Mexico’s new national guard has been in the news recently because it plays a critical role stemming the flow of Central American migrants. However, it remains “a work in progress,” and has been the subject of severe criticism since its inception. Despite making promises to demilitarize Mexico during his campaign, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is going forward with continuing to rely on militarized public security under a different name. The Plan Nacional de Paz y Seguridad 2018-2024 – his plan to bring about ‘peace and security,’ entails the creation of a Guardia Nacional (national guard).
Of course, improving public security is of vital importance, because the security situation in Mexico is dire: Last year set a new record for homicides, with “28,839 violent homicides across the country, a 15% increase over 2017,” and the situation has only continued to deteriorate. While the Mexican Congress ultimately approved the creation of López Obrador’s national guard, the topic has been highly controversial. Critics have raised concerns over the military’s history of human rights violations and impunity and warned that not only will López Obrador’s national guard deepen militarization, but may even push it to the point of no return.
López Obrador won the presidency by the widest margins in the history of Mexico, and he continues to enjoy the public’s support. Five months after taking office, “his approval ratings ranged between 60% and 86%.” Moreover, Morena, the president’s political party, won control of both houses of Congress. So why did he backtrack on promises made during the campaign? Upon entering office, López Obrador cited the disastrous state of the undertrained and corruption-ridden police forces as the reason for why the new security agency was necessary. Furthermore, Mexico’s Supreme Court overturned the Internal Security Law, which allowed the use of the military for internal security tasks. Who then would provide public security tasks in a highly violent context? López Obrador’s solution has been to pursue constitutional reform that allows for the deployment of a national guard to address violence in the country.
Supporters of the president’s plan claim there is no viable, short-term alternative to continued militarization of public security under the auspices of the national guard. Critics of the president’s plan consider it to be simply more of the same under a different name. If this were the case, it would be highly problematic.
Mexico today is plagued by both high levels of impunity and violence, despite the employment of the military for internal security. However, there is mounting evidence that the military is not only ineffective at reducing violent crime but rather itself a danger to society. Since the Calderón administration’s initial deployment of the military, the militarization of public security has led to widespread human rights violations such as torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. In fact, “since the beginning of the drug war, in 2006, Mexican citizens have filed 10,000 complaints of abuse against soldiers, including accusations of extrajudicial killings and torture.” Arguably, then, Mexico’s high levels of violence exist in part, not despite but because of the employment of the military for internal security.
The military’s track record in providing public security and its human rights record suggest that continued militarization is not a viable, long-term option. Supporters of continued militarization claim it will only be temporary. However, the Calderón administration’s initial deployments of the military in 2006 were also intended to be temporary. Yet, over a decade of militarization has deeply entrenched a failed policy into Mexico’s law enforcement system, to the extent that the military has taken a lead, rather than a supporting, role. The longer this policy is in place, the more difficult it will be to reverse.
In response to public concerns and criticism, López Obrador has changed a key aspect of his plan for the national guard: instead of being run by the Defense Ministry, the national guard will now be run by the Secretary of Public Security. However, critics consider this to be insufficient. On the one hand, the national guard “will initially draw from Mexico’s Federal Police, Army, and Navy for staffing,” with minimal changes to its rules of engagement, disciplinary procedures or training. On the other hand, the military is intrinsically ill-equipped to carry out law enforcement tasks because it is designed to deal with external security threats. Soldiers are not routinely trained to detain suspects, collect evidence or build community relations – pillars of effective policing.
While civilian control is necessary, it may not be sufficient for making the national guard work. The national guard entrenches the military’s involvement in providing public security, and there is little to suggest that a change in name or uniform will mean an end to egregious human rights violations. While there are efforts to strengthen training and respect for human rights among the national guard, there are justified doubts about the effectiveness of such measures in the context of pervasive impunity and lack of accountability. Without thorough-going reforms, simply putting the national guard under civilian control will not be enough. What Mexico urgently needs are functioning law enforcement agencies and a justice system that holds everyone accountable, including members of the military.
Bringing about fundamental reforms, rather than continuing to rely on short-term fixes such as the militarization of public security through the national guard, should be prioritized. President López Obrador is in the unique position of having both unprecedented public support and control of both houses of Congress to attempt to transform Mexico from militarization and impunity to the protection of human rights and respect for the rule of law.