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Mexico’s Man of the People Turns to the Military
“With regard to the repression of ’68, it appears the Estado Mayor Presidencial was used,” said Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Sept. 29, just days before the 50th anniversary of the Oct. 2, 1968 massacre at the Plaza de Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, during which at least several hundred civilians—mainly students—were killed. Left-wing Lopez Obrador then announced that he would not use the military in the fight against organized crime, and that he would instead create a national guard, comprising members of the army, navy, and federal police. He announced that he would disband the Estado Mayor Presidencial entirely and place its officers under the direction of the Department of Defense. Lopez Obrador also pledged to get rid of the CISEN, Mexico’s civilian-led spy agency. “There will be no spying,” he said.
So far, Lopez Obrador has kept his word—at least with regard to the Estado Mayor Presidencial. On Dec. 1, the elite unit quietly disappeared. Originally formed to protect the president after Francisco Madero was assassinated in 1913, the Estado Mayor Presidencial has largely played a symbolic role, dealing with presidential security and logistics. But its role during Tlatelolco (former chief of the Estado Mayor Luis Gutierrez Oropeza shouldered the blame for positioning snipers on the rooftops until his death in 2007) gave it a sinister reputation in a country where the armed forces have historically been repressive and secretive, and responsible for some of the country’s worst offenses against political opposition. The Estado Mayor Presidencial was an “army unit charged with presidential security, so [this] is an advance in legality and human rights,” says Laura Carlsen, the Mexico-City based director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy.
Contrary to his campaign pledges, Lopez Obrador appears to be planning to use the military and the new national guard in much the same way as his predecessors. The day after his inauguration, he oversaw a ceremony at the national military HQ, the Campo Marte in Mexico City, and praised the troops. “Together, we’ll make history!” he said, repeating his campaign slogan, before emphasizing the need for both a national guard and the armed forces to bring peace to the Mexican people. A law passed by Congress in late 2017 which granted a broader role for the military in the war on drug trafficking but also called for more accountability and transparency, has been shot down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Some rights groups and critics argued that this would give Lopez Obrador an opportunity to come up with a plan to withdraw the army from the drug fight, but he has yet to seriously acknowledge such requests, and so far, has indicated that the military will remain in the forefront of the fight against crime. The plan for the National Guard does not appear to be different in principle to the so-called unified command, or mando unico, implemented by predecessors Felipe Calderon and Enrique Pena Nieto.
Lopez Obrador’s idea has already been met with resistance from within his own party; Carlsen says the proposal is simply “the new form of attempting to legalize the participation of the armed forces in the drug war.” The much-touted mando unico was criticized by some of those involved because the federal police didn’t trust their local, less well-trained and more easily corrupted counterparts, and neither liked working under military oversight. In addition, agents vetted and trained by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents were forced to work in the same offices as their sometimes-corrupt counterparts.
The Importance of El Norte
Lopez Obrador will remain highly reliant on U.S. support, both financial and material, as well as moral. According to an October report from the Congressional Research Service, the Trump administration has reduced its annual request for Merida Initiative funds to $76.3 million, a 35 percent decline from 2017’s spending. Merida Initiative money, notes author and Latin American affairs specialist Clare Seelke, constitutes a mere two percent of Mexico’s $10 billion annual security budget, but the allotments “have enabled the U.S. government to help shape Mexico’s security policy.” Seelke notes that three high-level cabinet meetings between the two nations since Trump took office, not to mention Trump’s own executive orders, “have refocused the Mérida Initiative” toward the opioid epidemic, border interdiction, forensic evidence training and money laundering.
Trump’s provocative rhetoric toward Mexico thus far—his talk about a border wall, in particular—will likely remain the biggest hindrance to bilateral cooperation; counter-drug officials and experts on both sides of the border consider a wall a pointless endeavor, given that most drugs are trafficked through legal ports of entry. But Lopez Obrador’s budget increase for the army—standard practice, according to Mexico military expert Rodrigo Ai Camp—has been interpreted by some as a slight. “The concern is that he’s embracing the army,” says one former U.S. counter-drug official based in Washington who maintains contact with colleagues in Mexico and has expressed doubts about the army’s trustworthiness. (He asked not to be named because he no longer speaks in an official capacity.) “The [Mexican] navy is by far the most professional, least corrupt [security force.] You can’t buy them.” Indeed, recent successes in the drug war have been the result of cooperation with the marines and navy, with the army reduced to patrols and seizure of drug plantations rather than special ops that rely on US-fed intelligence.
Pressure from the U.S. side of the border is already mounting for Lopez Obrador to act against the ever-violent cartels. Derek Maltz, a former DEA special agent and major proponent of the idea of narco-terrorism (a statute introduced in the U.S. during the Bush administration), has repeatedly tweeted that some recent cartel attacks in Mexico—including a grenade attack on the US Consulate the day before Lopez Obrador’s inauguration—need to be considered terrorism. Mike Vigil, a former Chief of International Operations of the DEA who worked in Mexico twice during his career, believes drug trafficking should now be considered “the most virulent form of terrorism in large part because of the violence that is associated with it.”
Lopez Obrador will be armed with surveillance technologies, drones and even laws that his predecessors have not had. Just months before leaving office, President Barack Obama signed the Transnational Drug Trafficking Act 2015, which allows for the arrest of anyone in a country with a U.S.-extradition treaty of trafficking drugs that “may” end up in the United States. This would allow US authorities and their Mexican counterparts to make sweeping arrests in border cities like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana (DEA agents do not have the license to make arrests on Mexican soil) and extradite them to U.S. courts. Shortly after the signing of the law, DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson said the DEA would continue to target upper-tier suspects rather than using the law to nab low-level operatives or target would-be criminals. He admitted that couriers might get caught up in the web—“but only because [the cartels] used that guy to bring it in. That’s not the focus, or the target.” Article 139 of the Mexican federal penal code clearly defines terrorism in the conventional sense (use of chemical or nuclear weapons, for instance) but an emphasis on narco-terrorism by U.S. officials could result in Patriot Act statutes being used for cases in which traffickers who use grenades or other explosives—or even simply threaten to use them—are extradited north of the border.
Lopez Obrador will also, of course, face drug traffickers who enjoy some of the same technological tools, especially drones, which drug cartels are using and some U.S. intelligence analysts have told Congress are “a very serious, looming threat that we are currently unprepared to confront.”
The Possibilities of Power
For Lopez Obrador, the military may be more than just a means of fighting the drug war, according to one former official from the Calderon administration, who asked not to be named: “The army is pueblo,” he says. “It is the one institution in Mexico where a poor, dark-skinned man can rise to the top through effort, brains and determination.”
“Do not be fooled: what we are witnessing in Mexico is a bloodless revolution,” he says. “It is the culmination of three generations of political struggle that the mainstream media has ignored. The grandchildren of the 60s and 70s have finally taken control… The army is key. And the first thing a revolutionary does is give the army a big pay hike!”
“The [critics] who were writing about Calderon militarizing the drug war have now got what they deserved,” he adds, “A left-wing government that is using the military as its only tool in tackling crime.”
As yet, there are no real indications that Lopez Obrador will abuse his powers or those of the military. His security cabinet appointees appear to come from across the spectrum, with a wealth of experience between them. Alfonso Durazo Montano, who has worked for both Mexico’s PRI and PAN parties (Lopez Obrador was a member of the left-wing PRD before creating his own party, Moreno), will head a new incarnation of the SSP, which once supervised the federal police but was basically disbanded in 2013 after the tenure of Genaro Garcia Luna. Audomaro Martinez Zapata, a retired general who was stationed in the state of Tabasco when Lopez Obrador, a Tabasqueno, got his start in politics, has been named to his security council. Manuel Mondragon y Kalb, a former Mexico City and national police chief, is on the list; Jose Manuel Solano Ochoa, a former vice-admiral in the navy, will have a seat, as will Marcos Fastlich Stackler, a founder of the movie theater complex Cinemex who previously served as president of the Attorneys General’s National Council for Citizen Participation. Alejandro Gertz Manero, who served as Mexico City police chief prior to Lopez Obrador’s tenure as the capital’s mayor and was also the first head of the SSP has been named attorney general. (In 2011, Garcia Luna, after years of denying corruption allegations himself, accused Gertz Manero of ruining the SSP and allowing drug lord Joaquin El Chapo Guzman Loera to escape from prison on his watch.) Former congresswoman Loretta Ortiz Ahif, a lawyer, human rights advocate and member of Morena, is the last name reported to be in the inner security circle.
The future of the CISEN remains to be seen. The spy agency that in 1989 replaced the highly corrupt and politicized DFS, has played a key role in major US-backed, intelligence-driven counter-drug operations in recent years but has also been used as a political instrument throughout its history. Prior to his inauguration, Lopez Obrador called for an end to wiretaps and state surveillance, but also for the creation of a National Intelligence Agency; Durazo has said that this new intel agency will be under his supervision, at the SSP. Former DEA chief Vigil, who believes the CISEN “evolved” from its early days to become a trustworthy, full-fledged partner in the war against the drug cartels, says he sees no problems with putting its operatives under the oversight of a new SSP. “It will create a mosaic,” he says.