MEXICO CITY (AP) – Mexico’s president has begun exploring plans to sidestep Congress to hand formal control of the National Guard to the military, which could increase the military’s control over policing in a country with high levels of violence.
This has raised concerns as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador approved the creation of the army in 2019, promising in the constitution that it would be under nominal civilian control and that the army would be on the streets by 2024.
However, neither the National Guard nor the army has been able to reduce insecurity in the country. This past week, drug cartels carried out massive arson and shooting attacks in three major northwestern cities in a bold challenge to the state, terrorizing citizens.
Still, López Obrador wants to involve soldiers in policing and remove civilian control over the National Guard, whose officers and commanders are mostly soldiers, along with military training and pay grades.
But the president no longer has the votes in Congress to amend the Constitution, and he has suggested that he could try to do so by simple majority vote in Congress or by executive order as a regulatory change and see if the courts will uphold it.
Lopez Obrador on Friday warned against politicizing the issue, saying the military was needed to fight Mexico’s violent drug cartels. But then he immediately politicized it.
“A constitutional reform would be ideal, but we have to find ways, because they (the opposition) are blocking us instead of helping us, intending to prevent us from doing anything,” López Obrador said.
The two major opposition parties also had different stances while in power. He supported the military in public security roles during his respective administrations beginning in 2006 and 2012.
When López Obrador ran for president, he called for the army to take to the streets. But being in power – and seeing carnage at their highest level ever – apparently changed his mind.
He relies heavily on the military, not just to fight crime. He sees the army and navy as heroic, patriotic and less corrupt, and entrusts them with building major infrastructure projects, running airports and trains, stopping migrants and overseeing customs at ports.
Mexico’s military has been deeply involved in policing since the start of the drug war in 2006. But his presence was always considered temporary, a stopgap until Mexico could build a credible police force.
López Obrador appears to have abandoned that plan, instead making military and paramilitary forces such as the National Guard the main solution. “Their mandate should be extended,” he said.
“I think the best thing is for the National Guard to be a branch of the Department of Defense and it gives stability over time and keeps it from becoming corrupt,” he said. He wants the Army and Navy to assist in public safety roles beyond 2024, the current date established in the 2020 executive order.
The army has grown to 115,000, but almost 80% of its personnel are drawn from the ranks of the army.
The United Nations and human rights groups have long objected to the military’s policing. And Mexico’s Supreme Court has yet to rule on several appeals against what critics say are unconstitutional tasks given to the National Guard.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said last week that the militarization of civilian institutions such as policing undermines democracy. Soldiers are not trained for it, the military is by nature not very open to scrutiny, it is involved in human rights abuses, and the military presence does not address the important question of how to reform the police, prosecutors, and courts. .
López Obrador has claimed that human rights violations are no longer tolerated, while the government’s National Human Rights Commission has received more than a thousand complaints alleging abuses by the National Guard. The agency issued five recommendations in cases where there was evidence of excessive force, torture or ill-treatment of immigrants.
“The problem with using the military in a civilian role is that we have no control over what goes on inside the military,” said Ana Lorena Delgadillo, director of the civil group Foundation for Justice.
Delgadillo said keeping the National Guard under the Department of Defense, though constitutionally defined as a civilian-commanded force, is “dictatorship,” will be challenged in court and will not help pacify the country.
The Mexican employers’ association, Copermex, said in a statement that state police capabilities should instead be strengthened. “They and (state prosecutors’ offices) are authorized to communicate with civilians,” the group said.
Perhaps most importantly, the paramilitary National Guard was unable to reduce Mexico’s stubbornly high homicide rate.
Sofia de Robina, a lawyer at the Miguel Agustin pro Juarez Center for Human Rights, said the National Guard “couldn’t reduce the violence” because of a military-style policy of “occupying areas”.
While that strategy—building barracks and conducting regular patrols—can be useful in remote or rural areas, it has proven less useful and even counterintuitive in urban areas.
Police, who are from the cities they serve and live among the residents, will be more effective, experts say. Yet widespread corruption, low pay and cartel threats against police officers have weakened local and state police forces.
The military’s more than 15 years of experience in the police role “has shown the fallacy of the paradigm that the military is going to solve problems,” Delgadillo said.
De Robina added that López Obrador’s latest move would mean trying to keep the military in policing indefinitely, “absolutely rejecting the obligation of public security to be civilian” without limits on time or tactics.