“I Have Other Data”: The Guardia Nacional and the Entrenchment of Mexico’s Militarization
On July 5, 2021, journalist Jorge Ramos laid a scathing critique at the feet of Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In a morning press conference, Ramos accused the president of misleading the public by claiming Mexico was “a country at peace.” Ramos pointed to data collected throughout AMLO’s presidential term: The homicide rate in 2020 was 29 deaths per 100,000 citizens, a death-per-capita rate higher than at any point in Mexico’s recent history —despite AMLO’s declaration that the war on drugs was over, his pledge to remove the military from the streets, and his campaign promise to end violence through a series of social and economic reforms he marketed as “abrazos no balazos” (hugs, not bullets). In the wake of continually rising violence, Ramos bluntly said the data reflected that AMLO had not made good on his campaign rhetoric. Then he asked the president if abrazos no balazos was a proven failure.
AMLO somewhat dismissively replied, “I have other data.”
This exchange exemplifies the twilight zone of Mexico’s security realities and the rhetoric of its current president. It is difficult to argue that Mexico is at peace when the cartel of Sinaloa seized the state capital, Culiacán, in 2019 in order to ransom one of its captured leaders, Ovidio Guzman. It is difficult to argue that Mexico is at peace when 4,960 people disappeared in 2020 alone. And it is difficult to argue that Mexico is at peace when the burden of policing continues to rest upon the very agent AMLO pledged to remove from the streets: the military.
It is now widely understood that rather than make good on the promise to demilitarize Mexico’s internal security, AMLO has expanded the military’s power and presence through the elimination of civilian law enforcement and the construction of a “new” security force, the Guardia Nacional (National Guard). The guardia’s legal framework systematically prevents any civilian from entering into a leadership position, keeping the force thoroughly under the control of military officials. AMLO has secured his political legacy by replicating, not replacing, the armed forces — by militarizing the guardia at the expense of civilian law enforcement. This legacy will likely be a lasting one, entrenching the armed forces’ role in internal security, broadening its presence in public life, and making any nation-wide security reform more difficult for his potential successors.
“The People in Uniform”
AMLO is not the first Mexican president to use the armed forces for security at home. Mexican presidents deployed the military for internal repression during the 71-year one-party dictatorship of the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party. Deployment against cartels increased during the Reagan administration, when pressure from Washington prompted President Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988) to intensify military counter-cartel operations across Mexico. Vicente Fox (2000-2006), whose election represented a moment widely accepted as a key stage in Mexico’s democratization, deployed the military in 2005 to combat rising violence with Operacíon Mexico Seguro. His successor, Felipé Calderón (2006-2012), declared a “war on drugs” six days into his presidential term, and escalated the military’s presence across Mexico more than any president up to that point. And though Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) campaigned on ending the military’s involvement in policing, the practice continued throughout his presidency.
Indeed, there is a long-established precedent of Mexican presidents using the military to plug the gaps left by the absence or corruption of local and state law enforcement. Presidents have seemingly found it necessary, or at least beneficial, to use the army even to arrest and replace corrupt police forces. In the past, presidents have justified this practice by accusing governors and mayors (often in opposition parties) of being co-opted by criminal elements. Recent work by Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley demonstrates that the Calderón administration did not seek the cooperation of opposition governors when it decided to send troops to their states. The administration justified this by saying that the governors were untrustworthy, tied to the cartels, and in charge of corrupt state police forces who were themselves the enemy. Partisan discord throughout Mexico’s history has served as a point of distrust and therefore a justification for sending the military into states where the government believed civilian police and politicians had been corrupted — whether that corruption was real or imagined.
Although AMLO is therefore not unique in using the military for law enforcement and internal security, he is alone in having done so at the expense of pre-existing civilian law enforcement. Whereas other presidents have used the military to plug law enforcement gaps, AMLO created his own gap by eliminating Mexico’s largest civilian law enforcement agency: the federal police.
AMLO was sworn in on December 1, 2018, and proposed to eliminate the federal police by the end of 2019. Explaining this decision, he said, “Governments have spent 20 years trying to train the federal police, and it has not been possible, they are corrupt. The army instead is an institution that has more professionalism and antiquity.” This statement echoes those of past presidents justifying their decisions to replace supposedly corrupt police forces with the military. However, it also betrays a particular disdain for the federal police, based in part on AMLO’s contempt for Calderón, the force’s creator. After all, he lost to Calderón in 2006 in a notoriously close race, which he continues to insist was stolen. While never directly saying that the decision to dissolve the federal police was informed by this partisan feud, AMLO’s government has accused the former president of fomenting protests among police officers. As recently as 2020, AMLO himself blamed Calderón’s government for deficiencies in the federal police, pointing to the arrest of its first leader, Genaro García Luna, as evidence that the force was too corrupt and well beyond saving.
The president’s description of the army as an institution of “professionalism and antiquity” also betrays a favoritism which has only become more pronounced. He has fondly called the army “the people in uniform,” and has expanded its role in his infrastructure agendas. This includes charging the army with the construction of Mexico’s newest international airport and the much-touted “Tren Maya,” a railway system designed to connect population centers in the Yucatán peninsula.
While these projects serve as new sources of revenue for the army, the thorough militarization of the guardia nacional gives the military a more formal and pronounced role in internal security. What AMLO proposed as a smooth transition to a mixed military and civilian institution became a chaotic process in which the president gave greater influence and power to his favorite security force. The result was a guardia which was not only majority military in its composition, but also designed to legally bar any non-military commanders from serving in leadership positions.
“It’s a Platypus”
I was able to see the simultaneous elimination of the federal police and creation of the guardia unfold in real time. Both forces were present in Mexico City when I was conducting fieldwork there in 2019, though personnel from neither side seemed to know what their immediate future would look like. Troops from the guardia could readily be found protecting the gates of Los Pinos, the former presidential residence that AMLO converted to a public museum. Only a black armband with “GN” printed in white differentiated them from soldiers. Officials in federal police uniforms were also still on the streets, in theory part of the guardia — in fact, the guardia’s equipment, including its vehicles, still read “Policía Federal.”
Experts and retired officials were themselves confused about the guardia nacional. The force was nominally civilian, under the control of the Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection and its civilian minister, Alfonso Durazo. However, the force’s operational command fell to General Luis Rodríguez Bucio, an army leader, and every other commander also came from the military. Therefore, while the guardia was under the political supervision of a civilian secretary in theory, in practice the force was a hodge-podge of transferred marines and soldiers.
One civilian advisor to the former federal police expressed their frustration with the guardia’s composition by comparing it to a platypus, a comparison used by some elected officials and security experts in Mexico. “It’s a platypus,” they said, “a mammal that lays eggs. A military institution that’s ‘civilian.’ A ‘civilian’ institution under the control of the military.” Others were more direct, calling the guardia a “Frankenstein’s monster.” Both metaphors portray the guardia as an oddity, a transplant of military officials to a new agency where they would supposedly transform themselves into civilian law enforcement by donning a black armband.
Again, it would be misleading to suggest that AMLO is the first president to transfer soldiers to supposedly civilian institutions. President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) transferred marines and soldiers to the Federal Preventative Police (the predecessor to the federal police) in 1999. However, he did so in an environment where no nationwide civilian police force existed. AMLO’s decision to militarize the guardia so thoroughly is remarkable not only because it came at the expense of eliminating Mexico’s national police force, but because the laws governing the guardia made it extremely difficult for qualified civilians to join.
AMLO’s feud with his predecessors began to spill over into a very public clash between his government and the federal police personnel who did not want to join the guardia. When officers protested against being forced to join the guardia for fear of losing their benefits and ranks, AMLO accused them of mutiny. Durazo likewise attacked the legitimacy of the protestors and accused Calderón of being “the dark hand” behind the protests.
It was not only the uncertainty of their financial security which worried protesting officers, though, but also uncertainty what exactly their jobs as members of the guardia would entail. A common grievance I heard in multiple interviews and shouted publicly by protesting police officers was simple and succinct: “Soldiers do not want to police. Police do not want to be soldiers.” Professionals who entered law enforcement for the purpose of being police were wary of transferring to a force with soldiers, cognizant that their training, mission, and professional goals were not military in nature. They were likewise afraid of losing their ranks, and of being folded into an organization where they would be subordinated to military commanders. This fear proved to be prescient, as the guardia’s legal framework systematically prevented police officers from assuming any leadership role in the force.
Evaluating the New Force
Two years after the liquidation of the federal police, and halfway into AMLO’s presidential term, the guardia no longer seems to be a platypus. Any civilian façade is thoroughly undermined by its composition and legal framework.
The ley de la guardia lays out the requirements which individuals must meet to assume command positions in the new force, with commanders needing at least 20 years of experience in their previous security force. The federal police, however, was created in 2008. In 2019, when the law was passed, this meant that even if an official had been with the federal police for the entirety of its history, they would be unable to assume a command rank in the guardia.
Moreover, it’s not only the leadership that has come from the military. Recent data from Causa en Común, a group of academics and experts who study police and policing reform in Mexico, found that 76 percent of the guardia’s personnel come from the army or navy. Other reporting shows that most recent recruits come exclusively from the armed forces, and that 9 in 10 guardia members lack law enforcement training. The overwhelming influence and control of the armed forces over the guardia means there can no longer be any confusion as to its nature. It is not a civilian force. Nor is it even a “hybrid force,” described by political scientist David Pion-Berlin as a force “with military character and police sensibilities.” It is instead, quite plainly, a replication of the armed forces. Indeed, by advocating earlier this year that the guardia be transferred to the direct control of the army, AMLO admitted as much.
Though there can no longer be any confusion as to the nature of the guardia, its current missions and operations remain puzzling. Where it is deployed does not seem to indicate any cohesive logic: the force is absent in some of the most violent parts of the country and present in some of the most peaceful. If the guardia were to truly replace the army and navy in fighting organized crime, it would only make sense to deploy to it to zones where organized crime is most present. AMLO has also tasked the guardia with “recovering stolen cultural artifacts” and, critically, immigration. These missions have proven extremely problematic, as migrant deaths at the hands of guardia troops have drawn even more attention to and scrutiny of the force’s military nature.
This variety of missions — their appropriateness or inappropriateness aside — indicates that the guardia has no one single purpose. Its legal framework remains murky, and though the ley de la guardia proposed a 2024 deadline for the guardia to come under civilian control, it remains highly unlikely that such a transfer will occur. Though AMLO’s attempt to put the guardia under direct (as opposed to de facto) army command has been thwarted for now, it will be difficult to remove military influence from a body where every commander and the overwhelming majority of recruits come from the armed forces. It is therefore quite likely that it will fall to future presidents to define the nature and missions of the force.
Militarization in the Fourth Transformation
AMLO has referred to his presidency as Mexico’s “fourth transformation,” comparing it to other historical moments such as Mexico’s war for independence and its revolution. In his public rhetoric, he has attempted to demonstrate his transformative credentials by contrasting himself with his predecessors and promising to be a stark departure from their legacies. Still, at the same press conference where Ramos asked if AMLO’s approach was a failure, the journalist told the president in no uncertain terms that the promise to demilitarize the guardia had indeed failed. Though the guardia has now abandoned its green camouflage and black armbands for more distinctive grey uniforms, it remains a thoroughly military force.
AMLO has indeed represented a departure from his predecessors, but not in the way he promised. Instead, he has increased the presence of the armed forces, and has done so by creating a new, if unofficial, branch of the military. Regardless of any other data the president may have, the reality is that militarization has become entrenched under his command. As the role of the armed forces has been expanded and formalized, AMLO has made it more difficult for any potential successor to work their way out of Mexico’s militarization trap. AMLO’s government, and indeed subsequent governments, will consequently need to rely more, not less, on the armed forces.
Andrew Ivey is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California Riverside’s Department of Political Science. His book project, “As the Guns Turn Inward: Civilian Management of Internal Conflict,” examines the dynamics among democratic governments, the military, and police forces in Colombia and Mexico. His published research has appeared in Democratization and Defense and Security.
Photo courtesy of Sitio Oficial de Andrés Manuel López Obrador