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Where are the abrazos (hugs not bullets)? Two years after Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) pledged to return the army to its barracks, his promises to de-escalate violence and demilitarize the country appear to be just empty words. Given the significant increase in violent crimes under the AMLO government, can we say the current administration has a coherent and coordinated public security strategy to bring peace, security, and justice to Mexican families, or is the inertia of the war on drugs still dictating the agenda? Evidence points to the latter, with the country recording the highest number of homicides in the last 20 years both in 2019 and 2020.

Just as children play “connect the dots” to draw figures, the linking of public security decisions in the last two years can be a good way to assess whether Mexico has become a safer country and a more dependable ally abroad. If we connect the security dots, do we find a disordered image of episodes of violence and human rights abuses or, on the contrary, do we find a clear path towards the pacification of the country?

One thing we find is undeniable: a larger and more opaque budget for the military, while civil security forces lack the resources and preparation to patrol the country. In the 2021 federal budget, the losers from AMLO’s austerity were the local police and attention to the victims of violent crimes. AMLO’s increasingly clear predilection for the military makes it evident that the Morena-led government is laying the groundwork for the armed forces to remain on Mexico’s streets.

The next “dot” is the creation in 2019 of Mexico’s new and incompletely prepared National Guard (Guardia Nacional). In June 2020, more than 80% of National Guard members were deployed without having met the basic certifications to serve and protect Mexico’s population. Adding to a lack of preparation, a report by Animal Político reveals that a third of the guard’s members are not civilians, but rather elements recruited, paid, and trained by the armed forces. Although they are civilians on paper, they train as if they were soldiers, they receive their salary and, since October 2020, they are under the operational control of the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA). AMLO’s National Guard dresses as a civilian security force on the outside, but deep inside they are another body controlled and funded by the military.

From that “dot,” we can draw a direct line to a National Guard with army commanders, soldiers in its ranks, and explicitly under military control. An example of the consequences of the decision to create this kind of guard can be seen in Sonora, where five police commissioners were replaced by military officers. The result: according to data from the Observatorio Sonora por la Seguridad, homicides soared 65% in 2020 compared to 2019.

Another “dot” in the pattern of the state of security policy, and perhaps the most worrying, is AMLO’s handing over of basic state duties to the military. After a series of presidential decrees, the military now patrols the streets, detains migrant families at Mexico’s borders, is in charge of distributing medical equipment and COVID-19 vaccines, guards ports, builds roads and banks, and runs the country’s largest infrastructure projects. Under AMLO, military officers manage the finances of Mexico’s Social Security and Services Institute (ISSSTE) during the biggest health crisis the country has ever witnessed. Worse still, they now have full control of pretrial detention in criminal proceedings.

Finally, we get to the Cienfuegos case. Accused of taking bribes in exchange for protecting cartel leaders during his time as defense minister (2012-2018), and detained by prosecutors in the United States, Gen. Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico following a diplomatic uproar where, pressed by military leaders, AMLO threatened to end security cooperation with the United States if the former defense minister was not released. The aftermath of AMLO’s nuclear option: a few months later, Cienfuegos was exonerated, and AMLO himself denounced the DEA for fabricating the case against the general and pushed for the creation of a new law that severely constrains law enforcement collaboration between Mexico and the United States. In sum, the president’s actions highlight the increased clout of the armed forces in Mexico’s public life, one that dominates over U.S.-Mexico security cooperation.

If there is one thing that Latin American history has taught us, it is that it is easy for politicians to subrogate civil responsibilities to the military. The real challenge is to hold them accountable, as is regularly done with civilian bodies, and reduce their participation in public life after their deployments end. The Mexican army and navy have the highest levels of public trust in the country. They are effective, disciplined, and for that very reason should no longer be used as patches to cover a lack of investment in health, safety, and infrastructure. Investigations such as those of Zorayda Gallegos on the diversion of resources from the military also teach us that even the military is not immune to Mexico’s main foe: corruption.

Successful cases such as Escobedo and Chihuahua show that there are alternatives to the status quo. More investment in intelligence, technology, salary improvements, certifications, and models based on crime prevention can help Mexico build strong security institutions that are accountable to their citizens. The military may be the quickest and easiest option, but it is not the safest one, nor is it the best one for the democratic stability of the country.

When we connect all the dots, we are left with a discouraging image. We find a country that is no longer the most transparent region (La Región más Transparente), as described by celebrated Mexican writer and Woodrow Wilson fellow Carlos Fuentes in 1958, but a nation painted in military olive and subject to episodes of violence. What has happened to AMLO’s hugs not bullets?

About the Author

Diego marroquin Bitar

Diego Marroquín Bitar

Inaugural Bersin-Foster North America Scholar
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more