President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) pledged to transform Mexico. After nine months in office, he has followed through on a number of promises such as fighting inequality by offering scholarships to students, increasing pensions for the elderly and expanding subsidies to small marginalized farmers. His many symbolic gestures–flying economy in commercial planes, planning to sell the presidential plane, and slashing his own salary to close the gap between himself and the public—have delighted supporters. As a result his approval rating stands at 67 percent, according to the latest El Financiero opinion poll in August.
However, AMLO must solve the country’s biggest challenge: reducing violence in a country plagued by some of the world’s most dangerous criminal gangs. The president pledged to fully restore peace and security in three years. However, Mexico is on course to surpass the record of 29,111 murders—at least those accounted for—of last year, an all-time high. Despite campaign promises to end the mano dura (iron fist) approach to public security that has failed to reduce violence over the past decade, the new administration’s actions indicate that he is simply deepening militarization of security policy.
During his campaign, AMLO rejected the tough-on-crime policies of his predecessors. Former President Felipe Calderón proclaimed a “national crusade” against crime by directly confronting cartels with military force. The following president, Enrique Peña Nieto initially rejected Calderón’s mano dura policies, but soon abandoned these efforts, relying on the military to address the country’s chronic crime problem. Neither president succeeded in reforming state and local police forces though actions such as offering higher salaries, providing better training and equipment, and granting merit-based promotions to local forces offered the promise of transforming the entire justice system from the base. The failure to implement reforms has contributed to increased violence in the past decade. Between 2008 and 2017, more than double the number of people were killed in Mexico than in the previous decade.
AMLO promised to do better. During his campaign, his rhetoric demonstrated an understanding of the complex security problem. He promised to focus on the root causes of insecurity, rather than just confronting existing criminal groups. He also pledged to withdraw the military from the streets and provide a victim-centered solution to human rights abuses executed in the past by the state, including extrajudicial killings and torture. His National Peace and Security Plan 2018-2024 outlined a multisectoral approach to restoring security in Mexico. It combined anti-corruption measures, socioeconomic policies, and enhanced human rights protections to create a radically different approach to combating insecurity.
Despite this seemingly nuanced plan, AMLO’s recent actions appear to openly contradict his campaign promises. For starters, AMLO has not yet appointed a dedicated independent anti-corruption prosecutor.
An even greater red flag is the formation of the National Guard, which AMLO has compared to the United Nations Peacekeeping force, but many critics consider it the militarization of security forces. With approval from both houses of Congress, AMLO has expanded the powers of the military to take over police duties of preventing and combating crime throughout Mexico, a similar approach taken by past administrations to tackle insecurity.
As witnessed in Honduras and El Salvador, expanding the role of the military has not increased domestic security. On the contrary, it has led to increased abuses committed by the military and deepened impunity. In 2011, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa modified the constitution to allow the military to patrol neighborhoods to provide security. Between 2012 and 2014, Honduran soldiers were accused of at least nine murders, 20 instances of torture, and around 30 illegal detentions.
In 2015, El Salvador’s President Sánchez Céren deployed elite military brigades to urban settings to fight intense gang violence. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings found that the killings of alleged gang members by security forces in supposed “armed confrontations” increased from 142 in 2013 to 591 in 2016.
Mexico has not been immune from this pattern of increased violence from militarized security forces. Using data from three sources of information (INEGI, the National Public Security System, and the database of homicides related to organized crime) Mexican analysts conducted statistical analyses that measured the number of homicides in the country between 2008 and 2010. They found that violence has grown disproportionately in Mexican states where the federal government conducted joint operations between the police and military. Complaints against both the federal police and the military for human rights violations quintupled between 2007 and 2012.
Why, then, has AMLO created a National Guard if militarization of the police forces has proven ineffective in reducing violence? AMLO is a man of symbols, and he knows he has to show his constituents that he is “doing something” to solve Mexico’s insecurity problem.
Polls conducted by the AmericasBarometer show that trust in the military is significantly higher than it is in the local police. The most recent survey in Mexico found that 76 percent of respondents said they support the military’s engagement in domestic security. In Central America, only 40 percent of people have high trust in their police forces whereas over 65 percent of respondents highly trust their military. The military is seen as the second most respected institution in many Latin American countries, following only the Catholic Church. AMLO is following the politically attractive path of his predecessors of turning to the military but glossing it with his personalistic leadership style to make it appear a transformative solution.
How AMLO will prevent the military from committing human rights abuses remains unclear. Although he has called for the participation of civil society, human rights groups, and United Nations observers in regional committees to monitor the National Guard, he has provided no information on how the committees will function. AMLO did sign an agreement with the UN in April to oversee the guard’s human rights training; however, there have been no signs of implementation yet.
While rolling out the military to provide security is the politically favorable option, it may delay long overdue police reform. A 2017 survey of more than 56,000 police at the federal, state, and municipal levels demonstrated the dire conditions in local police forces. The survey found that many officers were overworked, underpaid, ill-equipped, and widely abused.
Similar to the past administrations he has criticized, AMLO has chosen the shortcut of a militarized approach rather than the steady, difficult task of building effective civilian police forces. If this fails to address the murder epidemic and increases human rights violations to boot, it could mean a failure not only over delivering a campaign promise, but a betrayal to the principles of justice he claims to uphold.
Leonie Rauls is currently working with the Latin America & Caribbean Program of International Crisis Group in Bogotá. She previously worked as the development and external relations coordinator at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington D.C.