A Mexican service member stands at the gate of a Mexico City military base that has been decorated for Christmas. Under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, troops have taken on expanded tasks well beyond their bases. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
A Mexican service member stands at the gate of a Mexico City military base that has been decorated for Christmas. Under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, troops have taken on expanded tasks well beyond their bases. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

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MEXICO CITY — When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office, his senior aides were blunt. Mexico’s security system was “in ruins,” they warned. Homicides were at record highs. Local police forces were infiltrated by crime groups. Tens of thousands of people had been forcibly disappeared. The country, they concluded in an analysis sent to the national Congress, had been “transformed into a cemetery.”

López Obrador, an icon of the Mexican left, was a longtime critic of the U.S.-backed war on drugs. “Soldiers should be returned to the barracks,” he had insisted. But confronted with the highest levels of violence in 60 years, he responded as his predecessors had: He called on the military.

Two years into López Obrador’s term, Mexico’s armed forces have assumed a broader role in the country’s affairs than at any point since the end of military-led government in the 1940s. The government has deployed record numbers of troops to deal with the deteriorating security situation. They’re patrolling cities, raiding drug labs and protecting strategic installations. But it doesn’t stop there. The military is increasingly the president’s go-to force for tasks previously managed by civilian agencies, from running ports to repairing hospitals to building airports.

Members of the Mexican military load medical supplies onto a covid-19 air ambulance in August at Mexico City International Airport. (Jeoffrey Guillemard/Bloomberg News)
Members of the Mexican military load medical supplies onto a covid-19 air ambulance in August at Mexico City International Airport. (Jeoffrey Guillemard/Bloomberg News)

The army is now at the center of one of the biggest crises in U.S.-Mexico relations in recent years. Stung by the U.S. arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister for allegedly aiding a drug cartel, the Mexican Congress on Tuesday passed a bill that is likely to hamstring cooperation on narcotics trafficking and other criminal matters. López Obrador proposed the legislation.

[U.S. judge drops drug charges against former Mexican defense minister]

The rift shows how U.S. authorities underestimated the increasingly important role played by Mexico’s military. What looked like justice to American prosecutors was perceived in Mexico as undermining an ally. The dramatic arrest of Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles alarmed a wide array of politicians, who worried that American drug agents were reaching deep into Mexican institutions — and perhaps tapping their own phones. The case also underscores how difficult it is for U.S. law enforcement agencies to find trustworthy partners.

Under pressure from Mexico, the United States backed down by releasing Cienfuegos, but that has not quelled the fury.

“They didn’t measure the power of the Mexican army,” said Catalina Pérez Correa, who studies drug policy at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, then Mexico's defense minister, speaks at a 2018 event in Mexico City. The general was arrested in October in Los Angeles on drug trafficking charges.
Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, then Mexico's defense minister, speaks at a 2018 event in Mexico City. The general was arrested in October in Los Angeles on drug trafficking charges.
In this sketch, Cienfuegos appears in federal court in Los Angeles on Oct. 16. After pushback from the Mexican government, U.S. Justice Department officials abandoned the prosecution and the general was returned to Mexico.
In this sketch, Cienfuegos appears in federal court in Los Angeles on Oct. 16. After pushback from the Mexican government, U.S. Justice Department officials abandoned the prosecution and the general was returned to Mexico.

Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, then Mexico's defense minister, speaks at a 2018 event in Mexico City. The general was arrested in October in Los Angeles on drug trafficking charges. (Lujan Agusti/Bloomberg) In this sketch, Cienfuegos appears in federal court in Los Angeles on Oct. 16. After pushback from the Mexican government, U.S. Justice Department officials abandoned the prosecution and the general was returned to Mexico. (Bill Robles/AP)

Well before the Cienfuegos case, civic groups and security analysts were raising concerns about the effect of the military’s expanding influence on Mexico’s young democracy.

“The question we have to ask is, as their role continually grows, whether the armed forces will eventually have more power than the president,” said Ernesto López Portillo, head of the citizen security program at Ibero-American University.

The militarization presents a host of risks: Analysts fear civilian oversight will diminish as more government activities are shifted to the armed forces. Soldiers trained to use overwhelming force against an enemy are regularly accused of human rights violations.

Perhaps most important, the dependence on the military is unlikely to solve Mexico’s most urgent problem: crime groups that are increasingly gaining control over the country’s territory and unleashing extreme violence. While leaders are relying on the armed forces, they’re not as focused on developing professional police forces or effective legal systems.

Mexico’s militarized security strategy dates back 14 years, to when President Felipe Calderón sent soldiers into the streets to confront drug cartels. Authorities at the time described it as a stopgap measure until the country could build up civilian security forces.

Since 2006, the Defense Ministry’s budget has doubled, to around $5.6 billion. But the police and justice systems remain ineffectual and riddled with graft. The national police, once intended to be a sort of Mexican FBI, were infiltrated by drug cartels; López Obrador replaced the force with a new national guard, with members drawn largely from the military.

Neighbors watch as members of the military arrive at the scene of an August shooting in the city of Zacatecas. Homicides in Mexico have risen to record levels during López Obrador’s presidency.

A display in Mexico City protests the disappearance of 43 students from the town of Ayotzinapa in 2014. A special prosecutor has tied local and federal police, military officers and a former justice official to the disappearances.

A national guard car drives by a cardboard cutout simulating a patrol surveilling a highway. López Obrador has built his national security program around the armed forces and Mexico's new national guard.

(Photos by Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

Yet critics say the armed forces are ineffective at reducing violence. The major drug cartels that once dominated crime in Mexico have splintered into more than 200 armed groups, by some estimates, and have diversified into new crimes. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have moved to flee robberies, kidnappings and extortion.

Mexican officials say they have no choice but to make the military the pillar of their security policy. It’s the only institution, they say, with the discipline and training to take on the country’s dangerous criminal groups.

“It would have taken years to build a civilian police force,” said a senior Mexican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “We had to address an emergency immediately.”

[Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel blazes a bloody trail in rise to power]

The U.S. government has had a mixed relationship with Mexico’s military and law enforcement agencies. Washington has spent tens of millions of dollars on training and technical assistance for Mexican police and legal personnel in recent years. While there have been some advances, the impact of the aid “remains unclear,” the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, a bipartisan entity chartered by the U.S. Congress, reported this month. In the absence of reliable civilian partners, U.S. agents have worked particularly closely with the navy, regarded as more efficient than other forces in capturing drug kingpins. Some say that’s contributed to a vicious cycle in which the military becomes ever more dominant in security and civilian institutions lag.

An aerial view of a Mexican navy ship that collects seaweed along the shores of Cancún. Among the other tasks Mexico's armed forces have taken on: fighting fuel theft and refurbishing hospitals for covid-19 patients. (Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)
An aerial view of a Mexican navy ship that collects seaweed along the shores of Cancún. Among the other tasks Mexico's armed forces have taken on: fighting fuel theft and refurbishing hospitals for covid-19 patients. (Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)

Unlike in other Latin American countries, the generals in Mexico have shown little interest in holding political office or dictating policy. Almost no one here fears a military coup. In the Cienfuegos matter, López Obrador originally pledged to investigate anyone named in the case. Facing an uproar from the generals, he soon changed course and began to question the validity of the prosecution. There was no table-pounding showdown with López Obrador, said one of the president’s aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal affairs. “It wasn’t that explicit,” the aide said. “But he understood their unhappiness.”

Under an arrangement that has held for decades, the armed forces have remained loyal in exchange for being allowed to run their own affairs. They don’t answer to a civilian defense minister. Congressional oversight is weak. Few troops accused of crimes or human rights violations are convicted.

Analysts worry that the military could begin to flex its muscles — wresting control of security policy from civilian leaders or starting to speak out on political matters. Meanwhile, as the institution plays a greater role in Mexican life, it is increasingly exposed to corruption by drug cartels and other forces.

The Cienfuegos case “will strengthen them much more,” Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst in Mexico City, said of the armed forces. “If they see that by lobbying President López Obrador, even the Americans give in and ultimately hand over the defense secretary, they will say ‘Okay!’ There’s complete impunity.”

The Mexican left has been suspicious of the military since the 1960s, when it was called out to suppress demonstrations. Even after López Obrador won the presidency in 2018, he was ambivalent about one of the country’s most venerated institutions: “If it were up to me,” he said, “I’d get rid of the army.”

But he had long viewed the military as less corrupt than the police. After López Obrador’s election, the senior Mexican official said, “we saw the reality: that the police in Mexico are infiltrated” by organized crime.

Members of Mexico's national guard arrive for a 2019 ceremony in Mexico City. The guard is part of the civilian-led Public Security Ministry, but the Defense Ministry has been given day-to-day operational control. (Luis Antonio Rojas/Bloomberg News)
Members of Mexico's national guard arrive for a 2019 ceremony in Mexico City. The guard is part of the civilian-led Public Security Ministry, but the Defense Ministry has been given day-to-day operational control. (Luis Antonio Rojas/Bloomberg News)

López Obrador built his national security plans around the armed forces and the new national guard, which would provide a security presence across the country.

Unlike the U.S. National Guard, Mexico’s force was to have “a civilian character,” according to the constitutional amendment that authorized it. The reality has fallen short of the aspiration. Today, at least 70 percent of guard members are military police transferred from the army and navy. The armed forces have supplied the commanders and the training. The guard is part of the civilian-led Public Security Ministry, but in October, the Defense Ministry was given day-to-day operational control.

[Disappearances in Mexico rose during López Obrador’s first year]

“Really the national guard is the military, disguised as nonmilitary,” said María Elena Morera, president of the Mexican security watchdog group Common Cause.

Mexican officials say they were compelled to dissolve the national police — once a centerpiece of the effort to create civilian law enforcement institutions — because the force was deeply corrupt. Under Calderón, it more than tripled in size, to 37,000 members, and benefited from tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid.

But the architect of that expansion, then-Public Security Minister Genaro García Luna, was arrested by the United States a year ago. Prosecutors say he aided the Sinaloa cartel from 2001 to 2012, when he held senior positions in the Mexican government.

“Imagine the conditions in which we received the institutions responsible for fighting organized crime," Alfonso Durazo, López Obrador’s first public security minister, told The Washington Post earlier this year. "The public security minister himself was the one who provided protection” to the traffickers. Durazo has since resigned to run for governor of Sonora state.

A member of the national guard inspects a truck this month while drivers stand by at a highway checkpoint in Contepec, Michoacán state. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
A member of the national guard inspects a truck this month while drivers stand by at a highway checkpoint in Contepec, Michoacán state. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

U.S. counterdrug officials have inadvertently contributed to the reliance on the military, analysts say. They work largely with Mexico’s marines in small vetted units or at fusion centers where intelligence is shared. There’s also cooperation with the army, which handles larger-scale operations such as eradicating opium poppies, destroying fentanyl labs and manning checkpoints along drug routes.

There is a “self-reinforcing mechanism,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States. “Every time you’ve got to call in the 7th Cavalry, it’s the armed forces, to the detriment of building civilian capacities via a federal police force” or strengthening the justice system.

Under López Obrador, the number of soldiers involved in domestic operations has increased by around 20 percent, to nearly 66,000 on average during the first half of 2020, according to Samuel Storr, a consultant to the citizen security program at Ibero-American University. There’s been a 75 percent jump in navy personnel deployed domestically, to 27,000, he said. Some of the forces’ increase was in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, there are now about 100,000 national guard members stationed around the country, a force nearly triple the size of the disbanded national police.

López Obrador has broadened the mandate of the armed forces considerably. They have been tasked with fighting rampant fuel theft and refurbishing hospitals to treat covid-19 patients. Former military leaders now run the federal migration offices in more than half of Mexico’s 32 states, according to the National Human Rights Commission.

The armed forces are also in charge of many of the president’s signature infrastructure projects.

López Obrador speaks at the construction site of Mexico City's new airport at Santa Lucía Air Force Base outside the capital. The military is in charge of the project and will run Felipe Ángeles International Airport when it is complete.

Members of the national guard transport medications this month in Mexico City.

A Mexican navy helicopter takes part in a July 2019 operation to spot seaweed along the coast of Playa del Carmen, on the Yucatán Peninsula.

(Luis Antonio Rojas/Bloomberg News )

(Luis Antonia Rojas for The Washington Post)

(Alejandro Cegarra for The Washington Post)

“The Defense Ministry has more contracts than the biggest construction companies in the country,” said Eduardo Ramírez Leal, leader of an association of 12,000 construction businesses. Aides say López Obrador believes the military works faster and is less corrupt than private firms.

While the government has slashed most departments’ budgets because of the recession, the Defense Ministry got a 20 percent boost for 2021. Much of it is for building the airport outside the capital, which it will also operate.

Military leaders emphasize that they are simply obeying orders. “It’s evident that we are not seeking power, because we depend on the executive branch and we are subordinate to its authority,” said Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval, a general.

But civic groups and security experts warn that López Obrador’s reliance on the troops could threaten Mexico’s civilian-military balance. An opaque, insular institution is assuming more control over government activities, potentially resulting in less scrutiny, they say. “It’s as though the civilian part of the Mexican state didn’t exist in some areas,” said Raúl Benítez, a security analyst who teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Mexican military officers “certainly pride themselves on very loyal subordination to civilian authority,” said Craig Deare, a former Pentagon official who teaches at the National Defense University in Washington. But the military doesn’t answer to a civilian defense minister or strong congressional oversight committees. “It’s really only one guy” the armed forces respond to, said Deare — the president.

Mexican service members walk through traffic this month outside a military base in Mexico City. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
Mexican service members walk through traffic this month outside a military base in Mexico City. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

López Obrador often refers to the military as “the Mexican people, in uniform.” The armed forces draw heavily from the lower classes; while the work is relatively low paid, it is steady and offers health benefits. Yet soldiers and marines are trained for combat, not law enforcement. The number of alleged abuses by Defense Ministry personnel reported to the National Human Rights Commission has declined in recent years, but still averages one a day.

The military has signaled it is aware of the problem. On Dec. 11, Sandoval signed an agreement with the head of the Human Rights Commission to work together more closely and improve soldiers’ training.

For all López Obrador’s reliance on the troops, his relationship with the brass remains uneasy. The president has frequently urged restraint in pursuing crime groups, saying, “We’re not going to declare war.” In October 2019, the military arrested the son of former drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in the northwestern city of Culiacán. When Sinaloa cartel gunmen took over the city, López Obrador ordered him released.

Army officers rarely criticize the president openly. But after that incident, a retired general broke the taboo. In a speech at the Defense Ministry, Gen. Carlos Gaytán said the military’s values “clash with the way in which the country is being run these days.” It caused such an uproar that López Obrador declared his supporters would not stand for a coup.

At that moment, unbeknown to Mexican officials, U.S. prosecutors in New York were watching Cienfuegos. They had secured a sealed indictment alleging that while serving as defense minister from 2012 to 2018, he had pocketed bribes from the H-2 cartel. In exchange, he allegedly helped it ship thousands of kilos of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines to the United States.

When the general flew into Los Angeles on Oct. 15, the prosecutors had no idea of the crisis that was about to erupt.

“With Cienfuegos, they crossed a red line,” said a Mexican analyst close to the military, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect its thinking.

People demonstrate last month outside the U.S. courthouse in Brooklyn over the decision to drop drug trafficking charges against Cienfuegos. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
People demonstrate last month outside the U.S. courthouse in Brooklyn over the decision to drop drug trafficking charges against Cienfuegos. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

López Obrador initially distanced himself from the general. He said he couldn’t judge the case against Cienfuegos, but he linked it to the corruption of past governments. Some of his leftist allies began tweeting about Cienfuegos with the hashtag #narcogeneral.

The reaction was swift.

[Former Mexican anti-drug official charged with taking bribes from ‘El Chapo’ cartel]

“The palpable level of anger and discomfort, particularly within Sedena, is something I had not seen there before,” said Sarukhan, the former ambassador, using the Spanish-language acronym for the Defense Ministry. Benítez, the security analyst, said some officers spoke of returning to their barracks and refusing to carry out orders from López Obrador.

The irritation was particularly strong among Cienfuegos’s colleagues still in senior positions in the military. Media speculation on who might be implicated next fed the alarm in the army.

It wasn’t the first time the United States had accused a senior Mexican official of drug trafficking. A year ago, U.S. authorities arrested García Luna in Texas. (Mexico asked the United States this month to extradite García Luna after his U.S. case is finished.)

Nor was Cienfuegos the first military commander to fall under suspicion. In 1997, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, head of the country’s civilian anti-drug agency, was convicted of working with the Juárez cartel. But never had a former defense minister been indicted.

U.S. officials have long struggled with corruption in Mexico’s security forces. They say they try to work with vetted units and share intelligence carefully. But it can be difficult to tell when a Mexican partner is on a cartel’s payroll. Many Mexican officials aren’t subject to extensive background checks. Weeks before Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested, U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey called him “a guy of absolute unquestioned integrity.”

Many in the Mexican military found it hard to believe Cienfuegos was guilty. García Luna was dogged by media reports of alleged corruption while in office; Cienfuegos was not. (Both men have maintained their innocence). Mexicans questioned the heft of a case built largely on intercepted BlackBerry messages between traffickers and a shadowy figure known as “The Godfather” — said to be Cienfuegos.

Soldiers salute Cienfuegos, then Mexico's defense minister, in April 2016 at a military camp in Mexico City. (Marco Ugarte/AP)
Soldiers salute Cienfuegos, then Mexico's defense minister, in April 2016 at a military camp in Mexico City. (Marco Ugarte/AP)
Cienfuegos in his days overseeing the Defense Ministry. The drug trafficking case against him will be a crucial test of the Mexican justice system. (Federico Gama/GDA/El Universal/AP)
Cienfuegos in his days overseeing the Defense Ministry. The drug trafficking case against him will be a crucial test of the Mexican justice system. (Federico Gama/GDA/El Universal/AP)

Soldiers salute Cienfuegos, then Mexico's defense minister, in April 2016 at a military camp in Mexico City. (Marco Ugarte/AP) Cienfuegos in his days overseeing the Defense Ministry. The drug trafficking case against him will be a crucial test of the Mexican justice system. (Federico Gama/GDA/El Universal/AP)

After the arrest, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard warned that Mexico was reviewing its cooperation with the United States. Mexican officials say Ebrard didn’t issue a specific threat. But the government could have taken any number of retaliatory steps: limiting the ability of the DEA to work in Mexico, spurning anti-drug aid, reducing operations with the marines.

Then, on Nov. 6, U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr unexpectedly offered to drop the charges against Cienfuegos and send him back to Mexico for investigation. According to the Reuters news agency, the Mexican government agreed to work with U.S. authorities to capture a drug capo.

López Obrador has denied any such quid pro quo. The senior Mexican official acknowledged, however, that “there could have been a mention” of an informal agreement. The most likely target of such an operation is Rafael Caro Quintero, a notorious drug lord who was convicted of the 1985 murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki’ Camarena but left jail on a technicality. He’s a top fugitive on the DEA’s Most Wanted list.

Mexicans have celebrated Cienfuegos’s return as a victory for their foreign policy. But the new legislation on “foreign agents” in Mexico has put a strain on relations with the United States. It would require Mexican officials to gain prior approval from a high-level security panel for any meeting with employees of the DEA, FBI and other U.S. law enforcement agencies, and to produce written reports on what information was shared. An official from the Foreign Ministry would be required to attend. U.S. agents are unlikely to agree to share intelligence information under such conditions, since it could be distributed broadly and leaked to criminal groups.

The Cienfuegos case will also be a crucial test of the Mexican justice system. The United States has turned over hundreds of pages of evidence, which Mexican authorities could try to corroborate. But will they take on the powerful military?

Ebrard, the foreign minister, said the U.S. release of Cienfuegos was not “an act of impunity.” On both sides of the border, people will be watching to see if that’s true.

The lectern where López Obrador speaks during his morning news conferences stands empty at the National Palace in Mexico City before his arrival on Dec. 4. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
The lectern where López Obrador speaks during his morning news conferences stands empty at the National Palace in Mexico City before his arrival on Dec. 4. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

Ann Deslandes contributed to this report.

About this project

Copy editing by Frances Moody and Martha Murdock. Graphics by Adrian Blanco. Graphics editing by Armand Emamdjomeh and Tim Meko. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard. Design and development by Joanne Lee and Irfan Uraizee. Design editing by Brian Gross. Project editing by Courtney Kan.

Mary Beth Sheridan is a correspondent covering Mexico and Central America for The Washington Post. Her previous foreign postings include Rome; Bogota, Colombia; and a five-year stint in Mexico in the 1990s. She has also covered immigration, homeland security and diplomacy for The Post, and served as deputy foreign editor from 2016 to 2018.