Change in slow motion can leave one desensitized to its significance. With that in mind let’s take note of the changing role of the Mexican military.
In the final decades of the 20th century, military dictatorships were the main threat to democracy in Latin America. During this period, Mexico stood apart from much of the region because its military had a limited role, mostly addressing matters of national defense with some disaster response and drug eradication. But that limited role has changed.
Since the mid-1990s, the Mexican military has had a growing variety of roles in public security, often temporarily used to respond to drug trafficking, police corruption, and high homicide rates. Deployments of the military, or newly ex-military, in public security were generally accompanied by a political message that read: this was temporary, pending the implementation of long-term reform. Now, 25 years in, the military’s role in public security is being regularized.
In 2019 President Andres Manuel López Obrador created the National Guard. It was announced as a civilian public security body but was initially populated with active duty military who literally put on new arm bands to show their participation in a different force. In parallel, the President announced in 2020 that direct military deployment in public security tasks would end in 2024.
Today the National Guard has replaced the Federal Police and is formally part of the Ministry of Citizen Safety and Protection. But the majority of the Guard’s roughly 100,000 members are still military. They live in barracks and their commander is a general. And, abandoning all pretense that the National Guard is meant to be a civilian police body, López Obrador has stated that he will seek a constitutional reform to formally make the Guard part of the Ministry of National Defense; that is, the new force would become part of the armed forces.
Over time the Mexican military has accumulated responsibility for: ports and customs; immigration control; drug eradication; distribution of materials in response to Covid-19; natural disaster response; and construction in mega projects like the new Mexico City airport and the Mayan Train.
It is argued that using the military in these roles is efficient (they are already mobilized so why not use them). And that they are less corrupt than other Mexican civilian institutions.
I find both arguments perplexing. When claiming efficiency, no one ever factors in the cost to maintain a force large enough to take on these roles. The corruption issue is even more perplexing. How would one ever determine that they are less corrupt? The Mexican military is one of the least transparent institutions in the country. And now it is giving out no bid contracts on construction projects, a highly questionable practice if anti-corruption is the goal.
So, what’s the downside to the expanded use of the military?
First, it delays problem solving. Stephanie Brewer, from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) puts it well, “Instead of buying time for (civilian) authorities to implement solutions, militarization has become the addiction that postpones those solutions indefinitely.”
That’s the second problem: using the military to address problems that don’t have a military solution doesn’t work. After 25 years of unsuccessful attempts at using the military in public security and drug control that failure seems clear.
Third, it undercuts civilian government. When you give too many authorities to one institution, only that institution has the capacity to respond, meaning that it will continue to be called upon. In this case, that institution is the one that has guns. Giving too many responsibilities to the military disturbs the balance of power. The more you do it, the fewer options you have.
Once the hemispheric example of quiet and limited civilian power, the Mexican military’s responsibilities are increasingly being expanded. Ojo, broadening military roles weakens democracy.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson