It is often said that understanding politics requires following the money. The austerity measures to counteract the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 have further illuminated the Mexican government’s increasingly cozy relationship with the Army. Unlike the United States, where the Department of Defense oversees the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, in Mexico the Army and the Air Force are under the Secretariat of Defense (SEDENA per its Spanish acronym) while the Navy is a separate secretariat.
Against the advice of top-level experts, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced a progressive salary cut of up to 25 percent for public servants as well as the dissolution of ten undersecretariats. The recently created National Guard, the Secretariat of National Defense, and the Navy, however, are exempted from pay cuts and elimination of benefits for their personnel.
Arguably, the Secretariat of National Defense performs essential functions for Mexico. But given the human and economic devastation caused by a global pandemic, couldn’t we make the same argument for the other agencies within the executive branch? Foreign service officers, for example, are ensuring the prompt and safe return of remains of the deceased to loved ones in Mexico. In times of great loss and social distancing, this is not a minor or easy task.
The exemption granted to the Secretariat of National Defense should be examined in the context of other functions allotted under the current administration. In December 2018, recently inaugurated into office, President López Obrador announced that SEDENA would build luxury apartments in one of the most exclusive areas of Mexico City in order to finance the National Guard which has become the centerpiece of his public security policy. By March 2019, President López Obrador backtracked and stated that while SEDENA would remain engaged with the construction of the apartments, they would not be sold and instead serve as housing for members of the National Guard.
SEDENA is also currently engaged in the construction of the Felipe Angeles International Airport and has promised to deliver by March 2022 and under budget. This airport is one of President López Obrador’s flagship infrastructure projects and is different from the airport project developed under Peña Nieto´s administration (2012-2018) which remains partially built.
Ever the believer in SEDENA´s construction prowess, President López Obrador has stated that after concluding their work at the Felipe Angeles International Airport, SEDENA will aid in the development of the Mayan Train. Another infrastructure project of this administration that has received widespread criticism for, among other reasons, its potential ecological damages.
To be sure, the participation of the Armed Forces beyond functions of national security is not by default undesirable. Their assistance after natural disasters is a clear example of how their skills can be used to help the civilian population in times of crises.
However, setting aside SEDENA´s competence in developing infrastructure projects, their increasing prominence within the Mexican government raises important questions of their ever-growing role in politics. The Secretariat of Defense already faces serious concerns about their role in militarizing public safety. As SEDENA’s budget increases along with its appearances on prime time next to the president, it is time to ask about the long-term consequences of their front and center role and, if it creates new power dynamics within the federal government and between the federal government and the states.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc