The Political Implications of Mexico’s New Militarism

The armed forces’ accelerating takeover of civil institutions will be one of the main legacies of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). A 2021 study by CIDE, a Mexican research organization and university, found that between 2006 and 2021, over 246 government functions previously overseen by civilian authorities were transferred to the Mexican armed forces.

The pace of handovers has only accelerated over the past four and a half years. Mexico’s armed forces now oversee major infrastructure construction, the development of tourism, and the management of customs at ports of entry and exit, among other things. The Mexican army, for instance, is accustomed to playing a role in domestic security, but previous efforts to limit and even conceal this fact have now been overturned by the disregard and even encouragement of military takeover of civilian tasks shown by AMLO. To sum up, the use of Mexico’s armed forces—as seen typically in the militarization of the country’s internal security policy—has evolved, altering the Mexican political system as a whole and giving rise to a new phenomenon: militarism—a political project that seeks to place a purportedly “incorruptible” armed forces at the center managing key sectors such as customs, migration, infrastructure, and public health.

While the Mexican army reconciled its involvement in internal security long ago, Mexico’s constitution is clear about the limited role of the armed forces during peacetime: “During peacetime, no military authority can exercise more functions than those that have an exact connection with military discipline.” Furthermore, in a 2018 ruling against Mexico, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights indicated that using the armed forces in public security could only be implemented following strict criteria of exceptionality and subordination to civilian authorities. From the start of his administration, AMLO has attempted to belittle this legal framework with several unconstitutional attempts to hand the army direct control over Mexico’s public security. The recently created National Guard for example is a de facto military body with no civilian supervision, despite promises to the contrary.

Yet, recent developments have taken Mexico even further from civilian oversight in both public security and important state functions. What distinguishes the current moment is that Mexico’s new militarism is not a security strategy—not even a failed one, as AMLO’s administration has been the “bloodiest” in Mexico’s history, recording nearly as many homicides in four and half years as his predecessors did in six.

Rather, Mexico’s militarism is a political undertaking. It features the use of the army for political ambitions, where appeals to “public security” are just the smoke screen and costume. Specifically, political projects run by the armed forces benefit from the aegis of “national security,” exempting them from traditional scrutiny, greater transparency and public accountability, and the congressional budget process.

Second, Mexico’s militarism has not resulted in a strengthening of the armed forces, instead weakening the Mexican army by granting the institution manifold public contracts without the requisite anticorruption safeguards, violating transparency and tender requirements in Mexico, and bestowing the armed forces with civilian functions that, given their training, they are unprepared to accomplish. To name a few examples, the Mexican armed forces have launched a new airline, oversee customs and administer ports and airports, build signature pieces of public infrastructure, and distribute textbooks to schools.

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The Transformation of a Storied Institution

In the past, the Mexican government had a tacit and pragmatic understanding with its armed forces. The terms of that agreement implied a high degree of autonomy—and, at times, opacity, and a tolerance of corruption—in exchange for distance from politics and the civil administration of government. Owing to this arrangement, Mexico is one of the few countries in Latin America that did not experience a military coup in the twentieth century. The understanding and objective within the Mexican political elite was to keep the military “far away and happy.” Now, Mexico’s new militarism implies that some elites within the Mexican army are now “close and angry” as they are ordered to perform tasks for which they are unprepared.

This transformation has political implications that are not yet fully appreciated—neither in Mexico nor in the United States, the country’s closest security and economic partner.

First, militarism implies a shift in the armed forces’ loyalties and allegiances from a constitutional and institutional framework to personal and partisan fidelity. Militarism will upset the army’s erstwhile positive reputation as corruption scandals inevitably accumulate and the force becomes identified as supportive of one political party or, even worse, AMLO’s political project.

Further, militarism has blurred the lines between state, government, and party responsibilities. The division between national security and public safety is now scrambled with the defense of a political party. For the first time in modern history, a minister of defense recently supported AMLO’s Morena Party publicly, while the general in charge of the National Guard publicly included a Supreme Court judge on a “blacklist” for being against the Morena Party’s project. If the Mexican army identifies itself with a political party that persistently defines its enemies, it will eventually assume those same enemies, increasingly directing its resources to political targets.

Second, the army will become a less reliable and potentially unstable actor in Mexico. In the past, the Mexican army described itself as an institution that transcended the political context and looked beyond the current government; today, it has subordinated itself to not just the government but to the Morena Party.

Third, Mexico’s militarism implies a different rationale for government action, usually outside the civilian considerations that should prevail in democratic systems. Government agencies and offices, many recently overtaken by military personnel, require and are highly dependent on civil bureaucracies with highly technical know-how and personnel. For several institutions, such as Cofepris, Mexico’s regulatory agency in charge of approving medicines and preventing health risks, a military command instantly renders technocrats superfluous and futile. Military codes such as efficiency and control are rarely the only guiding principles in civil bureaucracies.

The process of growing the armed forces’ role implies a certain contradiction: extending huge state budgets and responsibilities while assigning tasks incompatible with their core competencies. The budgets for the armed forces have steadily increased since 2018, yet budgets approved by Congress are just one part of the economic component of militarism. The military’s current economic sway is also comprised of revenue sources that are difficult to trace, including participation in public trusts, state-owned companies, and infrastructure projects. The widening gap between what the armed forces are asked to do and what they can do will corrode one of their main attributes: discipline and order. Militarism implies the relaxation of military discipline as an attempt to comply with a growing package of political responsibilities.

Under a constitutional framework, and prior to AMLO’s election, Mexico’s civil bureaucracies and public institutions constructed political channels to protect the army, allowing it to remain largely apolitical. Historically, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of the Interior worked as intermediaries, interlocutors, and shock absorbers between the Mexican army and U.S. government agencies, for example. Addressing sensitive issues with foreign governments through civil institutions served well to protect Mexico’s armed forces from politicization.

It is inappropriate for the Mexican army to handle most dialogues with foreign or international security agencies single-handedly. The armed forces are not prepared—nor should they be—to deal with the public and the political scrutiny that militarism entails. The current spotlight will not translate into the political competence necessary to deal with the public scrutiny entailed by being a politicized army. Instead, this will open another flank for an already besieged institution. Mexico’s army was not built to make or handle the country’s complicated foreign policy.

Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle

Fortunately, Mexico’s militarism is not an ineluctable process—especially after AMLO’s current term ends. Further, the armed forces are not a homogeneous entity. Militarism in a highly vertical institution has exacerbated internal divisions and driven resentments between the military elite, which benefits from corruption and sweetheart deals, and the large swath of soldiers in the lower ranks. Corruption seldom benefits all members of an institution evenly, and opportunities for enrichment presented by militarism have been circumscribed to the upper rungs of the armed forces. The best known corruption scandals are—and will likely remain—connected to the top echelons of the military hierarchy. Within the vast array of newfangled tasks, the natural tendency of the armed forces will be to focus on those representing large profits and less risk, such as customs control and public infrastructure construction projects.

The process of militarism also entails a blow to Mexico’s federalism. Militarism includes capturing local and municipal governments and agencies. Military personnel have been appointed to key local and municipal security positions regularly. Likewise, Mexico’s army delivers social programs and benefits as an essential component of militarism, as this enhances its political role (and benevolence) in the eyes of citizens. For example, the army was responsible for constructing the government-owned branches of banks that deliver monthly payments to elderly people. Less than a year into his administration, AMLO declared that “if it were up to him, he would disappear the armed forces,” (author’s translation). His actions have confirmed this intention, but not in the obvious sense. In this case, the army’s disappearing act would mean corrupting it, and eventually annexing it as a partisan tool for Morena.

When thinking about bilateral relations, the United States should be wary of the military’s growing role, disguised as efficiency. Earlier attempts at militarization have not shown the desired results—a growing ideology of militarism could bring even worse results. A bilateral relationship channeled through the armed forces will likely turn more dysfunctional and fragile, as attempts at cooperation will be filled with suspicion, given that the army is unaccustomed to working with the types of transparency requirements promoted by civil institutions. Such an arrangement could be tempting given that within the context of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation, the armed forces, especially the army and the navy, are recognized as some of the most capable partners in Latin America.

With presidential elections coinciding in both countries in 2024, it will be no easy endeavor, but the current rhetoric about unilateral military action against Mexican drug cartels should cease in favor of more effective policy options. Blowing up fentanyl labs or capturing high-profile drug kingpins might bring politically valuable photo ops in the short term. Still, this is far from a strategy that bets on building trust and reliable institutional capacity. Worse still, such a strategy risks accelerating Mexico’s descent into militarism.

There are historical examples that should guide the U.S. approach without exacerbating Mexico’s tendency to advance militarism. During the mid-1990s, the High-Level Contact Group was established between Mexico’s Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Department of State to promote coordination among different law enforcement agencies, share information, build confidence, and coordinate security efforts and objectives in a more technical manner, distant from quotidian political exigencies. In 2007, those efforts eventually blossomed into the Mérida Initiative, a wide-ranging, bipartisan effort that embraced the “shared responsibility” required to bring greater security to both Mexico and the United States. Today, the United States would benefit from strengthening civil institutions and intelligence-sharing mechanisms with Mexico and should seek to work with and support politicians who condemn the ideology of militarism. Despite AMLO’s rhetoric, defending civil institutions is not an improper foreign intervention; the civil control of government is mandated in the Mexican constitution, and the United States will always benefit from defending the rule of law and constitutionalism in Mexico.

For its part, Mexico’s next president will face a dangerous dilemma. They will inherit the risks of confronting the vested economic and political interests that AMLO’s militarism has engendered, especially within elite circles of the armed forces. Yet no risk is greater than the inertia of the current trajectory of militarism. As time passes, Mexico’s descent into militarism will be harder to course correct, and by comparison, the risks of facing the armed forces will always be smaller than the risk of advancing militarism in a constitutional democracy.

In this endeavor, Mexico’s next president may find allies in strange places. Indeed, members of the armed forces who believe in their institutional responsibility and do not agree with their current unconstitutional role, will be crucial allies in rolling back this new militarism. A recent ruling by Mexico’s Supreme Court that military personnel are public servants and must disclose financial information, overturning the AMLO government’s attempt to hide the personal financial statements of generals who have been accused of corruption in the construction of Mexico City’s new airport, will assist in efforts to hold those who benefit from militarism accountable.

The Mexican president has driven the country’s politics to a critical juncture. AMLO came to power promising a “fourth transformation” that intended to sunder political and economic power once and for all. The great irony is that AMLO has reinforced the nexus between political and economic power in dangerous ways. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the armed forces’ growing economic and political clout. While AMLO and the ideology of militarism maintain that the military is “incorruptible,” the institution has grown so powerful as to decide not to cooperate and turn over evidence in the country’s most outrageous human rights violation in recent memory: the case of the mass disappearance of 43 university students in Ayotzinapa. Under AMLO, the armed forces enjoy impunity as far as the eye can see.

Mexico’s new militarism is rapidly transforming and politicizing a storied and indispensable Mexican institution. More importantly, militarism has already spawned profound and pernicious consequences on Mexico’s young constitutional democracy. Candidates would do well to address the impact of the still underappreciated offshoots of militarism and how it can be rolled back as they gear up for elections in 2024.

Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Emiliano Polo is an intern with the CSIS Americas Program.

Emiliano Polo

Intern, Americas Program