In AMLO’s Mexico, the State’s Loss Is the Military’s Gain


It’s been the judiciary’s turn to play the villain in the ritual morning tragicomedy dished out by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the Mexican people.

In his “mañanera” press conference over the past few weeks, he has accused judges of untrammeled corruption and blasted Supreme Court justices as rotten allies of the conservative elites who trample all over the constitution and earn too much money. Hopefully, he said, the next president will have a constitution-shaping majority in Congress to bring the judicial mafia to heel.  

This thwacking is not unrelated to the hard time the judiciary has been giving the president. The Supreme Court blocked his efforts to dismantle and, when that didn’t work, then defund Mexico’s election monitor. It stopped him from handing over control of the National Guard to the military. It forbade him from designating his pet infrastructure projects as national security priorities.

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But AMLO, as the president is known, is not narrowly motivated by a specific peeve. Other institutions — the opposition and the press, of course, but also the election monitor, the freedom of information agency, the antitrust watchdog, the telecommunications regulator, the public health system and the main antipoverty program of the four previous administrations — have all taken a turn at the presidential pillory.

The president sees himself in a broad battle against a Deep State. Repeatedly over the last five years, he has assaulted the institutions built in the quarter century since Mexico embraced multiparty democracy, taking particular aim at any agency capable of checking the presidency’s power.

In this quest to supplant civilian government, he has resorted to the one institution that promises unquestioned loyalty, alongside scale and real firepower: the armed forces, to whom he has handed a vast array of new jobs, responsibilities and money.

AMLO is not the first president to rely on the army or navy to help police the country. Felipe Calderón, two administrations ago, called on the military to lead the War on Drugs, as the United States cheered him on.

But since AMLO disbanded the federal police and replaced it with a new National Guard — which he also unsuccessfully tried to put under military control — he has turned over more and more functions to the armed forces.

“This goes beyond the security space,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown from the Brookings Institution. “It has become a pattern where AMLO’s response to any policy he prioritizes is to have the military do it.”

The military has been called on to distribute vaccines, gasoline, fertilizers and textbooks; to police migration at the northern and southern border; even to clear coastal resorts of sargasso. It built the new Mexico City airport and hundreds of branches for the government’s new welfare bank. The navy controls Mexico’s FDA and the army is growing trees for AMLO’s “planting life” program.

The armed forces will be given the “Maya Train” being built in the south of the country, with revenues going to fund military pensions. They have been granted control of a number of airports, now including Mexico City’s old airport, still the nation’s busiest, as well as maritime ports, customs processing and authority over maritime commerce and communications. In May they got handed a new airline.

And they are getting a lot of money. In the first four years of the administration, the secretaries of national defense and the navy spent over $9 billion, 58% more, in dollar terms, than the year before AMLO took office. This does not include the vast yet opaque streams of income that have come with their expanded portfolio.

AMLO has justified handing his favorite projects to the armed forces as a way to prevent them being undone by future administrations. “The military has amassed a lot of political power,” said Falko Ernst from the International Crisis Group. “It is an illusion to think it can be taken away.” It would be easier for a future government to privatize the Maya Train, for instance, if it were controlled by the tourism ministry. The president also argues that agencies and programs of prior governments were too expensive. Best give the money directly to the poor.

There is more going on, though. Directly handing out money to preferred constituencies is a tried and trusted political strategy deployed by the Revolutionary Institutional Party in which Mr. Lopez Obrador cut his political teeth in the 1970s. And the president truly dislikes the state institutions built after the party — known as the PRI — lost its monopoly on power. The military is not corrupt, he argues. The rest of the state is.

The scariest question perhaps is, What happens now? “Institutions have been worn out,” noted Alejandra Soto at Control Risks. “A lot of talent and institutional memory has been lost.” The key question for the next administration, she argued, is: “how is this going to be rebuilt?”

The diminished state that AMLO will bequeath to the next president will present a tricky challenge. His successor is unlikely to have the popularity that allowed him to reshape the government and which will be necessary to rebuild the institutional capacity that AMLO dismantled.

And whoever wins the office will also have to deal with a  military more empowered than at any time since the 1940s, when Manuel Ávila Camacho was the last general to occupy the presidential seat.

Mexico may have avoided the military coups common in much of Latin America in the 20th century. Its generals have not expressed interest in running the country. And yet, their vast new power raises an uncomfortable question for a weakened civilian state, notes Stephanie Brewer of the Washington Office on Latin America: “What if the military wants one thing and the civilian government wants another?”

Source : WP