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Mexico’s new president wants a new National Guard to address violent crime. Will it work?

- December 19, 2018
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s newly inaugurated president, announced a plan to address violent crime. (Christian Palma/AP)

When Andrés Manuel López Obrador was inaugurated as president of Mexico on Dec. 1, he made history as the leader with the broadest mandate since the country’s democratization in 2000.

But López Obrador also inherited a country facing significant challenges, including high levels of inequality, poverty and corruption — and a difficult relationship with the United States. His most pressing concern, according to public opinion surveys, will be to reduce the rampant violence that has plagued the country for over a decade.

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While his plan to create a National Guard with military personnel can seem an appealing solution, my research shows that the militarization of law enforcement can have damaging consequences. Here’s what you need to know.

Mexico’s violent crime problem has deepened 

With more than 27,000 homicides in the first 10 months of the year, 2018 will be the country’s most violent since at least 1990, the earliest year for which the government has kept statistics. At this pace, the country will top last year’s record 32,000 homicides, or a rate of about 25 per 100,000 people, for a staggering decade with 233,000 accumulated killings and tens of thousands of kidnappings and people who have disappeared.

To put things in perspective, the number of homicides is roughly four times the number of U.S. casualties during the Vietnam War.

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The announcement that the new Mexican government would create a National Guard reporting to the Ministry of Defense came as a surprise. López Obrador’s campaign messages emphasized economic development and national reconciliation to address violent crime — not the tough-on-crime militaristic approaches offered elsewhere, such as those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. López Obrador’s left-of-center perspective was perhaps best captured by his campaign slogans: “abrazos, no balazos” (hugs, not gunshots) and “no se puede enfrentar violencia con más violencia” (you can’t fight violence with further violence).

López Obrador’s proposed National Guard would incorporate military police from the Army and Navy, which already participate in domestic law enforcement. It would also incorporate some personnel from the Federal Police, which he would dismantle altogether. The plan involves dividing the country into 266 territorial coordination units, in which the National Guard would operate under military leadership.

Why militarize domestic policing?

There are many reasons governments opt to militarize domestic security. In particular, when violent crime indicators rise and organized crime overwhelms civilian police, governments turn to the armed forces because of their greater discipline, more hierarchical structure and lower proclivity toward corruption. Additionally, the militarization of public safety tends to enjoy high public support — this can be politically expedient compared to the slow process of reforming the police.

López Obrador and his predecessors since 2006 have used these same reasons to justify the military’s active participation in domestic law enforcement tasks. This has become the norm — but requires changes to the Mexican constitution to become legal.

In fact, the idea of establishing a national guard in Mexico akin to France’s Gendarmerie or Spain’s Guardia Civil is not new. López Obrador’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, promised to create a 50,000-strong paramilitary force as an alternative way to address organized crime, rather than rely on inefficient and often corrupt police forces or deploy the military to conduct domestic policing. Difficulties hiring competent personnel and the popularity of having the military patrol the streets led Peña Nieto to settle for a 5,000-strong Gendarmería that became the Federal Police’s 7th Division rather than a stand-alone force.

Does militarization work? 

Contrary to these expectations, however, a number of studies have found that relying on the armed forces for domestic public safety results in greater levels of violence without addressing organized crime in general or drug trafficking in particular.

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In my research on the consequences of militarization of public safety in the Mexican context, for example, I find that involving the armed forces in anti-drug efforts has contributed to sharp increases in violent crimes, including homicides and kidnappings, as well as a deterioration of the government’s revenue.

Here’s why: The military relies on high-impact weapons and tactics meant to overwhelm and destroy an enemy rather than de-escalate threats to citizen security. Soldiers are generally trained with that purpose in mind, not a serve-and-protect mentality that is mindful of human rights and civil liberties.

The use of lethal force by the military also leads organized-crime groups to respond in kind, further escalating violence. And there’s negative fallout for the government’s tax collection efforts, as the resulting increase in violence affects businesses and dampens people’s willingness to pay taxes. This does not mean that public safety and tax collection would not deteriorate in the absence of militarization, but rather that the deterioration is even greater as a result of militarization.

If these findings hold true for Mexico’s current situation, López Obrador’s National Guard plan is unlikely to address the problem, at least not by itself. Instead, this plan may make the situation worse, by increasing violence and opening the door to authoritarian solutions to social problems. Mexico’s law enforcement may get a different name and wear a different uniform under the new plan, but the essence, tactics, and command structure will continue to follow a military logic, in line with the prevailing security paradigm that has generated poor results.

If Mexico adopts this plan, the government will have to do much work to fundamentally alter soldiers’ military training, procedures and creed. Although it might seem that without the military option governments are capitulating to organized crime, this approach ignores other options, like investing in civilian police capacity rather than replacing it with a militarized force.

Gustavo Flores-Macías is an associate professor of government at Cornell University and author of “After Neoliberalism? The Left and Economic Reforms in Latin America” (Oxford University Press 2012). Follow him on Twitter: @Gustavo_F_M.