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Repetitive Mistakes: Mexico’s New National Guard

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s (AMLO) historical and unprecedented electoral win was met with high hopes of transformative change, but due to fiscal mismanagement, rising levels of violence, and lack of economic growth, the presidential administration is being tagged as one with bold promises but no clear initiatives. Due to immigration from Central American countries and political pressure from US President Donald Trump, AMLO created a National Guard, pitched as a new “civilian” force, to curb crime. However, due to military oversight, its ranks being composed by Mexican armed forces, and its deployment being directed towards the Mexico-Guatemalan border, it is obvious that the National Guard’s true purpose is to enforce immigration policy. Seeing that the Mexican armed forces and previous deployments to fight crime and the cartels produced poor results and violated civil liberties, it is best to refrain from reusing “old” tactics. It is in the best interest of AMLO to empower and restructure local police forces, reinstate the program PRONAPRED, and expand the investigational powers of regional courts. Only then will Mexico see a decrease in its crime rates, now at their all-time high.

Due to the long and controversial history of the Mexican government using brute force to suppress dissent, the new National Guard has led many to question AMLO’s promise to end armed repression in the country. The three main criticisms of such a force are as follows: it has mainly served as an extension for border security, it is poorly trained for the complex issues of domestic crime and illegal immigration, and its deployment in cities detracts attention from local police forces who have delivered results in reducing crime. AMLO has contradicted himself greatly by using old tactics, which have weakened his vision and platform: He promised, “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs not bullets). It is quite easy to compare such a force to the desperate and ill-formulated attempts of Felipe Calderon when he decided to militarize the War on Drugs by tackling cartels head-on with the military. Peña Nieto’s administration also carried such a policy and, unfortunately, the result was increased violence and concessions of land to cartels. 

Due to a reduction in funds for socio-economic programs like PRONAPRED that address the root of violence, a lack of empowerment to local security forces, and the Mexican government’s inability to expand the powers of investigation in the court system, it is unlikely for the public to witness the apprehension of those responsible for illegal activities. From the beginning of his campaign, AMLO used rhetoric that criticized the corruption at the highest levels in the Mexican establishment. While part of his bitterness towards the current political institutions arises from his controversial loss in the 2006 federal election, his statements about corruption do have a certain degree of validity. The temporary reduction in violence seen under Calderon’s and Nieto’s usage of military force lasted for a short time as cartels that lost key leaders broke up into smaller, more violent organizations. For years, the country has been seeing an increasing trend of homicides and other brutal crimes, with the armed forces unable to accomplish its objectives of alleviating conflicts and effectuating stability. The failure to reduce violence was the nail in the coffin for the Peña Nieto administration. 

Throughout his short tenure, AMLO has been ignoring issues of violence, but finally responded to both domestic and US pressure by creating the National Guard. This response was in light of Donald Trump’s threat to implement tariffs if Mexico did not stem the tide of immigration from Honduras. In June of 2019, the National Guard was deployed, and it has been disastrous ever since. It has tear-gassed harmless women, children, and others, and failed to deal with the consequences. It possesses no clear goal on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. The National Guard is incompetent because its ranks are composed of former military officers and federal police officers trained for different duties. Mexico, which has not had or needed a national guard since 1935, has therefore become an extension of Donald Trump’s desire to curb such waves of migration.

While AMLO has been focusing on what he likes to call white-collar crime, small towns have been overridden by armed vehicles and members of cartels, causing fear and violence through unpredictable killings intended to boast about their dominance. AMLO’s concern with corruption is legitimate, especially after the arrest of Genaro Garcia Luna, the former Secretary of Public Security who took bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel. But rather than cracking down on the weakness of political institutions and advocating for judicial reform to combat cartels and corrupt politicians, AMLO has chosen the unsuccessful path of symbolic strength through the National Guard. Much of its function, outside its disastrous treatment of immigrants, has been to proudly patrol the streets of major cities like Mexico City.

Last year, Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum was reluctant to allow a limited number of National Guard members to be deployed to Mexico City because she saw crime in the city as a local matter. But due to increasing trends of violence and pressure by AMLO, she gave in. The results have not been great, and security analyst Jaime Lopez Aranda points out that such force is operationally the same as military forces. The public is concerned that this tired approach will produce minimal results and that AMLO’s crusade against corruption ignores the gruesome crimes carried out by cartels every day. 

Only by expanding preventative measures at the local level across the nation can the government avoid the recruitment of young individuals to cartels and thus reduce crime. But programs that aided low-income people, such as PRONAPRED, have seen budget cuts. It appears that the incentive to fight the root of cartel recruitment, like poverty, unstable households, financial pressure, and a lack of youth engagement, has waned. Crime prevention programs like PRONAPRED need to be woven into the curriculum of areas that are hit hard by violence and cartel-recruitment. The less-fortunate youth of Mexico see the government as corrupt and weak, viewing no other path to take for their future. Programs like PRONAPRED are necessary to lend a helping hand to youths at risk of recruitment.

As for current forces at the local and state level, the arrest of Genaro Garcia Luna was a major victory, as it sparked discourse over the doctrine of “Mando Unico” (Sole command). The arrest highlighted that even the highest officials in government are susceptible to corruption and cartel influence. To encourage accountability and to oversee gray areas of accountability, Mando Unico would centralize local and state police to ensure that they have more manpower, investigational power, and resources to ensure that no force is spread thin. It removes layers of bureaucracy and takes the burden of responsibility away from forces who do not know how to perform the role of “serve and protect.”

With respect to immigration, one simply has to look at the embarrassing disorganization in the ranks of the National Guard and the instances of them resorting to pepper-spraying women and children. The UN not only condemned such acts, but AMLO received heavy pressure that he could not dodge, as he once championed the idea of issuing humanitarian visas to Central American migrants. Whether it be in its role of binational issues of immigration or in the War on Drugs, the US has provided supplies, equipment, and training to Mexican forces but no comprehensive reform in immigration policy. The current US approach has been to apply maximum pressure with little to no help. The threat of tariffs is not only abusive but denies the responsibility of the US in the region. Practically, Mexico cannot aid all immigrants, nor can it be given such a precarious task of blocking migration with little to no response and preparation time. As long as migration is driven by socio-economic concerns, immigrants will continue to try to circumvent such obstacles. Therefore, it is important to expand the ability of individuals to seek refuge and asylum. With little to no coordination with the current Central American governments, there seems to be little actual desire to resolve such issues. 
AMLO’s endangerment of his own citizens and the inhumane treatment of Central American immigrants cannot be tolerated. The National Guard may appear to be a new idiosyncratic silver bullet, but it is rooted in previous ill approaches to crime. As long as AMLO does not offer a comprehensive plan that incorporates judicial reform, the expansion of social programs, the empowerment of local forces, and the scaling down of military troop deployment in cities, a decrease of homicides will not occur. With multi-layered issues like this, one needs multiple policy responses woven into one comprehensive initiative. But due to AMLO’s scattered, unorthodox proposals, Mexican citizens are stuck with a populist charlatan who will not be able to resolve a continuing crime problem.

Image: Photo via Mizitacuardo

About the Author

Leonardo Moraveg '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Leonardo can be reached at