By Jorge Antonio Rocha
MEXICO CITY (AA) – Ever since he first took office in 2018, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has found a strong and reliable ally in the armed forces, but militarization in Mexico has shown signs of severe and troublesome disadvantages.
Lopez Obrador kicked off his six-year term in December 2018 with very high public approval levels maintained even during the pandemic. The coalition headed by his Morena party holds a majority in both houses of Congress and most of Mexico’s 32 states.
It is not new for the Mexican government to use the military to face criminal organizations and gangs in the country. Over the last 30 years, the militarization of civilian police has been common and constant. Still, Lopez Obrador, unlike his predecessors, has made the army a focal point of his administration in numerous tasks other than peacekeeping.
So far, the armed forces have been in charge of guarding and supplying medication within the country, first responders in natural catastrophes, keeping and allocating the COVID-19 vaccine, and most recently, administrating high impact infrastructure projects.
In addition, Obrador created The National Guard, a civil-oriented police force in charge of public safety. However, up to 80% of its agents are soldiers from the National Defense Department and the navy, making it so a military police force.
Obrador has often praised the military's role in his administration, "Don't forget that the soldier is the people in uniform," he assured during a news conference. Still, behind his efforts to bring peace to Mexico through the military, he neglected severe structural problems, which are yet to be considered.
In recent years, criminal organizations in Mexico have amassed extraordinary power. With a vast infrastructure and numerous resources, these urban guerrilla type organizations have overpowered local police departments pushing politicians to favor a militarized strategy when battling organized crime.
"There is no evidence that supports militarized strategies yield results in terms of public peace, meaning reduction of crime and violence. This kind of strategy has triggered an increase in homicides, gun violence, violence against women, and impunity," said Daira Arana, a researcher who has spent years in Mexico and Central America, lecturing about significance of armed forces on human rights.
According to a study published by Latin America Law Review, there is a much bigger chance of suspects to be tortured when the military or the navy carried out the arrests.
The study which collected data from 2007 to 2016 proves that among Mexican authorities, the armed forces show more cases of human rights violations than their civil oriented police counterparts, with 55.7% of the suspects apprehended by the army and reported suffering a form of torture; asphyxiation, burnings, beatings or sexual assault.
The reported incidents grew when analyzing the navy, where the total of suspects reporting instances of torture reached 65.8%.
For women, the incidence of rape and sexual aggression is more prevalent than with male detainees. Of the 154 women apprehended by the army, 18% reported having suffered sexual aggression from touching to rape. Of the 54 women detained by the navy, the figure rose to 42.6%.
Although the number of apprehended women is significantly small, this helps understand the extent of these two institutions' structural problems.
According to a 2016 Amnesty International report, — Surviving Death: Police and military torture of women in Mexico — female suspects were subjected to sexual violence at the hands of military and navy officials. The report details how impunity is common in these cases, legitimizing extreme abuse and covering it up.
Amnesty International listed the military institutions' high discretional nature as one reason to withdraw all military elements immediately from all civil duty tasks.
For Obrador's civilian police, the National Guard shows the same structural flaws and discretional nature from the military. For example, most of the recruits do not have the proper evaluation that proves they are fit for the job, with the assessment carried out by the army and not the National Guard.
The fact that the army is the one assessing and training the recruits and that nearly 70% of more than 90,000 active agents have not been evaluated leaves the National Guard unaware of their very own agents' nature.
Since its deployment, 47 members of the National Guard have been prosecuted and charged for different crimes. As reported by the national news portal Animal Politico, one agent was accused of femicide while another one was prosecuted for attempted femicide, both cases dating back to September. There are three instances of rape and one of sexual assault.
Records show that back in 2010, one agent was detained for possession of child pornography, and one month later, another agent would be apprehended for human trafficking.
Last May 2020, Obrador enacted a decree that left the armed forces at the National Guard's disposal, suggesting that the navy and the army are to provide agents and resources to the Civil Police for five years until it counts with the required agents and infrastructure.
Meaning that while these agents are serving as a public peace task force, they are still a very active part of the military, with all strategies and protocols panned out by the National Defense Department.
By December 2020, the National Guard had 98,282 elements, with the vast majority of the deployed being from the army and the navy. As reported by a journalistic investigation by Animal Politico, by July, 90,000 elements comprised the civilian police. Of those, 51,101 were soldiers from the Department of National Defense, while 10,149 came from the navy, and 6,835 former members of the now-extinct Federal Police.
To this moment, the Department of National Defense and the navy are in charge of recruiting and training new members. So far, The National Guard has not trained any recruits.
The issue becomes more troublesome when the actual training is taken into consideration. National Guard elements need to fulfill and pass an evaluation that certifies them as police officers. So far, around 80% of active agents do not count with the proper certification that attests they have finished with their police training.
"In a democratic country, armed forces shouldn't be in charge of public security, and The National Guard in the military. Ever since their training, a soldier understands that they need to shoot down its enemies, their enemies are enemies of the nation," explains Cesar Priego, a lawyer specialized in military law and national defense.
Lopez Obrador is betting on public safety through the National Guard. In 2020, the overall budget was $1.4 billion. According to the stipulated budget for next year, the National Guard will perceive a rise of 22%, amounting to a total of $1.8 billion for this year.
But other substantial dependencies have seen a slight reduction in the next years' planned resources, showcasing how peace efforts are centered in the military guild rather than local police departments.
For 2021, the National Intelligence Department, whose activities are dedicated to investigating criminal activity in the country, saw a reduction of 4.2% compared to the 2020 budget.
Similarly, the commission designated to attend human rights violations is set to receive $611,655 — less than what was approved for 2020.
For the anti-kidnapping agency, this year's budget is expected to suffer a drop of 3%.
"The solution should've been focused on fortifying municipal and state-level police. However, political friction between local governments who oppose the federal government, and a need to yield immediate results makes it easier for the president to implement militarized agents for public peace purposes," added Priego.
In spite of massive implementation of nearly 100,000 national guards, 2020 set a record in homicides. According to the last data collected from the National System of Public Security, by the end of November, Mexico reported 32,759 homicides, 122 more than those reported in 2019 over the same period.
President Lopez Obrador needs to remedy the National Guard's military nature, steering it towards a civilian police order without neglecting the already perilous police departments. For now, the period of five years is not over, and the armed forces are still to patrol Mexico's streets.