López Obrador proposes handing more power to Mexico’s military

Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has submitted a reform to congress putting the country’s 118,000-strong National Guard under the command of the defence ministry, despite the constitution stating the force must operate under civilian leadership.

The move has alarmed civil society and human rights organisations, who warn that it further militarises public security and hands still more power to the generals. They question the efficacy of the National Guard, which has lacked transparency in its operations since it was created in 2019.

“The purpose of this initiative is not to militarise the country or establish authoritarianism, but to care for, with [Defence Ministry] guidance, the healthy growth of what should be Mexico’s main public security institution,” López Obrador said on Wednesday night.

The leftwing president’s proposal comes as violence convulses Mexico. Drug cartels are battling each other for territory and turning to terror tactics such as mobilising thugs, who, during an especially bloody week in August, randomly killed civilians and burnt trucks, buses and businesses.

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López Obrador has played down violence and insisted public safety in Mexico is improving. He accused the press of sensationalism in covering recent spasms of narco-violence. “Without doubt our opponents are exaggerating,” he said in August. “There is no great problem.”

Congress has 30 days to vote on the initiative, which would change laws governing the National Guard and transfer funds from the public security ministry to the military, but not change the constitution. The president’s Morena party and its allies hold majorities in both houses of congress, but lack the votes to change the constitution.

Critics are concerned about the implications of giving the military control of the National Guard. “It’s mostly an auxiliary force of armed men, who can be deployed alongside municipal police, state police, but which is not really capable of providing the role of municipal police,” said Samuel Storr, a researcher at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City.

López Obrador won power in 2018 campaigning on the slogan, “Hugs, not bullets,” and promising a new approach to public security. But he quickly increased dependence on the military, which has been deployed by successive presidents over the past 15 years to try to pacify the country.

The National Guard was conceived as an amalgam of the Federal Police and military police under civilian leadership. But Storr said the new force has started pushing out former Federal Police officers and has not acted like a traditional police force. The defence ministry did not respond to an interview request.

“The number of people who have been detained as a result of intelligence work is vanishingly small,” Storr said.

Lilian Chapa Koloffon, policy researcher with the World Justice Project, said: “The problem is that soldiers are not trained nor are they interested in performing local-level policing such as preventing crimes . . . such as robbery, assault, auto thefts and extortion.”

López Obrador started dismantling the Federal Police shortly after taking office, alleging it was irredeemably corrupt. That force had only been set up during the 2006-2012 Felipe Calderón administration, with the aim of becoming a modern professional force.

“Every president reinvents the wheel,” said Ernesto López Portillo, head of the citizen security programme at the Ibero-American University. “It’s just that no president had thought that he would be completely controlled by the military like this president now.”

López Obrador has turned to the military throughout his presidency for tasks ranging from building an airport and a railway to managing a national park and operating ports.

Government spokesperson Jesús Ramírez pointed to a newspaper poll showing 80 per cent approval for Mexico’s military assuming a larger role in fighting drug cartels and organised crime. The army and navy remain the country’s most trusted institutions.

The military largely withdrew from politics after the generals from the 1910 revolution died, sparing Mexico the coups common in other Latin American countries. But the bargain struck with the military left it without strong civilian oversight and a culture of secrecy, according to analysts.

“The trend is strengthening the military and weakening what is civilian,” López Portillo said. “That’s a political trend, not a public security trend.”

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