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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Mexican president offers power, money to armed forces

ManDemocratic country Giving too much power to their armed forces could become less democratic. Mexico, which has never had a military dictatorship under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, may be taking that risk. In September, Congress voted to transfer control of the National Guard, created in 2019 to replace the federal police, from the security ministry to a defense ministry headed by a general. This month, the upper house of parliament agreed to extend the military’s duty to enforce law and order from 2024 to 2028.

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Mr. López Obrador, who has been president since 2018, has argued that soldiers should return to barracks. Now he has given them more power than any predecessor. He bet they would move faster and be less corrupt than bureaucrats.The army is welcome; its ranks are drawn from pueblo (ordinary people); many Mexicans praise it for its role in fighting drug lords.

But the Armed Forces are doing badly with their new missions. While the chances of the generals seizing political power are slim, their growing influence is dangerous. Mr. López Obrador, commonly known as anti money laundering organizationis empowering an agency that is difficult to control and whose interests may conflict with those of voters.

The role of the military in fighting crime has expanded the most. In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón deployed the armed forces to fight drug gangs, supposedly as a temporary measure. They have done so to an even greater extent under the leadership of Mr. López Obrador. Nearly 200,000 of the 240,000 active-duty troops, including members of the National Guard, were scattered across the country in September. That’s nearly four times the previous president’s highest average. The new law, which will be challenged in court as unconstitutional, could perpetuate the militarization of law enforcement.Abolition of the federal police force means the government’s civilian sector is being ‘cleansed’ [their] Luis Carlos Ugalde of Integralia Consulting Group said:

Worrying is the military’s new role in the economy, which brings with it a huge cash transfer.Mr López Obrador has handed over some 70 civilian functions to the armed forces, according to Mexico’s joint anti-crime organization non-governmental organization. They include operating ports, building tourist railroads, helping with social projects and removing sargassum (invasive algae) from beaches.

In 2006, the Department of Defense, which oversees the Army and Air Force but not the Navy, spent the ninth-highest budget among departments. By 2021, this number has risen to the fifth largest. Mr. López Obrador also provides the armed forces with a way to generate income. For example, they will get some revenue from the trains they operate and the airport, including the new aviation facility they are building in Mexico City.

Some generals encouraged this. Among the documents obtained by Guacamaya, a group of hackers, is a proposal drafted for the president by the military’s legal affairs division that provides two legislative avenues through which the National Guard could be reined in (one of which was later used). The hackers also revealed that the armed forces planned to operate a commercial airline, mainly flying to unserved destinations. It will use the presidential plane that Mr. López Obrador tried and failed to sell.

It makes sense for the military to fight gangs with military-grade weapons. “It’s unrealistic to expect municipal police to fight organized crime,” said Lillian Chapa-Colophon of the World Justice Project, a Washington think tank. But she said it was a mistake to abolish the federal police and leave the Defense Department with dealing with low-level crime.

Spending for the military to fight crime diverts funds from other security spending, such as those for civilian police forces and forensic experts, and at the expense of other vital services.Government cuts part of education budget gross domestic producteven as kids need to catch up on schoolwork they missed during the pandemic.

The growing wealth and influence of the military has strengthened the executive branch of government, but it can also weaken civilian leaders, including the president. This poses a threat to Mexico’s young democracy. The country held its first free elections in 2000 after 70 years of authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Mr López Obrador started his career). The military is accountable to the secretary of defense, who is an active-duty officer, and can invoke national security grounds to avoid scrutiny. Ms Chapa Koloffon said it was ill-suited to its many new responsibilities.

Mexico has become more violent since 2006. Some crimes, such as extortion, have skyrocketed. The same goes for complaints about human rights abuses by the military. Infrastructure projects have been delayed and cost far more than planned.

Some lawmakers are trying to soften the fallout from the military’s growing influence. The House of Lords amended a bill to extend the military’s presence on the streets, restoring funding for state and municipal police forces that lawmakers had earlier cut, though likely by small amounts. It voted to have Congress oversee the military’s public safety efforts, but it could be thin. The law must now go back to the House of Commons for approval.

Mr López Obrador clearly has no fear of military force. But a president who once wanted to have an army in his barracks risks creating one that needs a bigger voice in the corridors of power.

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