Mexico’s president vowed to end the drug war. Instead he’s doubled the number of troops in the streets

After cartels unleashed a wave of violence across Mexico last week, killing civilians, blocking roads with burning vehicles and torching dozens of businesses, the government here, as it so often does, responded to an outbreak of lawlessness by sending in troops.

The thousands of Soldiers and National Guard members who have arrived in the cities of Tijuana, Juarez and Guadalajara over the past few days appeared poised for battle, with helmets, ghillie suits and assault rifles strapped over their ballistic vests.

It was a reminder not only of the ongoing security crisis gripping this nation, but also of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s failed promise to pull soldiers off the streets.

A Mexican soldier

A Mexican soldier patrols outside the rural church where two Jesuit priests were killed earlier this year.

(Christian Chávez / Associated Press)

As a candidate, López Obrador vowed a radical break with the militarized security strategy of his predecessors, whom he accused of turning Mexico “into a graveyard.”

He floated the idea of ​​legalizing drugs and amnesty for criminals, promising to lift up poor communities with “hugs, not bullets.” He insisted soldiers “do not solve anything” and repeatedly vowed to “bring the army back to barracks”.

But since taking office nearly four years ago, López Obrador has championed the armed forces with unprecedented passion, expanding many of the policies he once challenged.

More than 200,000 federal troops are stationed across Mexico — more than double the number at any point since the country began its war on drug traffickers 16 years ago.

This includes members of an expanded military and navy, as well as more than 92,000 members of the National Guard, a new force created by López Obrador that is being trained by the Army and made up mostly of ex-servicemen.

The president initially pledged to keep the National Guard under civilian rule and completely remove the army from the streets by the end of his term in 2024.

Now he says he plans to place the National Guard under the control of the armed forces – and order the armed forces to be allowed to continue their policing role indefinitely.

Derided by lawmakers as unconstitutional, his proposal reignited a long-running debate over whether the military, a force designed to fight foreign armies, should be used to fight domestic crime.

Security experts, human rights activists, and many officials agree that federal troops are simply not cut out for a job that requires intimate knowledge of local communities and training in investigation and crime prevention.

Evidence markers near a corpse lying on a road

The scene of a murder in Tijuana.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

To make their point, they point to the rising death toll in the years since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón first called on the military to help fight drug cartels — an arrangement he says only be temporary.

10,452 people were killed in Mexico that year.

Homicides now top 35,000 a year. Another 30,000 people went missing during López Obrador’s tenure alone.

Entire industries here are now dominated by organized crime, and a US military official recently estimated that a third of Mexico is “ungoverned territory” where criminal groups operate with impunity.

“We have decades of accumulated evidence that militarizing public security is not solving Mexico’s violence problem,” said Stephanie Brewer, security and human rights expert at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “It’s unrealistic to expect the same thing to get different results.”

Brewer and others have long insisted that peace in Mexico depends on reforming the country’s corrupt police force and reducing impunity by teaching prosecutors how to properly investigate crimes. The US government agrees and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on military and police training programs.

But López Obrador has cut police budgets. He also disbanded the federal police force, which had been dogged by allegations that the authorities were colluding with the criminals they were tasked with fighting.

A military parade

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador rides past troops during a military parade in Mexico City, 2021.

(Fernando Llano/Associated Press)

Instead of trying to reform law enforcement, López Obrador put his faith in the army and navy — which are consistently ranked as two of the nation’s most trusted institutions.

Traditionally, the military has played a limited role in public security and civil affairs here, distinguishing Mexico from other parts of Latin America that have suffered coups and military rule.

Under an agreement established eight decades ago by the then-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, the military was left to its own devices as long as it did not interfere in the governance of the country. Without wars, the troops attracted little public attention.

In addition to giving the armed forces policing responsibilities, López Obrador has expanded their responsibilities well beyond security, giving them control of civilian tasks.

Troops are now leading the fight against illegal immigration, the COVID-19 pandemic and the theft of fuel from gas pipelines. They direct the country’s largest infrastructure projects – including the construction of an airport and a major train line – and control the country’s ports and border crossings.

The newfound alliance between the president and the armed forces has fueled speculation and fears about his motives. Some say López Obrador needs the military because he has alienated many of the country’s traditional rulers – including the business elite and opposition parties who have strong ties to public sector unions.

Others fear he is consolidating his power before potentially trying to remain in office after his term is up.

“Why does he insist on giving the army more and more responsibility?” said security expert Ernesto López Portillo. “What does the President want after 2024?”

López Obrador, who denies he intends to violate the constitution by serving more than a six-year term, says he turned to the army because it is one of the most efficient and least corrupt branches of government in Mexico.

Human rights advocates worry about possible cases of abuse.

Misconduct in the armed forces – including killings, enforced disappearances and torture – is usually investigated by the military institutions themselves, rather than by civilian prosecutors, and rarely leads to punishment.

There are indications that the forces under López Obrador have embarked on a new, less aggressive course. While the military once confronted organized crime head-on, sometimes killing bystanders in gunfights, today’s troops seem more focused on street patrol than cartel warfare.

In the state of Michoacan, for example, locals have complained that the army is merely acting as a buffer between criminal groups rather than directly challenging them.

Data shows that troops have been involved in fewer shootings than under the previous two presidents and have seized fewer guns – perhaps a sign that the president’s “hugs, not bullets” rhetoric has leaked out to troops on the ground.

Nonetheless, since López Obrador took office, hundreds of people have lodged complaints about the armed forces with the National Commission on Human Rights. There have been high-profile cases where troops appeared to act with deliberation, including one in which a member of the National Guard killed a 19-year-old university student.

Even with homicides near all-time highs and regular outbreaks of violence like last week, López Obrador and the armed forces maintain high approval ratings.

It may seem paradoxical, but it’s not, said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at Mexico City’s CIDE public research institute.

“In times of uncertainty, in times of fear, institutions built around the image of discipline become a place people run to,” he said. “People are more attracted to solutions of order than to solutions of justice.”

He said he felt discouraged.

“We’ve been here 15 years and it’s disheartening to feel that we’ve dug ourselves into such a deep hole and we still say, you know, our only chance is to keep digging,” he said.

Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez from the Times Mexico City bureau contributed to this report. Mexico’s president vowed to end the drug war. Instead he’s doubled the number of troops in the streets

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