A few weeks ago, president Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador listed the constitutional reforms he aims to achieve during the second half of his six-year term. Among them was his idea to convert the newly created National Guard into a branch of the Mexican armed forces, rather than allowing it to evolve into a fully civilian police force as it was originally intended. The National Guard was created in 2019 as the López Obrador administration’s landmark policy to address persisting high levels of insecurity, organized crime, and their effects on the day-to-day lives of Mexicans. The National Guard was initially formed by members of the former Federal Police along with active Army and Navy personnel. It is formally under the civilian control of Mexico’s Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection (SSPC), but it has de facto operated as part of the military. According to the latest government figures available, the National Guard is now 100,000-strong and is organized countrywide in 214 regional bases.
The president’s central justification for placing the National Guard under the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) is that according to him it would allow the force to strengthen itself (“consolidarse” in Spanish). During one of his morning press conferences, López Obrador said that he wanted that the National Guard avoided the fate of the Federal Police which in his view was marked by corruption and ineffectiveness. As I have written before, I personally opposed the dismantling of Mexico’s Federal Police, not because it was anything close to perfect, but because I tend to favor updating and improving institutions instead of reinventing them every so often. To be fair, it certainly does not help that one of the main architects of the Federal Police and former Secretary of Public Security from 2006 to 2012 was arrested by U.S. authorities under drug charges in 2019.
Interestingly, president López Obrador mentioned that he will push for the National Guard’s reform because he believes it’s “convenient for the country”, irrespective of the how the bill might fare in Congress where he is short of the supermajority needed to approve constitutional changes. Indeed, the creation of the National Guard in 2019 benefited from just enough votes from opposition parties, something that looks more difficult now. Be that as it may, the president’s proposal to move the National Guard to SEDENA calls if nothing else for a careful analysis and thoughtful discussion. Since it does not seem that a bill would come any time soon –in principle is set for 2023– allow me to contribute to the debate with the following four considerations:
1. To start with, according to a recent poll by El Financiero newspaper, insecurity is firmly placed as the top national problem for Mexicans with 35%, way above unemployment and the economy (21%) or even the coronavirus pandemic (12%). At the same time, 59% thinks poorly about the way the government is currently handling public security. The last four administrations –including this one– have struggled to deal with crime and insecurity and can show little success. There are no quick fixes, I think, and any government should avoid the temptation of trying to get one.
2. I also believe there is a fair degree of consensus that Mexico so far has been unable to build a sufficient police force that is well trained, equipped and paid, especially considering the challenge posed by organized crime. However, it is a very much an open question if assigning the military policing tasks should be anything more than an exception. Participation of the military in public security has been under debate for decades and probably for the right reasons. It is often argued that militarized security operations result in serious human rights violations, but more importantly that is harder to investigate and prosecute these cases when the military is involved. The Washington Office for Latin América (WOLA), among other international and domestic NGOs, has written profusely on this subject. Also, it has been argued that if the National Guard is transferred under military control it would make it easier to avoid transparency, procurement and accountability guidelines that should apply to civilian police forces. This is why, among other reasons, former Supreme Court Chief Justice José Ramon Cossío describes the President’s proposal as a “dangerous idea”. Personally, I do not think that the military is per se prone to violate human rights. Moreover –and in the interest of full disclosure– I have had the privilege of working with the current National Guard’s commander, General Luis Rodríguez Bucio, and have the best impression of him. Yet, in the end, it is not really any individual that counts but the institutional design of the force. Traditional arguments against having the military take on police tasks in Mexico are exacerbated by the fact that president López Obrador opted to involved the Mexican armed forces in many other civilian tasks. These include building a new Mexico City airport, construction a tourist railway across the Yucatán peninsula (the so-called Mayan Train), managing seaports and customs facilities, and even erecting local branches for one of Mexico’s development banks.The president has openly said that his reliance on the military had the goal to ensure that his signature government projects transcend his administration.
3. The future of the National Guard is also inherently related to type of federal system Mexico should have in place and the role that state and local police should play within the overall public security system. Developing proper police forces at the state and local level is complicated, costly and takes time. It is an endeavor that some state governors and mayors in Mexico have been either uncapable or unwilling to embarked in. Although data is scarce and sketchy, a 2018 government study suggests that state and local police forces are below what is referred as the United Nations benchmark of 1.8 per 1000 inhabitants, and in some states being as low as 0.3. We can probably assume that Mexico needs a solid police force at all levels, but the prospect of having the National Guard transition into the military command will only reduce the incentives for Mexican state governors and mayors to undertake further responsibilities.
4. Finally, an issue that has received little attention is the potential implications on law enforcement and security cooperation with other countries and particularly the U.S. Over the years, involvement of Mexico’s armed forces in public security has implied they should interact with U.S. law enforcement agencies in addition to traditional military-to-military relations. Cooperation has certainly improved over the years, but it has not always been that way. On the other side, at different times the U.S. Congress has expressed reserves on providing assistance to Mexico that involves the military. In sum, a permanent, fully militarized National Guard calls into question the effect that this would overall on security cooperation with the U.S.
The armed forces are one of the few institutions that still enjoys high levels of trust among Mexicans (over 70% on most polls) and, unlike their Latin American peers, it has remained at arms-length from politics since the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. Reality has proven that the Mexican military involvement in public security is more of a necessity than a choice, but Mexico’s leaders should think hard about the best ways to make this a transitory policy and not a permanent one.