Mexico Under López Obrador: Six Years of Solitude, or Flexing Its Muscle at Sea?

June 13, 2019
Lopez Obrador

Four days into 2019, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called 1999 and asked for Mexico’s foreign policy back: He announced that his government would not join the Lima Group countries in condemning the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela, saying “I don’t get involved in other countries’ affairs,”  thus fulfilling a campaign promise that “foreign policy will obey the right of nations and the principle of non-intervention.” And yet, two weeks earlier, the Mexican Congress, controlled by López Obrador’s party, approved a nine percent hike in the combined defense budget, continuing a modernization trend that may soon give Mexico the ability to project influence and power in the region and around the globe. These examples represent two visions for the future of Mexico: One of Mexico in retreat, and the other of Mexico slowly, but surely, expanding its reach. What remains to be seen is whether and how López Obrador will seek to reconcile these two visions.

A Return to Retreat:  History of Mexico’s Estrada Doctrine

López Obrador has been clear about his intention to return to the Estrada Doctrine, Mexico’s foreign policy of “non-intervention” in the affairs of other countries. This doctrine began in 1931, when Mexico aimed to maintain neutrality in international disputes, with a philosophy of passing no judgment and joining no alliance. In practice, however, Mexico’s position toward foreign governments has always seemed to tilt left. Its leaders were early and ardent supporters of Fidel Castro, allowed Sandinista rebels to hide in Mexico, and criticized El Salvador’s human rights record. When Mexican governments were critical, that criticism was directed at authoritarian regimes on the right: Mexico broke relations with Gen. Francisco Franco’s Spain in 1936, with Chile in 1973 after Augustin Pinochet’s coup, and with Nicaragua in 1979 under the Somoza dictatorship.

The Estrada Doctrine, such as it was, began to dissolve in the late 1980s as Mexico withdrew its ambassador from Cuba in 1988 and President Ernesto Zedillo later criticized Cuba for its lack of democracy during a visit there in 1999. In 2000, the new “Castañeda” doctrine (named after the country’s new foreign minister) exemplified Mexico’s bolder outlook on world affairs. More recently, under President Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico contributed staff officers to U.N. peacekeeping missions, and, in 2017, became a founding member of the Lima Group, dedicated to addressing problems in Venezuela.

Now, López Obrador is looking to return his country to a more isolationist stance. For instance, despite record low prices for U.S. natural gas, which supplies over 60 percent of Mexican imports, he has become fixated on rebuilding Mexico’s state oil monopoly — with no outside help or money. At the end of 2018, López Obrador said that no foreign investment — for “strategic sovereignty reasons” — would be allowed in updating railways, ports, and refineries. He also announced a suspension of oil auctions in the Gulf of Mexico, and the cancellation of a new international airport in Mexico City. This is a return not so much to 1999 as it is to 1938, when Lazaro Cardenas banned foreign oil companies from Mexico and set the trajectory of Mexico’s isolation for most of the 20th century.

Mexico’s Growing Navy

Even as López Obrador seeks to reign Mexico in from the international stage, military leaders are continuing to build out the capabilities of their respective forces, looking ever outward. Mexico’s navy currently has 147 ships, most of which are relatively small patrol vessels. In November 2018, Mexico launched the ARM Reformador, the first of eight Long-Range Ocean Patrol 2,570-ton light frigates the navy plans to build. These SIGMA 10514 frigates will replace Mexico’s six aging ex-U.S. Navy frigates that were built in the 1960s and early 1970s. The SIGMA modular design began at a shipyard in the Netherlands and was completed at the Salina Cruz shipyard in Oaxaca, demonstrating Mexico’s domestic ship-building capabilities. With a range of over 5,000 nautical miles, the SIGMA frigates will extend Mexico’s blue-water capability. They will also carry U.S.-made Harpoon Block II surface-launched missiles, RAM missiles and Evolved Seasparrow tactical missiles, and MK-54 torpedoes, all of which require approval by U.S. export-control authorities, a sign of U.S. support and approval for Mexico’s naval expansion.

To augment the navy’s surface fleet, in early 2018 the Mexican government requested permission from the United States to purchase eight MH-60R helicopters at a cost of $1.2 billion. The sale was approved by the U.S. State Department in April 2018 and awaits congressional approval. Equipped with Hellfire missiles, rockets, torpedoes, and machine guns, the helicopters can perform anti-surface and anti-submarine missions, as well as search and rescue mission.

In its announcements recommending the sales, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency said the purchases would “provide enhanced capabilities in effective defense of critical sea lanes … increase the Mexican Navy’s maritime partnership potential and align its capabilities with existing regional navies.”

The long-distance patrol craft and helicopters also will improve the Mexican navy’s capability to interdict inbound shipments of cocaine and precursor chemicals for synthetic drugs. In 2018, Mexico’s navy seized approximately seven tons of cocaine and at least 90 tons of precursor chemicals, sometimes hundreds of miles at sea.

The navy has done more than just buy equipment, however. Along with the Secretariat of Defense, it has established intelligence “fusion centers” and a dedicated Naval Intelligence Unit. This has led to great participation by U.S. Marine infantry in combined U.S.-Mexico operations against high-value targets and has positioned the navy to be the closest and most reliable partner for the U.S. military.

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Military Expenditure Database

Despite his intention to pursue a neo-Estrada Doctrine, there are early indications that López Obrador may support the military’s modernization program. On Dec. 15, 2018, he presented his 2019 budget request: For the army and air force, he asked for 93.7 billion pesos (approximately 4.7 billion dollars), a 15 percent increase over 2018. However, the navy was slated to get 29.6 billion pesos (about 1.47 billion dollars), a decrease from 2018, but Mexico’s Congress approved 32.8 billion pesos (1.64 billion dollars), an increase of 5 percent from the previous year. To acquire new ships and aircraft, an initiative that began in the Peña Nieto administration, the navy plans on spending 191 million pesos, a 32 percent increase over similar acquisitions in 2018. The spending is part of a 1.8 billion peso, multi-year building effort that began in 2008 with the aim of adding 60 ships to the navy’s current 189-ship inventory, 14 of which were added during the Peña Nieto administration.



Modernization in Practice

What will Mexico do with its new navy? Seapower, as many countries have discovered over the centuries, is an effective way to project power and gain influence. In Mexico’s case, such power still would be circumscribed, and would be dependent on relatively few advanced ships (the majority of which are yet to be built), as well as a small number of compatible helicopters and support ships. Nevertheless, in the view of military strategists, there are several distinct missions that would become possible for a Mexican navy equipped with more advanced ships:

  • Expand the current patrol boundary well beyond Mexico’s Exclusive Economic Zone to North American sea lanes and approaches;
  • Deter hostile ships on the edge of its patrol perimeter;
  • Contribute modern warships to an international maritime task force in other areas of the globe;
  • Participate in search and rescue and humanitarian missions around the world; and
  • Contribute to international peace-keeping missions.

Mexico is already performing all of these types of missions to some extent. Although the joint U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative failed in its efforts to fight drugs and tame the cartels, it did succeed in building warm and cooperative relationships at all levels between the Mexican armed forces and their U.S. counterparts. From 2001 to 2008, Mexican military personnel participated fully in a grand total of two military exercises with the United States. In the next nine years, from 2009 to 2017, they took part in 46. This included naval exercises in the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico.

Mexico’s navy also has shadowed and detained illegal fishing vessels, helped identify and chase fast boats with Colombian cocaine, and performed almost 20,000 search and rescue missions over the last decade.

Given its ongoing modernization, Mexico’s navy may also play a bigger role in multilateral crisis resolution. Under the Peña Nieto administration, Mexico took its first steps towards joining international peacekeeping missions. In 2017, it contributed five staff officers to the U.N. stabilization mission in Haiti, four observers to the U.N. mission in the Western Sahara, and one official to Central Africa. For over a year, Mexico had 25 observers as part of the U.N. Special Political Mission in Colombia and added eight military personnel in December 2018. As the navy grows, this participation will only increase.

As far as the Mexican military is concerned, Mexico is in the peacekeeping business for the long haul. In November 2017, Secretary of Defense Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda and Secretary of the Navy Adm. Vidal Francisco Soberón Sanz attended the U.N. Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial in Vancouver, Canada. There they “reaffirmed their commitment to UN peacekeeping and discussed the importance of … capacity building, as well as improving rapid deployment in peace operations.”

Reconciling Two Visions of Mexico

So how are these two visions of Mexico’s role in the world to be resolved? The Mexico that López Obrador governs two decades into the 21st century is not the same as the Mexico he remembers from his early days as a left-wing activist in the 1970s. It is a country that has become more open to outside influences, including international trade, foreign investment, and global concerns. This is best exemplified in the growth and outward-looking stance of its military and navy. And yet, López Obrador retains a nostalgia for a simpler time when Mexico, ostensibly at least, could look inward and go it alone.

During his six-year term, López Obrador has an important choice to make. Continuing to strengthen the military and taking part in overseas multilateral missions with the United States is incongruous with a plan to craft a more inward-looking foreign policy. Will Mexico’s new president decide to ratchet down the internationalist ambitions of his military to match his return to diplomatic passivity and economic autarky? Or will he attempt to pursue both at the same time, quietly building a strategic security relationship with the United States, while speaking softly, if at all, about the world around him?

Much depends on the United States. López Obrador, surprisingly, has chosen to work with the Trump administration on managing the flow of Central American immigrants traveling through Mexico on their way to the U.S. southern border. It becomes much easier to imagine that he will allow the Mexican military to cooperate with the United States on most, if not all, elements of the original Merida Initiative package signed in 2007 by Presidents Felipe Calderon and George W. Bush. The military component of Merida enabled the two countries to share intelligence, enhance surveillance capabilities, train Mexico’s special operations troops, and provide Mexico with military-grade aircraft and tactical vehicles. López Obrador may decide that maintaining these programs will give him the latitude to strike a more left-leaning, nationalist pose on regional crises like Venezuela. This is a deal the United States is likely to accept.

History abounds in ironies. The election in the United States and Mexico of two of the most nationalistic leaders in recent memory does not appear to be leading to bitter antagonism between the two governments. Rather interestingly, the relationship has produced a series of sober trade-offs based on strategic interests, regardless of the personalities involved.



Richard Miles is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A former U.S. military officer and diplomat, he directed Mexican affairs on the staff of the National Security Council during the administration of President George W. Bush. 


Image: Mabel Lemoniel