the use of armed forces in civilian matters.
For his part, López Obrador passed a constitutional reform in March of 2019. Among other things, this reform gave the military the power to carry out policing tasks until 2024, if the president deems it necessary.
In 2020, the Mexican president published a new presidential decree ordering the participation of armed forces in tasks of public security. So far, the Supreme Court has validated the agreement citing the fifth transitory article of the constitutional reform of 2019. In 2022, via another constitutional reform, the provision of armed forces in policing activities was extended into 2028. In other words, whoever succeeds López Obrador in power, will be able to use armed forces in civil and administrative spheres.
With the constitutional reform of March of 2019, and the subsequent approval of the National Guard Law in May of that same year, the National Guard was created as a new federal security force, replacing the now defunct federal police, trained and equipped by the United States.
Although Article 21 of the constitution says that the National Guard is “a police institution of civilian character,” linked to the Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection (SSPC), in practice it is a force whose formation, command structure, territorial deployment, and institutional identity are fundamentally military.
According to the investigation, official documents reveal that the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) assumed the operating coordination of the National Guard beginning in October of 2020.
To solidify the identity of the National Guard as a military force, López Obrador reformed the National Guard Law in September of 2022 to grant operating and administrative control of the National Guard to SEDENA. It is important to mention that this reform figures into changes already planned by this institution in a broader scheme of internal restructuring released in 2021.
In April 2023, the Supreme Court overturned the National Guard reform for violating the text of the constitution, which states that the National Guard is to be a civilian force. However, the Supreme Court authorized a time period until January of 2024 for the fulfillment of the resolution. If the Supreme Court’s order isn’t fulfilled in this time period, the National Guard would presumably remain under the de facto coordination of SEDENA.
Military Recognizes the President’s Achievements
The report mentions the account of the Secretariat of National Defense, General Luis Cresencio Sandoval, which illustrates how the proposals for changes to the armed forces were taken up by the current federal administration:
“(In previous administrations) they never gave us what we always asked for, what both General Galván as well as General Cienfuegos had asked for. In this administration it happened very easily because the president understood perfectly well what the necessity was in order to not expose ourselves and to have the legal capacity to act. Besides, it was achieved very easily, not with a law but with a transitory article, we achieved what we couldn’t do for so many years…”.
The report shows that the deployment of militarized and military forces remains at historic levels. The First Semiannual Report of the Permanent Armed Forces in Tasks of Public Security, presented by the armed forces and the Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection (SSPC) in May of 2023, reports the deployment of 79,399 “permanent armed forces distributed throughout national territory for tasks of public security.” Of those, 59,217 correspond to the Army, and 20,182 to the Navy.
If the deployment of federal forces related to other tasks is added to the count, according to the federal government’s monthly security report, in the period between May 30 and June 12, 2023, 109,281 members of the National Guard and 145,995 members of the armed forces were deployed, adding up to a total of 255,276 elements assigned to SEDENA.
According to the report, the militarization of policing is also happening through the naming of military commanders in security institutions at the state and local levels. López Obrador has publicly recommended governors to consult with SEDENA and SEMAR before naming the heads of state public security offices, “so that they have honest, upright, I repeat, incorruptible people.”
The federal government has also assigned a growing list of other civilian tasks to the armed forces, through a series of administration and legislative actions and reforms.
These tasks include the construction of megaprojects, or the management of companies in charge of them, like the Maya Train, the Interoceanic Corridor, and airports. There are also plans to soon begin to operate a military airline. Military institutions also control ports and customs.
The study warns that while their powers and authority are growing, the armed forces do not have effective civilian controls over their actions. Furthermore, Mexico continues experiencing historic levels of violence, the vast majority of crimes going unpunished.