The Navy, for assuming full control of Mexico’s main airport


Mexico City (AP) – Mexico City will soon become a peculiar capital with its two civilian airports managed by the Armed Forces.

The new one, almost empty due to its distance and lack of communications, built and operated by the Army since it opened a year ago. The old one, totally saturated, about to come under total control of the Navy.

This transfer is part of the plan of the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to leave a dozen airports in the hands of the military before the end of his term in 2024, and is the most recent example of the growing civil and economic power that the Armed Forces are assuming in Mexico.

For the president, it is the only way to tackle corruption. His critics denounce a worrying militarization of the nation.

Whoever arrives at the Mexico City International Airport (AICM) -the main one in the country- may not notice many changes at first glance. However, the Secretary of the Navy has been in charge of security for more than a year. As soon as the announced presidential decree is published, he will be responsible for absolutely everything: from customs to cleaning the bathrooms, from immigration control to handling luggage.

This airport, through which 4 million travelers pass each month, will be “a company within a military naval entity,” explained its director, Vice Admiral Carlos Velázquez Tiscareño, 73, in an interview with The Associated Press. But he qualified: “It will not be seen that this is a military unit.”

Unlike the other airport in the capital, Felipe Ángeles, where even those who ask for a boarding pass are national guards, at the AICM the only uniformed people are the 1,500 sailors deployed since February 2022 in security work. The rest is and will be civilian personnel, but “with clearer rules,” highlighted Velázquez Tiscareño, who added: “Let order and discipline rule more.”

Since the beginning of the López Obrador administration in December 2018, the military has been assuming more and more tasks: from security and control of customs and ports; the management of nurseries or tourist trips to Isla Mujeres, to the construction of million-dollar infrastructures, such as the Mayan Train and several airports.

The Navy will set up a company called Casiopea, which will be in charge of the AICM and six other “deficit” airports that were “in the hands of organized crime,” according to the vice admiral, such as Matamoros, Ciudad del Carmen, in the Gulf, or several in the Pacific.

López Obrador had already anticipated that the Army and the Navy will manage the main airports by the end of 2024, and he hopes that the new military airline will be operating this year.

This incursion of the Armed Forces into aviation is contrary to international recommendations that set very clear limits between the military and the civilian, explained Rogelio Rodríguez Garduño, professor of aeronautical law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The possible legal consequences are also unclear. At the beginning of this year, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation considered the transfer of the National Guard to the Army unconstitutional and the president’s response was to leave it administratively under civilian command, but with a military operational chief.

The changes at the airports could be beneficial in terms of security, but experts do not believe that they will solve the rest of the problems that Mexican aviation has. In 2021, the country was demoted by the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States for not complying with international standards regarding the supervision of its airlines, which does not mean that they are unsafe, but it prevents Mexican companies from expanding their flights to that country.

According to Rodríguez Garduño, more training, better inspections and raising the level of competition and competitiveness in the sector are necessary. And that is where the academic is not sure if the military will do a good job or not because, as he notes, they are not experts in business, but in obedience.

Velázquez Tiscareño, a retired pilot, said he understood the “concern” generated by these changes, but assured that “if it was decided that it should be so, it is because there are some airports in the country that had big problems for many years and had to be corrected.”

In the case of the one in the capital, the list was long: it was the entry point for large amounts of drugs and “VIP” migrants, scanners that did not work, theft of suitcases, indiscriminate management of airline schedules, businesses without contracts in premises and hangars, debts, corruption.

Corruption reached such a level that coded messages were sent through internal communication to paralyze suitcase inspections and for drug shipments to enter without problems, as was revealed during the trial against former Security Secretary Genaro García Luna (2006-2012), convicted of drug trafficking in the United States in February.

Hence, José Reveles, author of numerous books on drug trafficking, pointed out that the transfer of the AICM to the Navy could be of great interest to Washington because the airport is the most strategic in the country and the Navy is the Mexican security force in the neighboring country trusts the most. Although so far the US authorities have not ruled on the matter.

Vice Admiral Velázquez took over as director just a year ago with a very clear presidential order: “Give a coup of authority in the administration, in finances, address all user complaints and, furthermore, that the airlines do not do what they wanted”.

De facto, the “comprehensive control” of the facilities was now in the hands of the military, a “single command,” he said. When the decree is published, this function will be institutionalized. Instead of having two heads, it will only have one, the Secretary of the Navy, because the head of Transport Communications, a civilian, will be separated from all responsibility.

The expilot assured that some illegal businesses have already been ended, inspections have been improved and the theft of suitcases has been reduced.

The big pending issues, he acknowledged, are the deficient infrastructure and saturation.

For the former, there is a lack of resources and one of the reasons is that the airport tax paid by travelers and which should be used for maintenance is intended to compensate investors affected by the cancellation of the airport works in Lake Texcoco.

As for saturation, the opening of the Felipe Ángeles offered additional flight capacity, but, for the moment, it has not met expectations, although attempts are being made to transfer cargo flights from the AICM to the new airport. In addition, associations of pilots and airlines denounced last year the increase in potentially dangerous incidents in the airspace of the Mexican capital due to the incorporation of the flow of the second airport.

Some AICM employees acknowledge some improvements, although much remains to be done.

“It’s calmer” with the Navy, said Luis Martínez, a worker who has been at the facility for 25 years helping passengers who need wheelchairs. But “people complain about the same old thing, flight delays and baggage claim,” he added.

José Beltrán, an old man who is in charge of collecting garbage, agrees that there is “more control”, although he does not dare to venture how things will go in the future. “You have to know how they are going to work.”

Source: Proceso