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Can Mexico’s Next President Control the Military?

The country’s military brass has a larger role governing Mexico than at any time in the past eighty years. It’s creating a dangerous dependency that won’t be easy to break. Can the generals be reined in? 

By Will Freeman

March 2024

On June 2, Mexico will hold the biggest elections in its history. Voters will choose a new president, 628 members of Congress, and thousands of state and local officials. But there is at least one set of politically consequential decisionmakers that will not appear on the ballot: Mexico’s armed forces. Since taking office in 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has assigned the military sweeping new powers, an ever-larger budget, and new revenue streams. He has also stood by as generals and officers have sought to insulate themselves from judicial investigations. It’s no exaggeration to say the armed forces now have sway over security policy, tax collection, and the day-to-day operation of critical parts of the state.

AMLO’s efforts to remake Mexico’s electoral and judicial institutions, which remain only partially implemented after pushback from the courts, have inspired heated debate at home and abroad. Yet his empowerment of the armed forces, which has sparked less backlash, has resulted in more significant, and likely more lasting, change to Mexico’s institutions. For now, Mexico remains a democracy, despite its flaws. It’s far from a “tutelary” regime, in which generals call the shots and civilians only pretend to rule. While generals have successfully lobbied lawmakers to pass legislation and seem to have influenced AMLO’s decisionmaking, there are no cut-and-dry cases of military leaders defying civilian orders. Despite pro-AMLO rhetoric from some of the generals, they do not act as political kingmakers or, seemingly, aspire to that status.

But the military has become as important to governance as any of the country’s civilian bureaucracies — and in some policy areas such as domestic security, perhaps even more so. The armed forces have taken charge of police work nationwide, the operation of Mexico’s ports and customs offices, and the construction of key infrastructure. Mexico’s next president — whether she’s AMLO’s protégé, Claudia Scheinbaum, who leads in the polls, or opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez — will find it difficult to govern without the armed forces’ active support.

Mexico’s new normal, a civilian government that is chronically dependent on the military, does not threaten democracy in the familiar ways. There is no risk of a military coup in Mexico. Rather, it creates a new set of dilemmas for democracy regarding the collection and use of intelligence, the independence of the judiciary, and the provision of public goods. Military dependency and its associated dilemmas will likely be AMLO’s most enduring legacy, not the social justice–inspired “fourth transformation” he promised.

A Substitute State

By the late 2000s, few could have predicted Mexico’s military dependency. It came about gradually, as successive civilian governments relied on the military to do the jobs of underperforming civilian institutions. The country had plenty of problems to worry about in the last half of the twentieth century, but an increasingly powerful military was not one of them. From the 1940s to the 1990s, the civilian-led authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) maintained a stable deal with the armed forces: As long as the generals stayed out of politics, the military could manage its own affairs. Even as the army took on some internal security tasks, successive PRI governments made the arrangement stick by keeping the armed forces “corrupt, poorly trained, poorly equipped, and totally useless,” in the words of former foreign minister Jorge Castañeda.

The arrangement — autonomy in return for subservience to civilians — remained in place as long as the armed forces stayed weak. But as Mexico democratized, governments began relying on the military to take on the tasks of the state, and with these came power. In 2000, an opposition presidential candidate, Vicente Fox (2000–2006), finally beat the PRI. But unlike new democratic presidents in Central and South America who feared their coup-prone militaries, Fox did not try to curb the military’s autonomy. On the contrary, to confront rising violence fueled by drug trafficking, he appointed a retired army general as Mexico’s top federal prosecutor and dispatched eighteen-thousand soldiers to fight the cartels. Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderón (2006–12), expanded the military’s role in policing and declared war on the cartels in 2006. The armed forces showed no signs of winning, but military spending increased. To their credit, Fox and Calderón did try to build civilian-led federal police forces, but they remained too small and susceptible to high-level corruption to stem the violence.

Mexico’s next president, Enrique Peña Nieto (2012–18) of the PRI, promised to rely less on the armed forces for internal security, but once in office, he continued growing the military’s power. While neglecting the federal police, he greenlit a sixfold increase in the size of the military police. Meanwhile, the army-run defense ministry flexed its muscle by lobbying lawmakers to pass a national-security law of its own design in 2017, making permanent its role in domestic policing (Mexico’s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional in 2018).

By that time, the relationship between civilians and soldiers had started to shift. At the invitation of state governors, active-duty army personnel from the defense ministry began filling key government posts and supplanted police in states like Sonora on the Arizona border. Repeated military deployments took the pressure off governors to build competent state police forces, and some state governments doled out contracts to army-affiliated private firms, several of which were later exposed as shell companies.

Although civilian officials were relying on the military for public security before AMLO became president in 2018, he has done the most to entrench military dependency and extend it to new areas of government beyond public security. This is an about-face. Before assuming the presidency, López Obrador had vocally opposed the militarization of public security. Once he took office, however, he began calling the armed forces “incorruptible” and expanded the military’s power like no president before him.

AMLO dissolved the federal police force and created the National Guard to replace it in 2019.  This new force, at first formally under the control of a civilian ministry, received 80 percent of its personnel, much of its leadership, and extensive training from the military. In 2022, AMLO rallied his MORENA party’s lawmakers to place the National Guard under the army’s control through 2028. In 2023, the Supreme Court ruled the move unconstitutional and ordered a return to civilian control. AMLO has yet to implement that decision and recently pushed back with proposed legislation that would shore up the army’s control and expand the National Guard’s role in investigating crime.

AMLO has also used presidential decrees to put the navy in charge of seaports and customs offices — the latter generates US$60 billion annually, or more than 15 percent of Mexico’s tax revenue — and dispatched the army to build and operate multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects (and direct a share of the proceeds to military pensions). He has put the armed forces in charge of constructing hundreds of new branches of a state-owned bank that distributes cash transfers to older adults. Add to all that the airline, airport, and luxury hotels which have rounded out the military’s budding investment portfolio. In the decade-and-a-half between 2003 and 2018, the armed forces’ budget roughly doubled. It took AMLO only six years in office to double it again.

No one can say with certainty why AMLO chose to embrace the armed forces. But according to my interviews with current members of his party and ex-government officials, it is likely that he and a circle of top generals put aside their mutual distrust to forge a marriage of convenience. The president recognized that if he relied only on the small circle of trusted allies he brought with him into government, he would accomplish few of his goals, particularly building big new infrastructure. After firing tens of thousands of civilian bureaucrats in the name of austerity, AMLO came to see the armed forces as a cost-effective, disciplined, and, above all, loyal substitute. Generals who positioned themselves close to the president and took charge of new portfolios also stood to gain.

The Perils of Military Dependency

One risk of Mexico’s military dependency comes with the armed forces’ control of intelligence-gathering, which raises the possibility of military leadership shaping, rather than merely informing, civilian decisionmaking. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay all maintain civilian-led intelligence agencies separate from their armed forces — a legacy of their democratic transitions. AMLO has pushed Mexico in the opposite direction. Retired and active-duty generals or their family members now run all federal intelligence-gathering institutions.

The armed forces can and do use their intelligence-gathering powers for good, tracking down narcotraffickers and exposing state officials who collaborate with them. But bad uses are also conceivable — and perhaps inevitable. In October 2022, the hacker group Guacamaya leaked thousands of official defense-ministry documents, revealing that the army had compiled dossiers on protesters and journalists, categorizing them as pro- or antigovernment, and had tapped into the encrypted private communications of a Washington Post reporter investigating alleged extrajudicial killings by army personnel. Leaked emails showed that army higher-ups had requested reports on cabinet members’ positions on the military and maintained files on dozens more politicians.

Not even AMLO’s closest allies were immune. In October 2023, Alejandro Encinas, undersecretary for human rights from 2019 to 2023 and longtime AMLO ally, accused the army of obstructing his investigations into the alleged complicity of army personnel in human-rights abuses. Independent forensic analysis later confirmed that the notorious spyware Pegasus — which in Mexico can be accessed officially only by the military — had repeatedly infected his phone. AMLO publicly downplayed the revelations, and Encinas resigned.

Prominent members of MORENA who publicly criticized militarization, including Economy Minister Tatiana Clouthier, longtime lawmaker Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, and Senator Germán Martínez, all left either the government or the party soon after doing so. Do MORENA politicians worry about being monitored by the armed forces? “Yes,” according to one ex-government official I interviewed, “but it’s an unspoken solidarity.” Another told me with a not-so-reassuring laugh that “only a few really have to worry.” Military control of intelligence opens the door to other potential problems as well: The military could share or censor information to justify increasing military spending, crack down on certain criminal groups but not others, or overlook military corruption and abuse. Likewise, civilian officials, knowing they are under military watch, might preemptively tailor their own decisionmaking to match the perceived preferences of the top brass.

A second risk of military dependency is that it empowers the armed forces to block the investigation and prosecution of illegal behavior. This most likely occurred in 2019 when U.S. federal prosecutors arrested General Salvador Cienfuegos, head of the defense ministry from 2012 to 2018, in California and charged him with conspiring to protect drug traffickers. AMLO at first called the charges “an unequivocal sign of the decomposition of the old regime” and promised to clean house in the military “without protecting anybody.” But within days — and following a direct lobbying campaign by members of the military, according to several journalistic reports — AMLO pivoted, calling the charges “fabricated.” He negotiated with the Trump administration to drop the charges and return Cienfuegos to Mexico, where he was promptly exonerated.

Members of the armed forces have also attempted to influence the course of the investigation into the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. In 2020, a Mexican federal court imprisoned an army captain, and later a handful of officers and soldiers, as prosecutors investigated their involvement in the crime. Defense Secretary Sandoval responded by privately lobbying AMLO in defense of the jailed captain, according to an email included in the Guacamaya leaks. The courts vacillated on whether to release the accused, but for now they remain in prison. Meanwhile, the military refuses to release a cache of sensitive documents related to the case (denying they even exist), a position AMLO defends.

I asked Supreme Court judge José Ramón Cossío whether, in light of this case, he believes the judiciary is still capable of investigating and holding accountable armed-forces personnel who break the law. “As things are now,” he responded, “the justice system cannot sanction the military.” Military personnel increasingly participate directly in the provision and administration of justice. According to researchers from the think tank México Evalúa and a former AMLO advisor I interviewed, active-duty military personnel are filling a growing number of posts in state prosecutors’ offices. The results have been particularly dismal in the southwestern state of Guerrero, where the prosecutor’s office — run until recently by a lieutenant-colonel — failed to solve a single murder in 2023.

Finally, military dependency imperils democracy in a third way. It threatens to unleash a vicious cycle: The government tasks the military with providing public goods, sidelining the civilian institutions typically in charge; soon, regardless of the quality of goods the military is delivering — whether infrastructure, security, or port management — a return to the old system becomes impossible, as elected officeholders find the old civilian institutions have withered away. Mexico is already caught in this spiral of institutional decay.

Proponents of establishing the army-run national guard, AMLO chief among them, originally argued that the military was the only institution equipped to confront the drug cartels. That claim was debatable when AMLO first took office and the federal police was still intact, but it is surely true now. With the federal police disbanded and Mexico continuing to spend less on its police and judiciary as a share of GDP than any other Latin American country, there are scarce alternatives for nationwide policing (or for protecting candidates running for office, another newly assigned task for the military). Mexico City, with its competent civilian police force, is relatively safe. But across much of the rest of the country, where the National Guard patrols, Mexico’s militarized model of policing now coexists with rampant insecurity. AMLO’s six-year term has become the deadliest in Mexican history, with over 170,000 homicides to date. And although homicides have declined from their peak in 2021 according to government figures, and citizens’ perception of security has lately improved, reports of extortion have jumped 50 percent over the past four years as criminal groups have been consolidating bastions of territorial control.

Beyond security, it remains to be seen whether the benefits of military-run infrastructure projects outweigh the sizable ecological and financial costs and whether the navy’s control over ports — expanded under AMLO — makes them less vulnerable to corruption and criminal influence. There are reasons for doubt. Between 2013 and 2019, the army-run defense ministry funneled US$156 million in public contracts into shell companies. And Puerto Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico’s largest Pacific port, has become a primary hub for importing fentanyl components over the last decade while under navy control.

Military dependency is sure to outlive AMLO’s presidency. The generals he empowered, if they so wished, could hobble the next government simply by slowing or stopping work. This implicit leverage will likely discourage future civilian governments from attempting to revoke the military’s new powers and sources of revenue. If Mexico’s generals remain fully obedient to civilian authority, one could argue that there is relatively little to worry about. In that case, they will relinquish their new powers (and associated revenues) as soon as they are asked. But what if they refuse? Mexico’s next president will have to contend with this question.

The Post-AMLO Dilemma

Mexico’s top presidential contenders take different positions on the military’s new and expanding powers. Scheinbaum has defended AMLO’s empowerment of the armed forces while also promising to strengthen state police forces. Galvez has pledged to gradually extricate the military from public security, ports, and infrastructure projects while rebuilding the federal police. But whoever wins in June could find herself facing the same dilemma: top military brass reluctant to cede ground, regardless of the president’s personal preferences.

A president attempting to rein in the military’s powers would find few allies. More than 80 percent of Mexicans trust the army, navy, and national guard, respectively, making them the country’s three most trusted institutions. The U.S. government might worry about the impact of the army’s increasing power on law-enforcement cooperation, but they also face conflicting incentives: A fifth of Mexican army troops are currently deployed to police Mexico’s borders and manage irregular migration, making them indispensable to this U.S. administration and the next.

To exit military dependency, Mexico’s next government would need to rebuild civilian police and bureaucracies, but that would require raising taxes. Currently the country’s tax revenue is the fifth lowest as a share of GDP in its region. Not even AMLO, with his considerable popularity, chose to spend political capital attempting a tax hike.

All this means that Mexico’s military dependency is likely here to stay. The country’s story should serve as a warning to other democracies with weak states and strong (or strengthening) militaries: Beware relying on the armed forces as a substitute for other state institutions. El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele has also made his country’s armed forces indispensable to governance; he could not continue his draconian security policy without the generals. Several other countries in Latin America — Honduras, Peru, and Ecuador, among them — show signs of creeping military dependency, and others could soon fall into the trap. It took some Central and South American countries decades to put the genie of powerful militaries back in the bottle, with only a few coming close to full success. Ending Mexico’s dependency on the military could take just as long.

Will Freeman is a Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow him on Twitter at @WillGFreeman.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via Getty Images




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