On the night of September 15, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) presided over the traditional independence ceremony from the balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City. After two years of COVID restrictions that had left the central square, or Zócalo, eerily desolate for the previous two editions, this year’s grito — the shout that reenacts the call to independence of revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo from the bell tower of the town of Dolores Hidalgo in 1810 — was full to bursting with a capacity crowd of one hundred forty thousand enjoying a concert of the iconic, multiple-Grammy-award-winning band Los Tigres del Norte. In addition to the standard list of ¡Vivas! (“Long live…”) for the pantheon of national heroes, the president pointedly went off script to add three ¡Mueras! to the list of proclamations: “Death to corruption! Death to classism! Death to racism!”
A Conflict Brought to You by the Arms Industry
The following day, on the occasion of the annual civic-military parade, AMLO devoted his entire speech to foreign affairs. Before a remarkable assemblage of guests — which included the former presidents of Uruguay and Bolivia, José Mujica and Evo Morales, respectively; the father and brother of Julian Assange; the daughter of Che Guevara; and the family of labor organizer and farmworker advocate César Chavez (the family of Martin Luther King III had attended the previous night’s ceremony) — the president laid out a plan for an international peace commission to intervene immediately in the Ukraine conflict in an effort to bring everyone to the negotiating table.
While condemning the invasion itself, he was unsparing in his criticism of those whose action, and inaction, have allowed the situation to reach its present state.
Interest groups situated in positions of power in governments and the economy took great pains to conduct policies towards an armed conflict. And once this error was committed, instead of rectifying matters they chose to dig in deeper . . . . Thus the Russian war on Ukraine came about, together with the subsequent adoption of sanctions and the massive shipment of arms to the invaded country, actions which have contributed an additional dose of irrationality to the ongoing conflict.
Both the sanctions and arms shipments, he added, “have only served to aggravate the conflict; produce greater suffering to the victims, their families, and the refugees; and exacerbate the shortage of food and energy that has stimulated worldwide inflation, phenomena that, together, are harming the great majority of the peoples of the world.”
Building on his mid-pandemic criticisms of the United Nations as a “wallflower” in the face of world crises, AMLO noted that the organization had remained inactive, ineffective, and “reduced to a merely ornamental role.” Worse still, he noted, has been the conduct of the great powers, which, “explicitly or in silence, have positioned themselves only to serve their hegemonic interests. Thus, one cannot avoid the suspicion that, however perverse or incredible it may seem, this war, like many others, is being stoked by the interests of the arms industry.”
The speech was important in that it staked out an unabashedly progressive position on the conflict, one that is shared by the vast majority of unaligned nations and the Global South. And by eschewing tub-thumping rhetoric in favor of a sober analysis of the political and economic interests that benefit from prolonging the war, AMLO avoided the reflexive tarring of his plan as a “Russian plot” (which did not stop some conspiracy-minded pundits and an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky from trying). As leaders on the Anglophone left have struggled to find a similar clarity on the matter, it served as a potentially instructive moment.
The Domestic Debate
The president’s opportune analysis of military operations in Ukraine comes at a time of fierce debate about the role of the military at home. On September 9, AMLO signed into law a bill that places the National Guard — the militarized police force created in the initial months of his administration in 2019 — under the operative and administrative control of the secretary of defense.
The move is significant not only due to the nature of the institution itself but because the Ministry of National Defense in Mexico is traditionally headed, not by a civilian, but by an active-duty military officer. At the same time, Congress is currently debating a constitutional amendment, tabled by the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) but backed by the government, that would extend the participation of the armed forces in internal security matters from 2024, when it is currently scheduled to expire, to 2028.
From a purely political point of view, the proposals represent a masterstroke that has split the opposition coalition Va por México down the middle. On one hand, they have set off a predictable display of caterwauling from the National Action Party (PAN) which, after bathing the country in blood through Felipe Calderón’s ill-advised, fatally compromised war on drugs, is now fancifully attempting to rebrand itself as opponents of “militarization.”
But this has not stopped their partners in the PRI from defecting to vote for the constitutional amendment, at least in the lower house, nor has is stopped a number of opposition governors from bucking their own parties in Congress by coming out in favor.
As defenders of the proposals repeatedly point out, the new law does not incorporate the National Guard into the army, as is frequently misreported, but establishes it as a separate institution within the defense ministry, with its own code, command structure, and limitations: for example, the use of proportional force and a prohibition on employing military-grade weaponry.
While the vast majority of the original members of the guard were “borrowed” from the army, it will eventually be made up entirely of recruits trained exclusively in policing and capable of fully taking charge of internal security matters. This will allow the army to reduce itself in size by nearly half. Indeed, despite the tut-tutting from organizations such as the European Parliament about militarized policing in Mexico, several of its member states maintain very similar structures, including France (Gendarmerie National), Spain (Guardia Civil), and Italy (Carabinieri).
Fire With Fire?
That said, there is something deeply unsettling about the Mexican center-left cheering on the consolidation and extension of the military role in internal security after taking to the streets in previous administrations to protest this very thing. Yes, the philosophy of AMLO is fundamentally different as it seeks to address the root causes of violence — poverty, corruption, injustice, inequality — instead of attempting to keep a lid on social unrest through brute force.
Yes, his approach to the armed forces is different from his predecessors Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, each of whom attempted to legislate to suppress individual liberties and effectively create states of exception. Yes, homicides are down — somewhat (and nonviolent crimes have declined further).
But for a president who has repeatedly stated that you cannot fight fire with fire, his administration has beefed up the nation’s firepower with budget increases, construction contracts, and the control or custody of strategic areas, such as the ports and customs, PEMEX installations, the Maya Train in the Yucatán Peninsula, and the transisthmian industrial corridor linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Despite AMLO’s protestations that he changed his mind on the use of the military in light of the security problem he inherited, a WikiLeaks cable reveals that as early as his first presidential campaign in 2006 he had discussed giving “the military more power and authority in counter-narcotics operations.” Not only was the military the least corrupt of Mexico’s agencies, he contended, but enhancing its authority would clip the wings of the prosecutor general’s office, which he considered “too corrupt to have the lead on counter-narcotics.”
To leap to the conclusion that AMLO is simply in the “pocket” of the military, however, would be an error. In the last several months alone, the president has inaugurated a truth commission to investigate the crimes of the military during the 1970s dirty war against dissidents. The commission will have unprecedented access to military archives and facilities, including infamous former centers of detention and torture such as the Campo Militar, or Military Field, #1 in Mexico City.
Meanwhile, in the ongoing investigation of the disappearance of the forty-three students of the Ayotzinapa Normal School in 2015, the government has recently announced the arrest of General José Rodríguez Pérez, the then commander of the 27th Battalion in the town of Iguala, Guerrero, where the crimes occurred (former attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam was also arrested in August and remains in custody). Warrants are also reported to exist for an additional twenty members of the army. While this is far from enough, it hardly suggests a military acting with the near-total impunity of the past.
No Easy Answers
The public safety issue in Mexico is one that resists easy answers. Organized crime has amassed an array of weaponry — the vast majority imported from the United States — that far exceeds anything standard police forces are able to handle. The capture or killing of cartel leaders has led to a “balkanization” into smaller, more fluid groups that are harder to come to grips with.
Cartels, for their part, have diversified into lucrative side markets, such as extortion, cyberattacks, and export crops such as limes and avocados. The results of social programs will only be seen over the medium-to-long term, and only if sustained; it is naïve to believe that areas where the only options offered to young people for decades have been cartels, migration, or starvation employment will be turned around overnight by the offer of scholarships, apprenticeships, or conservation programs.
The debate on drug legalization is nowhere to be found on the political radar; indeed, the MORENA-majority Congress has not even been able to pass a bill legalizing recreational marijuana as mandated by a Supreme Court ruling. Meanwhile, the general public, long accustomed to the oversights, abuses, violence, and bribe-seeking of police forces at all levels, is hardly as alarmed at the use of the armed forces in internal security as elites living in comfortable communities might like it to be: according to one poll, a full 80 percent of respondents were “very” or “somewhat” in favor of the measure. If a referendum were held on the matter, as the president has proposed, it would likely win handily.
This gives AMLO some breathing space. But it also creates the danger, as he heads into the fifth year of his six-year term, that the current situation will become ever more normalized. In order for his calls for peace to be fully heard on the world stage, López Obrador must find a path, narrow and thorny as it may be, to greater peace at home.