Every Mexican president over the past 20 years has tried to tackle the escalating violence and insecurity in the country. Some made more progress than others, but the problem has persisted. Now, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has developed his own strategy, at the heart of which is the new National Guard. It has been met with mixed reactions. Some have embraced the idea, while others believe it’s more of the same, offering little hope to substantially improve the security situation in the country.
What is certain, however, is that the Mexican government needs to do something to address the rising violence. 2018 set a new record high for homicide rates, and 2019 is already on track to break that record, with 14,600 homicides registered in the first half of this year alone, according to the National System of Public Security. Multiple polls reveal the level of fear that many Mexicans feel at the deteriorating conditions. A survey conducted by the Center for Social Studies and Public Opinion last October found that 62.9 percent of people felt unsafe where they lived. Similarly, a poll taken this month by the National Survey of Urban Public Security found that 73.9 percent of respondents felt unsafe. The violence has had an impact on businesses too, as companies are forced to boost security, relocate their facilities or shut down factories altogether because of the worsening security in the country. There’s also evidence that drug sales, extortion, kidnapping and violence are rising in parts of Mexico City that were previously considered safe.
But previous governments’ attempts to reduce the level of violence – through, for example, targeting cartel leaders and relying on the military – haven’t produced the desired results. So it’s understandable that the current administration has decided to take a different approach, starting with the creation of the National Guard, a security force Mexican authorities say will be a civilian agency. Prior to the guard’s inauguration on June 30, Mexico relied heavily on federal police, the army and navy to combat organized crime, primarily because local police were overwhelmed and have proved unreliable in dealing with organized crime. It was an ineffective system given that the army and navy are not structured or trained to handle domestic security problems. There were also concerns about excessive use of force, abuse of power and other human rights violations allegedly committed by the military during security operations. The Mexican public has, as a result, supported the creation of a civilian force that’s supposed to help lower crime rates. According to a poll conducted by research firm Parametria shortly after Lopez Obrador announced the project, 87 percent of Mexicans said they backed the National Guard.
The new security body is tasked with 20 functions, chief among them crime prevention and investigation. Surveillance, verification and inspection activities are also top priorities. Other functions include cybersecurity, intelligence and information gathering. The remaining functions cover organizational support and administrative roles. Salaries for National Guard members will be competitive (19,000 pesos, or $1,000 per month, according to Lopez Obrador) to discourage bribes and corruption. The National Guard will be composed of some 82,000 members (some of whom have already been deployed) covering 150 locations that have been identified as high risk. By 2021, it will grow to 111,000 members covering 266 locations nationwide.
There are questions, however, about its structure and independence as a civilian institution. The guard falls under the authority of the Secretariat of Civilian Security and Protection. But the second-level chain of command will also include army and navy personnel and defense ministry officials. Furthermore, 62 percent of the officers currently serving in the guard come from the army, 16 percent from the navy and only 22 percent from the federal police. The federal police will be eliminated within the next 18 months as it’s absorbed into the guard, while the army will continue to be one of the main sources of recruitment through 2021. Efforts to recruit civilians have produced poor results thus far. It seems the introduction of the National Guard may not be such a radical change after all.
The agency has thus faced public backlash. Many human rights groups and other community organizations see the changes it has ushered in as more cosmetic than structural. They contend that, because the military will play an important role in the guard, problems with abuse of power and excessive use of force will continue. The federal police have also voiced their concerns over having their own members recruited into the agency – thousands of officers even went on strike over the issue. The police are also worried about the lack of transparency over pay, uncertainty about seniority recognition and the treatment they received from military leadership. So far, the government has managed to alleviate some of the federal police’s concerns, but civilian groups insist more changes are needed.
However, the National Guard was structured this way for a reason. While efforts have been made to train more local police forces, they will not be ready for at least another three years, assuming everything goes according to plan. By recruiting from the military and federal police, the National Guard was able to launch earlier than it likely could have had it relied solely on civilian or local police forces. And despite the concerns of some civil society organizations, the army and navy are consistently ranked among the most-trusted institutions in Mexico. Recruiting from the military, therefore, could help increase the guard’s credibility among the public. In addition, the National Guard has received widespread political support. To create the agency, the government needed to pass certain constitutional changes, which required majority support in both houses of Congress and in at least 17 of 32 state legislatures. That the government was able to garner support from all 32 legislatures shows that a wide range of regions and politicians in Mexico back the National Guard.
Public trust in and political backing for the National Guard, however, do not automatically mean the new organization will succeed. In the long term, drawing forces from the military isn’t sustainable, and the guard will have to start recruiting from the civilian population, especially if it is to win over the public’s confidence and prove its own utility. More important, the guard needs to produce results in terms of fighting crime and reducing violence (particularly with regard to the homicide rate). In a poll conducted this month, some 60.3 percent of Mexicans said they think the security situation is the same or worse than it was 12 months ago. And given that many of the people who are now part of the National Guard were also part of the federal police or military just a year ago, it’s questionable whether there will be any improvements in crime rates.
The National Guard will play a key role in efforts to improve security in Mexico, but it can’t be expected to single-handedly end violence in the country. It’s just one component of a much broader criminal justice system – one that many still see as extremely corrupt and unreliable. Meanwhile, the root causes of crime in Mexico, including socio-economic factors like unemployment and a lack of education, still need to be addressed. Lopez Obrador’s national security strategy deals with many of these issues, but it is in the early stages of development. The National Guard is just one piece of the puzzle, and the final judgement on whether or not it’s a success will have to wait until the other pieces are put into place.