Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and his promises of maintaining security have been minimal at best as Mexico reached an all-time high of homicides in 2019 and has experienced recent increased rates of violence during their Covid-19 quarantine period. AMLO’s boldest response to violence to date has been the recent creation of a new National Guard. This was the result of Trump threatening in 2019 to place tariffs if Mexico did not cooperate further in curving waves of migrants from Central America. This new National Guard is pitched as a “civilian force,” yet, is mainly composed of members of Mexico’s military. Political scientist Jose Miguel Cruz warns about the impacts of militarizing security forces. Cruz describes how reshuffling repeated law-enforcement offenders into new civilian security positions cause ineffectiveness and corruption to spread. He argues that in order to ensure security when dealing with threats to public security, a country must restructure security institutions as a whole to cast out the “bad apples.” It is clear in this case, that the creation of the National Guard is a concession to Trump’s immigration policy agenda and a key reason for the recent erosion of human rights. It is, therefore, best for Mexico to refrain from using old tactics of militarizing public security issues and for AMLO to reassess current security forces.
On March 13, 2019, the state legislature of Yucatan approved a constitutional reform creating this new National Guard. Soon all 32 states followed and signed this reform. AMLO allocated $767 million to fund its operations with an initial strength of 60,000 members dispersed over 87 bases across the country. The National Guard is pitched as an alternative to using the military to fight against organized criminal groups like cartels. However, even though it is headed by the Civilian Ministry of Security, the guard is organized by military officials. For a President that promised “abrazos no balazos” (“hugs not bullets”) this is clearly a breach of his campaign promises as he vowed to de-escalate the use of the military. This approach undermines human rights in Mexico, as the population has a long history of being abused by military forces during the Calderon and Peña Nieto administration. To make matters worse, the blind eye the Judicial System has taken has also warranted criticism from the public. While reforms since 1994 have strengthened the Supreme Court, lower courts are understaffed, face budgetary and time constraints, and are susceptible to bribery which renders new forces like the National Guard immune to accountability.
Rather than focusing on institutional reform, AMLO has taken the shortcut of a symbolic decision in creating this new force. The arrest of the former Secretary of Public Security, Genaro Garcia Luna, who took bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel, also highlights the inherent inability of Mexico to structurally rid its security forces of “bad apples” that shift from basket to basket. Additionally, other branches under the control of the party, MORENA, seem to exacerbate the status quo, as Congress recently voted to increase the number of crimes for which people can be held in pre-trial detention. This controversial practice not only overcrowds the prisons of Mexico but, comes at a time when AMLO proposed reducing the spending of the prison system by 26 percent. This simply leads to a bloated and under-resourced judicial system that cant hold its offenders accountable or provide proper time for due process. Rather than making structural changes like Jose Miguel Cruz would recommend, AMLO just showboats the National Guard.
AMLO has not only been contradictory in his statements but is following the same pattern of previous presidents in creating new entities in government that are vague and ineffective. Ex-President Peña Nieto created the ill-defined “Gendarmerie” and Ex-President Vicente Fox created the Federal Investigative Agency (a Mexican counterpart to the US FBI agency) that failed to meet its goals of violence reduction. While the rhetoric and mission statement of the new National Guard is to combat organized crime, it’s been mainly deployed for border security. The National Guard has been used in the Mexican-Guatemalan border and has been criticized by the international community and the UN for tear-gassing immigrants from Central American countries. Therefore the three main critiques are that this new force is ill-trained, has no clear goal, and detracts from local police forces when used in cities.
These current trends simply point toward past mistakes. Since April, AMLO has been issuing executive decrees that expand and formalize the military in absorbing public sphere tasks. These new responsibilities include detaining suspects, securing crime scenes, and carrying out arrest warrants. This is concerning as they have a long record of altering crime scenes, torturing suspects, and committing other human rights violations with near-total impunity. When a force becomes an institution, accountability is near impossible. While AMLO insists he does not want to militarize security forces, the weapons, equipment, and training for the National Guard come from the Mexican military. If anything, AMLO has made civilian federal policing near obsolete at the national level since he delegates too many tasks to the National Guard.
Complaints against the National Guard range from small incidents like them abruptly checking backpacks in the metro of Mexico City to recklessly engaging with cartels. There is limited information on how joint operations with civilian security forces turn out, however, taking into consideration the legal gray area that they operate in, it’s easy to see abuse. Between July and November 2019, the CNDH (the Mexican National Human Rights Commission) reported receiving 32 complaints of human rights violations including accusations of migrant abuse, torture, and arbitrary detention. In the first two months of 2020, the CNDH also received complaints against the National Guard for forced disappearances, cruel and inhumane treatment, and once again arbitrary detention.
The question is not when the force will be corrupt but how we stop it from continuing. In April of 2020 photos circulated on social media of National Guardsmen eating with Puebla members of a cartel that were implicated with oil theft and drug trafficking. In early May, a video surfaced of members of the National Guard extorting criminals in Sonora. The National Guard and its internal oversight mechanism will be biased towards members committing abuses to preserve its image as a 2017 WOLA report revealed that 97 percent of crimes and human rights violations committed by soldiers against civilians that were investigated by the Attorney General’s Office between 2012 and 2016 had yet to be punished. Of the 505 criminal investigations that were launched, only 16 convictions had been secured.
The politics of using the military is to project strength, unity, and control. All of this comes at a high cost: the normalization of militarizing civilian public issues. If AMLO is really concerned for his country, then combating criminal organizations is a duty for civilian police institutions that must be reorganized. Adding a new military force only detracts from their legitimacy. Police and prosecutors should be strengthened, not soldiers. Funding should go to an understaffed and mismanaged judicial system, not wannabe peacekeepers. Yet, with commitments of oversight only on paper, one can only hope for a new brighter direction for Mexico: Mexico has not had a National Guard since 1935, and it certainly does not need it now.