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An unprecedented use of Mexico's military

Episode Summary

Mexico’s president promised to cut down the country's reliance on the military to fight its drug wars. He’s done the opposite.

Episode Notes

Mexico president Andrés Manuel López Obrador came into office promising to get the military off the streets. Instead, he’s more than doubled their numbers. He claims there’s just no other way to handle Mexico’s narco-violence.

Today, we look at Mexico’s delicate dance with its military. It’s an institution that’s among the most trusted in the nation, and potentially its most dangerous. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times Latin America correspondent Kate Linthicum

More reading:

Mexico’s president vowed to end the drug war. Instead he’s doubled the number of troops in the streets

Mexico’s military gains power as president turns from critic to partner

Mexico sent in the army to fight the drug war. Many question the toll on society and the army itself

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: Last month, a wave of violence abruptly shut down parts of northern Mexico.

Clip: Vehicles set on fire, massive roadblocks in place.

Clip: It's just the latest in a string of violent attacks throughout Mexico. 

Clip: Cities have seen widespread arson, shootings and vandalism.

Arellano: To restore order, the administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador responded as it usually does: by sending in the military.

Clip: Thousands of Mexican troops are now patrolling very popular destinations like Tijuana and Ensenada.

Arellano: But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. López Obrador came into office promising to get troops off the streets. Instead, he's more than doubled their numbers. He claims there’s just no other way to handle Mexico’s narco violence.

I’m Gustavo Arellano. You’re listening to The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times.  It’s Friday, Sept. 2, 2022. 

Today, we look at Mexico’s delicate dance with its military, an institution that’s among the most trusted in the nation – and potentially its most dangerous. 

My L.A. Times colleague and foreign correspondent Kate Linthicum has covered López Obrador for years. Kate, welcome to The Times. 

Kate Linthicum: : It's good to be here.

Arellano: So we talked about López earlier this year on The Times about the weird referendum that he launched against himself, but we really didn't get into one of the big promises he ran on when he won the presidential election in 2018: an end to Mexico's narco violence. How big of a campaign platform was it for him back then?

Linthicum: It was a huge part of his campaign promises.

López Obrador clip: Viva México.

AP clip: Angry and frustrated over corruption and violence. Mexican voters have delivered a tidal wave presidential poll victory to López Obrador. 

Linthicum: He ran as an outsider who vowed to rid Mexico of endemic corruption. 

López Obrador clip: Vamos a aplicar los tres principios básicos: No mentir. No robar. No traicionar al pueblo.

Linthicum: And he vowed to end this terribly bloody drug war that had engulfed Mexico for a decade at that point. He said basically the militarized strategy of his predecessors had turned Mexico into a cemetery. And he was gonna do things differently. He was going to take soldiers off the streets. He famously said he would send them back to their barracks.

López Obrador clip: Y estoy seguro que se va a reforzar la formación en todo lo que tiene que ver con el respeto a los derechos humanos. 

Linthicum: Almost immediately after taking office, AMLO created this whole new policing force, basically the national guard. He promised it was gonna be under civilian rule, and that it would be different than the military.

López Obrador clip: Es un giro, un cambio, una reforma para bien de México y también para bien del ejército.

Linthicum: He promised a more holistic approach. He was going to lift up poor communities and give young people jobs and basically alternatives to organized crime. He even suggested an amnesty bill for people who have been convicted of crimes and floated the idea of drug legalization

López Obrador clip: Voy a gobernar con rectitud y justicia. No les fallaré. 

Linthicum: So this was far to the left of many, you know, social justice proposals in the U.S. And it was kind of encapsulated in this campaign slogan he had, which was “abrazos, no balazos,” which is “hugs, not bullets.”

Arellano: Yeah, the minute he said that, it immediately became iconic. Because it kind of sounds goofy, but it hit with people, and the idea is still incredibly popular. Why did that slogan hit that nerve with Mexicans?

Linthicum: Because people in Mexico were so traumatized. After 10 years of this horrific drug war that had claimed tens of thousands of lives, had left tens of thousands of people disappeared and had turned entire parts of this country into, you know, areas that were really controlled by organized crime, where businesses had to pay extortion fees to gangs, where industries, from avocado to even like gasoline production, were all being really controlled by criminal groups. So people were exhausted, they were fed up and they were really, really hopeful for anybody that could promise change.

Arellano: So here we are four years into his presidency. Has López Obrador followed through on that promise: end the drug war and get Mexican soldiers back into the barracks? 

Linthicum: Absolutely not. He has embraced the military, like nobody before him. He's doubled down on this strategy that he himself over and over said was a failed one. And the numbers don't lie. There are now more than 200,000 federal troops patrolling the streets. That's more than twice the number as, at any point, under his predecessors. And of course the violence has continued. Homicides continue to hover around 35,000 a year. And we see these outbreaks of really scary violence, like what happened earlier this summer, when in four cities across the country, cartels took control of the streets. They hijacked buses and burned them. They shot up random convenience stores. Cartels, they kind of showed once again that they actually have control in many places. And the government doesn't.

Arellano: A big military presence in civilian life. Sadly, it's not uncommon in Latin America. But in Mexico it's always had an unusual relationship with its military. What role has the armed forces historically played in state affairs?

Linthicum: Yeah, you're right, that it's a different relationship. Mexico, fortunately, did not have the same experiences as countries like Guatemala or Argentina or Chile, where you've had these military governments, these really conflictive periods of military coups. Mexico hasn't had that. Its military has generally played a more subdued role.

That's thanks in part to this agreement that the PRI, the party that controlled Mexico for more than seven decades, had with the military, which was basically we'll let you do your thing if you stay out of politics. So that was the case more or less that the military was kind of left to its own devices, as long as it didn't interfere in governance. But of course that's begun to change.

Arellano: Coming up after the break: the real role that the military has played in Mexico and how that's taken on new urgency in recent years.

Arellano: Kate, how does the Mexican public feel about the military in general?

Linthicum: So polls consistently show that the army and the marines are among the most trusted institutions in the country. And that is in part because the army has typically played this subdued role.

Arellano: Yeah, but that idea has always confused me because there’s actually a long history of the government using the fuerzas armadas for domestic purposes.

Linthicum: Yeah, you're right. There is a history of the army intervening in political life here, even if it's been less than in other Latin American countries. There were the dirty wars throughout the 1960s, through the 1980s, when the government was cracking down on leftist groups; it deployed the military quite violently.

Arellano: Yeah, probably the most infamous incident of that was the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City right before the Olympics in 1968.

Linthicum: Exactly. And even more recently, when we had the guerrilla movements in Chiapas and Guerrero in the ’90s, in the early 2000s. The military … there in intense ways. If you look at the history of Mexican criminal groups, one that stands out for its brutality is the Zetas, on the east coast of Mexico. And they were literally composed of former special forces.

Arellano: And then the military really took on a huge role in Mexican life in 2006, as part of the drug war. What happened that year?

Linthicum: So Felipe Calderón came to power as Mexico's president.

Clip: A nuestro presidente, esto.

Linthicum: He was from the western state of Michoacán, which was one of the states in Mexico that had become really overrun by drug cartels who had become increasingly powerful and were, Calderón and others worried, starting to challenge the power of the state.

Clip: El México del futuro es precisamente el México de la ley. El México de las instituciones. 

Linthicum: So Calderón called in the troops. He sent the soldiers into the streets of Mexico to do the work that police should have been doing, and he said this was gonna be a temporary solution. It wasn't. Instead, it really kicked off this drug war that carries on to this day  in which more than 200,000 people have died. Nearly a hundred thousand people have been disappeared, and of course the military is still being used.

And the reason the military actually amplified this conflict is because soldiers aren't necessarily trained to enforce public security inside their own country. They're trained to go to war. And the kinds of tactics and strategies that most security experts agree are needed to reduce crime here in Mexico are more like conventional policing tactics. You know, the ability to investigate crimes, send guilty parties to jail and prevent crime. And that's just not what the soldiers, the marines, and now the national guard are really trying to do. And even though Calderón promised that this was just a temporary stop-gap strategy until Mexico could get the drug cartels under control, it has continued. His successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, increased the number of troops in the streets. And as we've seen, AMLO has increased the number even further.

Arellano: So why do these administrations keep doubling down on something that seemingly hasn't worked to stop all this violence?

Linthicum: I mean, that is the question in Mexico these days. I think the clearest answer is that there is no obvious alternative. The police in this country are ridiculed for basically preying on people and caring more about bribes than they are about solving crimes. There have been efforts to professionalize them and root out corrupt officers, but that's a slow kind of long-term solution. And if you are AMLO, for example, who takes office and wants to deliver at least on your promise of reducing crime, you're gonna stick with the military because the policing solution just isn't an immediate one.

Arellano: So corruption, then, maybe better explains why people in Mexico think it’s better to place their trust in the military.

Linthicum: Yeah, it continues to be this trusted institution, in part, because other institutions here really aren't trusted.

The fact is, local police forces remain largely corrupt. The country school system is kind of famously controlled by labor unions that, again, aren't necessarily interested in education. And of course politics in this country is often corrupt. And we've had case after case of politicians, state governors, federal officials who are revealed to have enriched themselves in just incredible ways using public funds. So there isn't a lot of trust generally in public institutions here, and in comparison that makes the military and the marines and the armed forces in general look pretty good.

Arellano: Kate, what's interesting to me, then, just given this history about Mexico and its military, is again how President López Obrador came in saying, yeah, we're gonna get them off the street. And he's using them even more than ever before. And in ways that also go beyond public safety.

Linthicum: Exactly. It's very clear that he's relied on the military to enforce public safety. And while he's been expanding the number of troops in the streets, he's also been slashing police budgets. He disbanded the federal police force. He's basically stopped the efforts to train and reform Mexico's police forces. 

And another really interesting point is that the national guard that I mentioned earlier that AMLO created and vowed would be under civilian rule – well, it's actually made up almost entirely of former soldiers. They're trained by soldiers, and in recent days AMLO has actually said he wants them to be under control of the armed forces. So yet another militarized force in Mexico.

But he's gone well beyond that. He basically has put the military in charge of all of these civilian tasks that it never had anything to do with before. So right this moment, soldiers, marines, national guard troops are in control of building a massive train project that AMLO wants in the south. They built the new airport he wanted in Mexico City. He's put them in control of the ports. He's put them in control of border crossings. He's put them in control of Mexico's response to illegal immigration. He's put them in charge even of Mexico's COVID-19 response. So we're seeing just this accumulation of power of the armed forces in all of these different sectors. And that's kind of freaking a lot of people out.

Arellano: Yeah. How are people reacting to that? And who are the critics, if any, of López Obrador’s policies?

Linthicum: Yeah, I mean, the critics are interestingly both on the right, which you might expect, but also among former supporters of his on the left. There are concerns that this kind of weakens Mexico's democracy. You know, you're supposed to have this healthy separation between the armed forces  and politics and civilian matters, but that's kind of been eroded. AMLO is a populist who has shown, frankly, little interest in upholding democratic norms. There is a real fear here among some that AMLO is planning on trying to stay in power after his single six-year term is up in 2024. And some people are wondering, is that why he's aligning himself so closely with the military? Because he plans to stay in power?

Arellano: The military now is such a normal part of day-to-day life in Mexico. Like my family's from small villages from the state of Zacatecas, and anytime they go back, they'll say, oh, yeah, you know, we went to a wedding and everything was cool because the military was there, or like we went to the plaza Sunday just to hang out and, yeah, the military was there with their big guns and all of that. They would've never said that 20 years ago. Never. But meanwhile, the cartel wars are still going on. So has López Obrador’s strategy even worked to clamp down on his original intent of going after cartels?

Linthicum: Things here are kind of static. You know, we continue to see super high levels of violence. We continue to see these episodes in different parts of the country where cartels show that they have control, not only of drug trafficking but even of other industries. We continue to see the government deploying the armed forces when incidents like these happen. People have gotten very used to seeing soldiers in plazas, in small towns or holding automatic weapons in the backs of trucks, patrolling the streets. This is just kind of the new normal in Mexico. Is it working? I think virtually all of the security strategists I've spoken to say it's not. But the alternative isn't clear, and I think it's quite certain that AMLO isn't gonna change course anytime soon. 

Arellano: Finally, Kate, you mentioned López Obrador’s possible future plans, but what does all of this mean for the future of the military of Mexico? Again, like, we're in Latin America. And historically when you give a lot of leeway to the military, they get a taste for that power and you start having coups.  Do you think that might happen in Mexico?

Linthicum: I don't think there are real fears of that happening anytime soon. I think the bigger fears are, what happens when you have the military in control of so much in your country and yet the military really isn't subjected to the same kind of civilian checks and balances? 

So, for example, when a soldier commits a human rights abuse – let's say they torture a person they've arrested – that soldier often isn't tried before a civilian court. They're tried in these sort of secret military hearings. Impunity is rampant. It's very infrequent that we see the armed forces punished for that kind of thing. So I think the bigger fear is just that the military will be able to do what it wants without really having to pay consequences. And that further contributes to the lawlessness that I think is really at the heart of violence here in Mexico.

Arellano: I think we might be about to see whether that’s the case here. Just recently, the military was implicated in one of Mexico’s worst human rights scandals – the 43 college students in Guerrero that disappeared back in 2014.

Linthicum: Exactly.

Arellano: Kate. Thank you so much for this conversation. 

Linthicum: Thank you so much for having me.

Arellano: And that’s it for this episode of The Times, essential news from the L.A. Times. 

Kasia Broussalian and Shannon Lin were the jefas on this episode, and Mark Nieto mixed and mastered it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistant is Madalyn Amato. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We’ll be back next Wednesday – that’s right, Wednesday, so no new episodes Monday or Tuesday – with all the news and desmadre.