Esteban Illades is a Mexican writer. His most recent book is “Fake News, la nueva realidad.”
Andrés Manuel López Obrador emerged as a leading presidential candidate during a particularly violent time in Mexico. The government had been fighting the drug cartels for over a decade, but murder rates across the country were not decreasing. In fact, 2018 broke records, with local politicians and candidates being killed left and right; so were journalists. Massacres were being treated as ordinary occurrences in newspapers. Something had to be done.
López Obrador said he was open to all options, even negotiating with the cartels if that’s what it took to stabilize the country. When asked about a long-term strategy, he said he would do two things: offer scholarships and internships in order to lure young men from joining organized crime – “Becarios sí, sicarios no,” loosely translated as “Interns yes, hitmen no” –, and he would pull the Army from the streets, just as several human rights organizations suggested, in order to reduce human rights violations. ““We’ll find a way to face the violence problem,” he said, “without using force.”
His promises came at the end of Enrique Peña Nieto’s six-year term, in which massacres like the one at Tlatlaya, a small municipality in the state of Mexico, which resulted in 22 extrajudicial killings on June 30, 2014, were all too common.
On July 1, López Obrador won by a landslide. His party also won control of both chambers of Congress and was only a few seats short of having the votes needed to reform the Constitution. In short, he had the support and the means to do what he promised: demilitarize Mexico.
But then, in a television interview a few days before taking office, his stance changed completely. When asked what had surprised him the most upon becoming president-elect, he mentioned the “disaster” that were local, state and federal police forces. This, he said, made it paramount to keep the Army deployed until police forces eventually improved enough to oversee security in the country. When? No answer was given.
That very same week, Mexico’s Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision: a law enacted during previous Peña Nieto’s administration was deemed unconstitutional. The Internal Security Law made it legal for the Amy to assume police duties. Before the law was enacted, the Army had been working in a gray area. The Constitution says they should be deployed only in exceptional circumstances. This, the Court said, did not include indefinite deployment.
With that in mind, after becoming president, López Obrador ordered his party’s congressmen to whip up enough votes to change the Constitution. The amendment proposal the president sent to Congress late last year created a new federal force called the National Guard, a hybrid that combined soldiers, marines and federal police. This new force would replace the army in the war on drugs. It would have the power to take part in criminal investigations. It could also assume the role of local police.
The National Guard, López Obrador suggested, was completely different from the army. For starters, he promised, it would be overseen by Mexico’s equivalent of Homeland Security Secretary. A civilian, not a soldier, at the helm.
And this was partly true, except for one crucial detail: day-to-day operations would be managed by the Defense Secretary. The rest –contracts, payments, administrative details– would fall onto civilian hands.
It’s clear the National Guard is the Army with a different uniform. Soldiers being trained by soldiers to do what soldiers do. Indefinitely.
On Wednesday, Morena negotiated with representatives from the PRI, the party that governed Mexico for almost eight decades and was booted out of government in a humiliating defeat, to get the votes López Obrador needed. The ruling party managed to betray the voters twice in the span of a few minutes: first, it laid the groundwork for a constitutional change that will keep the military on the streets until further notice. Second, it did it with the help of Mexico’s most-hated party, which Mexicans hoped wouldn’t have a say in the country’s future.
In a fitting end, after the vote was held, the Twitter account for Morena’s representatives tweeted that with this reform, the country had “begun to walk toward peace and demilitarization.”
But nothing could be further from the truth, except maybe AMLO’s promises that he would end the bloody war on drugs.