Mexico’s president proposes reforms to the National Guard
López Obrador created the National Guard in 2019, arguing that Mexico’s federal police were hopelessly corrupt and unable to confront powerful Mexican drug cartels. He enshrined it in the constitution, placing it under the authority of the civilian public security apparatus.
Critics argue that reforms to the enabling legislation responsible for the National Guard are not sufficient to transfer its constitutionally established civilian authority to the military.
“It is very clear in Article 21 of the Mexican Constitution which first establishes that the National Guard is a body of a civilian nature and under the authority of the Secretary of Security and Citizen Protection,” said the analyst Ana Lorena Delgadillo, director of the Justice Foundation. “So any change you want to make to move the National Guard to (the Department of Defense) would have to go through constitutional reform first.”
She added that even if they attempted constitutional reform, lawmakers should assess whether placing the National Guard under military command would be consistent with the spirit of civil security that governs the constitution.
López Obrador no longer seems to have the votes in Congress for constitutional reform.
In his proposal, López Obrador makes a multi-pronged argument: civilian police forces have failed to secure the country; the military is Mexico’s most trusted institution; and, the National Guard is already essentially a military institution.
Of the more than 110,000 members of the National Guard, more than 80% are drawn from the army and the navy, notes the president. The National Guard functions only because of the military leaders who organized it and the army’s vast logistical capabilities.
Much of López Obrador’s proposal reads as an ode to the military as the central pillar of Mexican society. The tone is one Mexicans will recognize. The president has given the military more responsibility than any Mexican leader in recent memory, tasking them with not just fighting drug cartels but also fuel theft. He had them build a new airport for the capital and a tourist train on the Yucatan Peninsula. They build bank branches in rural areas and have played a key role in the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The transfer of operational and administrative control from the National Guard to the (Ministry of Defense) responds to the immediate need to overcome administrative obstacles and the availability of resources,” López Obrador wrote, saying it is the only way to match the geographic reach, logistical capabilities and firepower of organized crime.
In his State of the Nation Address on Thursday, López Obrador said, “The goal is not to militarize or become authoritarian, but rather to place under the oversight of the Ministry of Defense the growth of what should be the nation’s primary public security. Obligate.”
The army has been on the streets in a vital security role for years, long before López Obrador took office. He has been accused of human rights abuses and the United Nations has long called for his removal from the police force.
However, neither the National Guard nor the army succeeded in reducing insecurity in the country. Last month, organized crime groups rampaged through four states in one week, torching businesses and killing bystanders.
Critics say the National Guard lacks the investigative and intelligence capabilities of a police force. They are a visible presence on patrols and respond to violence, but do little to prevent it.
Senator Emilio Álvarez Icaza, an independent politician, said that last year the National Guard said it had made 14 arrests following its own investigations – there were many other arrests in cases where people were caught committing illegal acts. They reported handing over 50 people accused of organized crime to prosecutors.
“The National Guard has 115,000 members; it is a disaster in itself,” he said.
“They believe that by being there, it fixes things and nothing happens,” Álvarez said. “They believe doing nothing is best. They believe their presence is inhibiting and that is absurd.
López Obrador’s proposal does not address the question of how the military is the appropriate institution to lead what he continues to call a national police force. The president often speaks of the impunity that plagues the country, but it remains unclear how a security force staffed and led by the military will be able to do the policing work needed to bring criminals to justice.
The reform package was submitted to Congress before the start of its new legislative session on Thursday.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sánchez and Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.