Mexico’s National Guard: The Wrong Response to Police Corruption

In September 2018, Mexican federal and state authorities disarmed the entire police force of the city of Acapulco because of suspicion that the police had been corrupted by drug cartels. Federal authorities certainly had reason to take action: partly due to the corruption of the police, murders in Acapulco surged to 2,316 in 2017, and police officers themselves were implicated in some of those murders. Yet rather than institute a plan to reform the local police to address this problem, the Mexican government had the military assume local police functions.

It now appears that Mexico’s popular new President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), is poised to adopt a similar solution for all of Mexico, in the form of proposed legislation that would create to create a 60,000-strong National Guard. This proposal, which has already been approved by Mexico’s congress and by a majority of the state legislatures, is not accompanied by any proposal for comprehensive police reform; rather, AMLO wants to simply replace the police by utilizing the National Guard to fight the war on crime. His justification for this approach is that the police force is simply too corrupt to do its job.

This argument is not without some merit, nor is it unprecedented. In fact, many governments around the world have opted to militarize domestic security when organized crime infiltrates the police, because of the military’s greater discipline, more hierarchal structure, and (supposed) lower susceptibility to corruption. (See here for an example from the Philippines.) AMLO has advanced similar arguments in favor of the National Guard. He has also emphasized additional safeguards: the top commander of the National Guard will report to a civilian boss, civil courts rather than military tribunals will have jurisdiction over National Guard members alleged to have violated the law, moving detainees to military installations is prohibited, and National Guard members will receive human rights training.

But despite all this, and despite the evident need to address the police corruption that contributes so much to the outrageous violence in Mexico, a National Guard is not the solution, for several reasons:

  • First, the military is also corrupt. Indeed, one of the country’s most notorious drug cartels, the Knights Templar, is composed of ex-Mexican soldiers. More generally, according to Mexican defense ministry statistics, about 1,383 soldiers deserted between 1994 and 2015, presumably to join the cartels. Unfortunately, the scale of the problem is unclear, in part because the Mexican government has been unwilling to release more data. And even in cases where military involvement in notorious murders is suspected, the Mexican government has protected the military from any investigation into the case, leaving many questions unanswered.
  • Second, history is proof that the military is unable to curb the drug-related violence. The military has played a role in combating corruption by police and drug related violence for the past 13 years. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón first deployed the military against the drug cartels—the result was more violence. The year he took office, there was one drug-related homicide every four hours. By 2011, his last full year in office, there was a homicide every 30 minutes. In 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto took over and also implemented his own proposed version of a security force, the gendarmerie. Nonetheless, Peña Nieto also left the nation more violent than he had inherited it. Homicides in Mexico rose 33% in 2018 from the previous year, breaking the record for the second consecutive year. The continued dramatic spike in homicides is more than enough evidence that the militarization of domestic law enforcement is ineffective in decreasing violence, at least in Mexico.
  • Third, militarizing domestic law enforcement has significant adverse consequences for civil liberties and human rights. The military and the police are not interchangeable. Unlike police officers, who are trained to interact with civilians and respect civil liberties, armed forces are trained for war, and as a result the increased militarization of Mexico’s war on violence has resulted in more violence and other grave human rights abuses at the hands of the security forces. Since 2007, a year after the military was first deployed to tackle drug-related violence, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has received more than 10,000 complaints of human rights violations by Mexican soldiers. Worse, these abuses are notoriously unpunished. Between 2012 and 2016, Mexico’s attorney general launched 505 investigations into alleged human rights abuses committed by the military, yet only 16 resulted in conviction. Forgive me if I’m skeptical that giving the members of the new National Guard some “human rights training” is likely to make much difference.

Again, none of this is to deny Mexico’s very real crisis of police corruption, or the contribution of that corruption to the country’s violent crime epidemic. The problem, though, is that the National Guard plan, like previous militarization proposals, seeks to replace the police in the war against organized crime, when what Mexico should be doing instead is fixing the many institutional problems with police that make officers more susceptibile to corruption. Focusing on the military has been an attractive choice because it is seems like a more expedient solution, but ultimately what is required is the slow process of reforming the police. There’s too much to be done than I can summarize here, but here are a few places to start:

  • First, the government should raise police salaries. Currently, Mexican state police officers make about an average of $500 in U.S. dollars a month; officers in poorer states only earn about half of that recommended wage. To put things in perspective, the average monthly Mexican wage in 2017 was about $1,276S. dollars. Police are so underpaid that they become easily susceptible to corruption by the promise of an actual livable wage.
  • Second, the government needs to hire more police officers, and give them better training and equipment. Mexico only has 8 police officers per 1,000 inhabitants, less than half of what the U.N. recommends. One-quarter of Mexican municipalities have no local police at all because there is not enough money to pay them. This makes police more susceptible to corruption or coercion, because they fear for their life if they say no. This fear is rational: in 2018, an average of one officer was killed every day. And not only are the police outnumbered, but also in most cases drug cartels have better weapons than police officers. Moreover, only one in four police officers has received sufficient training.

If AMLO truly wants to break the chain between violence and corruption once and for all, the ineffective Band-Aid of militarization is not the solution. Rather, he needs to take the more politically difficult but necessary path of implementing a comprehensive police reform.

2 thoughts on “Mexico’s National Guard: The Wrong Response to Police Corruption

  1. Asseret, thanks for this post. Given the persuasive critiques you lay out above, I wonder why AMLO has chosen to go forward with his national guard proposal. As you say, it’s “expedient,” and may create the impression within the electorate the AMLO is doing *something* about violence and corruption. But is that enough, given that AMLO is limited to one term in office (if I’m right about that)? Do you have a sense of whether there are other reasons why AMLO or high-ranking members of his coalition might support this proposal then? Is it because there will be greater centralized control over law enforcement? Because there will be lots of plum positions to award to political supporters? Or is it just sheer desperation to do something in the face of a law enforcement problem of massive scope. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Asseret, this piece was very informative and thank you for sharing. You mentioned raising police wages as a deterrent for corruption, however I wonder how increasing wages would directly decrease corruption? It seems like corruption could still occur even where officers are receiving good wages. Are there any factors that contribute to corruption and that wouldn’t be necessarily solved through increasing wages? You also mention that there’s a low representation of police per 1,000 people because Mexican municipalities have no money to pay for police officers. Where would they get this money to fund and increase wages for police officers?

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