On March 21st the new Felipe Ángeles International Airport (AIFA for its acronym in Spanish) will be inaugurated with much display by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. For the past three years, the construction of the AIFA airport north of Mexico City has been a central part of Mexican public debate and has become a symbol of the López Obrador Administration for several reasons, among them the fact that the airport was designed and built by the Mexican Army’s Corps of Engineers. On the one side, we can expect that the President will praise the Army for finishing the airport in record time, without corruption and at a smaller price tag than the larger Texcoco project which Mr. López Obrador himself scrapped when he took office. On the other side, however, we can expect the debate around AIFA will continue with a very sharp public scrutiny, not only of the construction process itself, but also on whether the airport is actually successful in numbers of passengers and flights served. Be that as it may, the occasion behooves thinking about the Mexican military’s role under the current Administration and its potential future implications.
The uncomfortable truth
For most part of his political career, López Obrador was extremely critical of having the Mexican armed forces participate in public security tasks, and specially in the fight against drug cartels that started at the turn of the 20th century. During his last campaign, the one that finally took him to the Presidency, he vowed to “return the armed forces to their barracks”. To the surprise of many –including some of its supporters– López Obrador has opted to keep the armed forces actively involved in public security. Indeed, in a speech given in Baja California last year, the President described as “absurd not relying on the Army and the Navy to confront the insecurity and violence which deeply worry the people”. This statement perhaps only recognizes the uncomfortable truth that, for decades, Mexican administrations have been unable or unwilling to build and consolidate an appropriate civil police force capacity at national and state level that can successfully confront an increasingly complex and violent organized crime phenomenon. Moreover, the newly created Mexican National Guard, the President’s big bet of his security strategy, is now poised to remain under military control rather than to consolidate as the civil force that was originally planned. For more on this topic see my previous piece in Mexico Today. As of January of this year, according to official figures, 93,813 Mexican servicemen and women remained deployed in “peace building operations” –the term used to describe public security-related tasks– without clarity about the medium and long term prospects of this deployment.
An expanded and unprecedented role
Mexico’s armed forces are a proud body and are also well-regarded by the population. According to a 2020 poll conducted by Mexico’s statistics agency INEGI, the Army and the Navy are the most trusted institutions in the country (with an approval of 63.8 percent). Several times, the armed forces have been called upon to help in all sorts of emergencies. By and large, this was the case on public security and, as I have written in these pages before, it is ill advised to propose they be relived of this responsibility any time in the near future. However, the role assigned to them by the President over the last three years has gone way beyond public security. The Mexican armed forces were not only a key player in the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, but they also now manage BIRMEX, a quasi-state-owned company that produces, imports, and commercializes vaccines. They have intervened in COFEPRIS –the Mexican agency equivalent to the FDA– as part of fight against the illegal importation of chemical components used to produce drugs. Not only were they set to help Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM), but they have also deployed 28,237 troops that carry out immigration control at the borders and throughout the country. The Navy has extended its initial mission of supporting security at Mexico’s seaports to actually run their operations, a responsibility which was previously assigned to the merchant marine. The same has occurred with customs operations, where the new National Customs Agency (ANA for its acronym in Spanish) is still nominally under the Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit but controlled and operated by military personnel. Finally, President López Obrador not only assigned the armed forces the task of building his priority infrastructure projects (the AIFA, the Mayan Train and the Tehuantepec Trans-isthmus Corridor Project among others) but has also decided that the Mexican military will be in charge of their operations through a newly created state-owned company.
Too close for comfort
This “mission creep” of Mexico’s armed forces is in my view unhealthy. It relives Mexican civil authorities of responsibilities that should be handled by them –as in the case of public security. Moreover, it has created a relationship between President and the armed forces that for many is simply too close for comfort. Last month, during the annual celebration of the Mexican Army, President López Obrador described that the new tasks assigned to the armed forces “reinforce their loyalty to civil institutions”. This can very well be the case, however there were two elements of the President’s speech that I think should raise concern. First, it emphasized that “as opposed to other Latin American armies the Mexican was not born out of the oligarchy”, implicitly making it part of a “class warfare” infused rhetoric that Mr. López Obrador has fueled over the last three years. Second, it also highlighted that Mexican Army was born to oppose the coup against President Francisco Madero during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. This is certainly true and noteworthy. However, it becomes risky when the President himself and some of his most vocal supporters openly talk about an alleged soft, media coup worldwide against governments like his that according to them are willing to face the “corrupt power of elites” and the rapacious nature of some foreign companies.
President López Obrador will often state that under his watch the armed forces “will never be instructed to repress the people”. There are no reasons whatsoever to doubt his assertion. However, the multi-taking role assigned to them should be watched carefully. As the saying goes “we all know when and how it started but we don’t know where and how it ends”.
* Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández is senior advisor at Covington and Burling, LLP and partner at BEEL Infrastructure. Twitter: @GERONIMO_GF