Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed while campaigning for office that he would “send the soldiers back to their barracks.” But what Mexico has seen instead during his administration is the military’s power grow and expand into unexpected areas.
López Obrador, who is also known by his initials AMLO, not only attempted to replace Mexico’s federal police with a new National Guard, but he’s put the military in charge of major infrastructure projects such as building a new airport, distributing vaccines and school textbooks, and clearing seaweed from beaches at coastal resorts. Even more consequentially, the military is now tasked with policing migration on Mexico’s borders.
These new responsibilities have come at a cost, however. According to the Statista Research Department, the Mexican government spent around $6.27 billion in the military sector in 2018, the year AMLO took office. That number swelled to over $9 billion in 2020 before dipping down to $7.84 billion last year.
Along with the various implications the increased role of the military has on Mexico now, many experts are now concerned about what kind of precedent AMLO has set.
“One of the most serious setbacks for Mexican democracy after AMLO is going to be the question of the militarization of Mexican society,” José Miguel Vivanco, an adjunct senior fellow for human rights at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told Newsweek.
What Caused AMLO’s Shift?
But how did AMLO go from being a candidate who promised to “send the soldiers back to their barracks” to a president who has placed soldiers in roles that are decidedly not near any barracks?
“The most convincing reason that explains this close association with the military is because he’s thinking from day number one of his legacy,” Vivanco said. “I think he realized early on that if he wants to show results as part of his administration, the best way was to make some sort of strategic alliance with the military. I think he realized that the military could be an instrument of power for him and a vehicle to ensure implementation of some of his pet projects.”
Though Mexico’s military may be growing to unprecedented levels under AMLO, the trend actually precedes his presidency. Daniel Raisbeck, a policy analyst on Latin America at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, said former President Felipe Calderón during his administration (2006-2012) was responsible for the armed forces first getting a major push of increased responsibility.
Calderón “took out the army from the barracks to fight the drug cartels,” Raisbeck told Newsweek. He added that the profit margins for these cartels “are so large that they end up being able to arm themselves, almost professionally at the level where they can threaten the state itself.”
Raisbeck said battling the cartels’ forces was justification during Calderón’s time in office for elevating the armed forces.
“If you just have civil police forces, they usually don’t don’t have the capacity to deal with that,” he said.
The Military Takeover of Civilian Work
What AMLO has done, though, like no one before him, is have the military take over projects normally reserved for the civilian workforce. Not only did he task the military with the construction of the Felipe Ángeles airport outside of Mexico City last year, but soon Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport—the busiest airport in all of Latin America—will soon be fully under the control of the armed forces.
AMLO also created legal protections earlier this year for the military to build and operate the Maya Train, a massive tourism project that is estimated to cost up to $20 billion, by declaring it a matter of national security.
Policing has also been militarized. Soon after taking office, AMLO disbanded the federal police and created a new National Guard force that operates under the Mexican army. However, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in April that a National Guard not under civilian control is unconstitutional. However, AMLO has thus far not abided by their decision to transfer the force’s power back to the civilian sector.
How Does Mexico’s Public Feel About This?
Despite concern from human rights groups, Dr. Craig Deare—a former Pentagon official who now works as a professor at the National Defense University—told Newsweek that most Mexican civilians aren’t terribly concerned about the military’s elevated presence.
He said the military is held in relatively high regard amongst the Mexican public, and if asked about the armed forces taking on new roles, the reaction from most civilians would be: “Why not give it to the military? Because all these other corrupt officials haven’t been doing a good job.”
However, Deare said Mexican citizens—as well as Americans—should see a problem with what AMLO has done with the country’s forces.
“Military relations, at least in democratic societies, is built upon the notion that it is civilian control and authority over the armed forces,” Deare said. “And within Mexico, the only civilian with any degree of authority is the president.”
He noted that Mexico doesn’t have politically-appointed secretaries of military branches who are confirmed by a legislative branch.
“It’s 100 percent military,” Deare said, adding that “if you were a conspiracy theorist,” you might believe the military had hypnotized AMLO because he “is just giving them more and more power and authority.”
Stephanie Brewer, director for Mexico for the human rights group Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), outlined an argument for why many people in Mexico may not have an issue with the army building airports or distributing vaccines.
One facet of the argument is that AMLO sees the military as efficient, which owes to them not having “labor rights as civilian workers” and fearing criminal punishment if orders aren’t followed, Brewer told Newsweek.
She said another part of this line of thinking is the president views the military as “honest and not corrupt, whereas he presents civilian forces and institutions as being corrupt and rotten. And, of course, this is a false dichotomy.”
Human Rights Implications
A major issue about the new roles taken on by the military, according to Brewer, is that the armed forces “are traditionally known as being perhaps the least transparent federal institution; an institution that has historically committed many types of abuses with impunity.”
From a human rights perspective, Brewer is concerned about how AMLO has deployed 30,000 soldiers at Mexico’s borders to monitor migration. She said there have been reported cases of migrants being allegedly abused by troops, including torture and shootings.
The military is a “force that is trained to defend a country’s territory against enemy invaders,” Brewer said. “When you deploy those people to be, in many cases, the first point of contact and the people in charge of attending to migrant families, the risks for abuse are very clear, and we’ve seen them playing out.”
What Role Does the United States Play?
The U.S. likely influenced the Mexican military’s increased power through its push for its southern neighbor to prevent drugs coming over the border.
Toward the end of his administration, former President George W. Bush introduced the Mérida Initiative, which provided aircraft, equipment and training to Mexico in order to battle the country’s drug cartels.
On the surface, that stance softened when the Biden administration introduced the so-called U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities in 2021, which is a plan that outlines tackling Mexico’s drug problem from a public health perspective rather than through military means.
But even though the Bicentennial Framework “was presented as a real paradigm shift,” the U.S. relationship with Mexico hasn’t necessarily focused on that due to America’s priorities of stopping fentanyl trafficking and reducing border crossings, Brewer said.
“If we look at these two U.S. priorities—fentanyl and migration control—Mexico’s armed forces are playing a leading role in those efforts,” Brewer said. “So, there is a very clear risk that the U.S. is at least reinforcing, or would consider it has reasons not to oppose, military deployment in policing tasks” even while knowing it shouldn’t encourage militarization.
Newsweek reached out to the U.S. State Department via email for comment.
The Long-Term Effects
Experts who express concern about the militarization of Mexico said the move will likely become even more complicated when AMLO’s presidential term ends in 2024. The thinking goes that if the next president doesn’t want such a pronounced military presence in Mexico, they might encounter resistance from emboldened military officials.
“It’s a problem that’s a lot easier to create than to solve,” Raisbeck said. “If they [the military] see that their privileges or their areas of influence are being cut back, that could cause serious problems.”
“They’ve been given far too much power and authority that simply doesn’t belong. These are not functions that the military is supposed to perform,” Deare said, adding that a military leader might respond to a new president asking them to relinquish power by saying: “You and what army are going to make me do this?”
In addition, Vivanco shared a similar sentiment, saying: “How do you put the genie in the bottle again?”
“How do you make sure that the military are not involved in business [after AMLO]? That is going to be extremely challenging,” he said.