The operation has turned into one of the biggest crises for López Obrador since he took office in December.
“We are worried about today’s Mexico,” Gaytán said in a speech on behalf of retired officers at the Defense Ministry. “We feel aggrieved as Mexicans and offended as soldiers.” The transcript was leaked last week to the newspaper La Jornada — an unusual development, given the armed forces’ traditional secrecy.
For decades, Mexico had an unwritten pact with the military that shielded its government from the kinds of coups that rocked Latin America. The military didn’t meddle in politics; in exchange, it received broad autonomy.
That agreement is probably not in danger. But a rift with the armed forces could be problematic for the leftist president, given that he’s relying on the military to confront a surge in violence.
The general’s speech created such a stir that López Obrador declared via Twitter on Saturday that his supporters “will not permit another coup” like the ones that rocked Mexico in the early 20th century.
The López Obrador administration has issued conflicting information about what happened in the Oct. 17 capture of Guzmán, who is wanted in the United States on drug charges. At least 13 people were killed as cartel operatives seized control of Culiacan and took soldiers hostage.
The president has said he wasn’t informed about the raid before it occurred. He has defended the decision to free Guzmán, saying it was necessary to save lives.
Under mounting criticism, López Obrador ordered the defense minister on Thursday to publicly identify the officer who ordered the Culiacan mission. But that only stoked more outrage: Security analysts said the revelation could endanger the officer’s life.
The military “are really upset with that — it was a serious indiscretion,” said Javier Oliva Posada, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico with deep sources in the armed forces.
Authorities later clarified that they had named the Mexico City-based supervisor of the anti-drug unit that carried out the operation — not the commander on the ground.
In his Oct. 22 speech, Gaytán referred to the extraordinary power that López Obrador has amassed after crushing the opposition in the July 2018 elections.
The lack of opposition “has permitted a strengthening of the executive, which has made strategic decisions that haven’t convinced everyone, to put it mildly,” Gaytán said. “Each of us here was formed with solid ethical values, which clash with the way in which the country is being run these days.”
He didn’t mention the Culiacan operation. But the speech was arranged to respond to the failed mission, and reflected the military’s concern about a lack of government strategy for reducing violence, Oliva Posada said.
Ricardo Márquez, a former senior security official, said military officials in the past have sometimes expressed political concerns — “but never like this, with such firmness and clarity and in such a delicate moment.”
López Obrador has promised to address violence through social programs, a policy he dubbed “abrazos, no balazos” — hugs, not bullets. But homicides are up more than 3 percent since he took office.
On Thursday, the president dismissed Gaytán’s speech as an opinion. He emphasized that the general was undersecretary of defense during the term of former president Felipe Calderón, who launched Mexico’s war on narcotraffickers. The conflict has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives since 2006, and the army’s reputation has been tarnished by allegations of human rights abuses.
“If [Gaytán’s] argument is that there’s skepticism in the army about our new policy, it’s understandable,” López Obrador told reporters. “Because for a long time there was a policy of extermination, of repression, that we are not going to continue.”
He added that he had full confidence in the military and its loyalty to him.
But military analysts said Gaytán’s speech was hardly just one man’s opinion. It was delivered in front of the defense minister, Gen. Luis Cresencio Sandoval, and hundreds of active and retired officers. Gaytán was chosen by his peers to make the presentation, noted Guillermo Garduño Valero, a national security analyst at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.
“This is the way in which they are revealing the disapproval of the group,” he said.
Another retired general, Sergio Aponte, said in an interview published Sunday in the newsmagazine Proceso that military leaders were “frustrated” by the release of Guzmán.
Falko Ernst is senior analyst for Mexico for the International Crisis Group. Under President Enrique Peña Nieto, López Obrador’s predecessor, he said, the military was sometimes unhappy to be thrust to the forefront of the fight against organized crime.
But any criticism was “not in the open, because that’s part of the code of the military,” he said. The current situation “does break that tradition.”
The Culiacan debacle appears to be chipping away at López Obrador’s approval ratings. They have slipped from 63.6 percent to 60.4 percent in two weeks, according to Roy Campos, the director of the Mitofsky Group, a polling firm.
López Obrador is still among the most popular leaders in Latin America. But the Culiacan operation followed major firefights with criminal groups in other parts of the country in which at least 14 security forces died, Campos noted in an interview with Radio Formula.
“People are saying, ‘What world are we in, where the criminals are ruling, the bad guys are winning?’ ”