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This article is reprinted with permission from Stratfor Worldview.

Mexico is relying ever more on its military to manage the country's perennial security problems, as cartel activity continues to rise against the backdrop of COVID-19. On May 11, President Andres Manual Lopez Obrador’s government issued a decree ordering the army to formally support Mexico’s National Guard in all public safety tasks nationwide for a term lasting no more than five years. While the military’s presence in Mexico's fight against organized crime is not new, Lopez Obrador’s orders to expand those duties risk overtaxing a force that is already spread thin, and exposing the country's army — still highly regarded by society — to the same reputational loss that has plagued its police forces. By contradicting his long-held stance against Mexico’s "militarization," Lopez Obrador’s over-reliance on the army will also further undermine his credibility among voters and civil rights organizations alike. 

Rising homicide rates and falling approval rates seem to be forcing Lopez Obrador, who started his six-year term in December 2018, to take more drastic action to improve Mexico’s security situation. 

  • While overall crime statistics have shown mixed trends during the first year of Lopez Obrador’s administration, homicide rates have climbed steadily, and have continued to increase even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Homicides registered in March and April 2020 had the highest and third-highest monthly count in history. In March alone, these crimes increased 9 percent compared with the previous month, and 70 percent compared with April 2019. 

The COVID-19 crisis is also affecting the readiness of many state and municipal police forces. 

  • The National Guard has been deployed to protect several public hospitals around the country after incidents where family members of hospitalized people and demonstrators attacked medical personnel. 
  • Drug cartels have been active in providing care packages in different communities and establishing and enforcing lockdown curfews in some small localities, forcing the government to send more members of the army and National Guard to those areas. 
  • Fears of spreading the virus have also effectively halted civilian recruitment and training for those already recruited in the National Guard. 
  • The domestic economic fallout from the pandemic could cause crime to spike even further as well, given that Mexico saw crime rates (excluding cartel-related homicides) rise sharply in the periods immediately after the 1995 and 2009 economic crises. 

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, Lopez Obrador’s popularity was already declining due to his administration’s failure to reduce crime as promised. 

  • The creation of the National Guard, in particular — which is one of the hallmarks of Lopez Obrador’s security policy — has fallen far behind on its recruitment, training and deployment goals. 
  • At the end of 2019, the number of officers deployed to the new police force was only 75 percent of the goal and has not improved substantially in 2020. 
  • More than 75 percent of the roughly 80,000 deployed National Guard elements in March are military personnel that have been transferred (some temporarily and some permanently), with the rest coming from the country’s now-dissolved federal police force.

Before taking office, Lopez Obrador was opposed to using the military for public safety, but has since had to fall back on the same strategy used by his predecessor.   

  • Recent constitutional and legal reforms (including the legislation that established the National Guard in 2019) provided the legal framework for the deployment of armed forces in public safety tasks, and has since fueled ample debate among legal scholars over their proper implementation.
  • Lopez Obrador has been relying on the armed forces to take charge of duties completely unrelated to public and national security, including the construction of Mexico City’s new international airport and diverse infrastructure projects. 
  • In doing so, his administration has continued a decades-long trend of the Mexican government using the army to fight against cartels and organized crime in the country, which has significantly intensified since 2006. 

The Mexican government’s new decree lacks specificity about the chain of command, coordination mechanisms and size of the force, which will create operational confusion and subordinate the National Guard to military command in practice. 

  • The decree reiterates the 2019 legal framework, which establishes that any military member performing public safety duties is subordinate to the command of the National Guard. 
  • But the order also vaguely instructs Mexico’s public safety security to coordinate with his defense and naval counterparts to define their participation.
  • The decree does not establish how many elements of Mexico’s military will be tasked with public safety duties, or how they will interact with current National Guard elements.
  • Civil society and human rights organizations have voiced concern over the lack of specifics and clarity about duties and chain of command. These groups have also argued the decree is a de facto "militarization" of public safety, given that the commander of the National Guard is a retired army general, and that almost two-thirds of the current National Guard force are actually military personnel. 

The lack of a clear roadmap for how to accelerate the implementation and consolidation of the National Guard in the next five years, or a plan to reform and strengthen Mexico’s state and municipal police forces, will only perpetuate the country’s chronic security problems.  

  • For decades, it has been widely documented that Mexico’s municipal and state police forces are the weakest link when drug cartels and other criminal organizations seek to corrupt and infiltrate. But they are also the most vulnerable to their attacks: In the first four months of 2020, 185 state and municipal police agents were murdered across the country — a 44 percent increase over the same period in 2019. 
  • Without reliable state and municipal police forces that can prevent and investigate crimes effectively, the country’s armed forces will remain focused on putting out fires instead of addressing the underlying drivers of Mexico’s security issues.