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Dissent in the ranks: National Guard soldiers speak out against militarization in Mexico

In exclusive interviews with Courthouse News, navy sailors incorporated into the National Guard described corruption, low pay and poor quality of services since the force initiated its transfer to the Secretariat of National Defense.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — “We live under threat,” said Miguel, who preferred to not give his last name out of fear of retaliation from his superiors. “We see a lot of corruption inside the institution.”

When the 28-year-old sailor from Mexico’s Secretariat of the Navy (Semar) was first incorporated into the National Guard in 2019, Miguel saw the move as an opportunity to fulfill his duty to his country and his branch of the armed forces.

“I felt I had to do my best, but now we’re getting screwed trying to conform to the whims of the president,” he said in an exclusive interview with Courthouse News.

The National Guard was established as a civil security force in 2019. Previously a staunch opponent of what he decried as the militarization of his predecessors, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador now believes more army involvement in everything from public safety to construction to tourism is what Mexico needs.

“I changed my mind, considering the problem I inherited,” he said in September.

However, even before its transfer to the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena) in September, anti-militarization advocates in Mexico decried the National Guard as a militarized force due to the makeup of its ranks. 

While elements of the now defunct Federal Police were conscripted into the National Guard, more than two-thirds of its troops came from Sedena and Semar. Around 17,000 of the National Guard’s nearly 120,000 soldiers initially enlisted in the navy.

Miguel Ángel and others who spoke to Courthouse News described seeing acts of corruption among their new commanding officers in the form of being charged for goods and services that were previously covered by the navy’s budget. They said they now have to pay their superiors for things like new uniforms, boots, arm bands, patches, cleaning supplies, laundry services, toiletries and even the paper used to print administrative documents. 

Mexican National Guard troops engage in call and response while waiting to participate in the country's annual Independence Day military parade on Sep. 16, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Time has also become a commodity in López Obrador’s army-run National Guard. Soldiers report having to pay superiors to get extra work hours or time off to spend with their families.

“The commanding officers sell all kinds of things,” said Miguel. “The president’s claim that the military is free of corruption is a total lie. On the contrary. It’s the institution with the most corruption.” 

This financial burden is made heavier by the fact that the move to Sedena involves a pay cut. Miguel said that the demotion to army private will lower his monthly salary by $100-150 USD. 

“The decrease in salary affects everything at home,” said Miguel, who has a wife and young daughter. “We have our budget planned out for certain expenses according to my current salary. Sedena doesn’t see us as a human resource. We’re just another number to them.”

Opposition to the transfer to Sedena is widespread among his fellow navy sailors in the National Guard, said Miguel, who claimed to be acting as a spokesperson on their behalf. Iván, another initial navy recruit who spoke to Courthouse News on the condition of complete anonymity (his name has been changed to protect his identity) also spoke out against the president’s militarization.

“When they started to integrate the National Guard into the army, we began to see many irregularities on the part of Sedena,” Iván said. “We had heard rumors about how things work in Sedena, but now we’re living in it.”

In addition to being charged for goods and services the navy used to supply, Iván complained that the quality and quantity of food they are served have also diminished. He described breakfasts of scrambled eggs with pieces of the shells mixed in, beans that have gone bad. 

“It’s disgusting. I’d expect something like this if we were at war, but not when we have the resources to feed us well,” he said. “Unfortunately the higher-ups keep the money and use few resources for the food. Everyone knows they’re doing it, they just don’t say anything. We never saw these kinds of things in the navy.” 

While he also saw a pay cut, Iván said that the corrupted administration of his new command was his primary reason for speaking out. 

He also opposed the use of the military in matters of public safety, a task the Senate recently extended to 2028. 

“That’s wrong. It’s what the federal police were for,” said Iván. “Instead of creating the National Guard, the president should have given more resources to the navy, army and federal police and trained them better to take care of their duties. The creation of the National Guard was completely unnecessary, totally absurd.” 

A sniper in Mexico's National Guard waits to participate in the Independence Day parade. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Iván, Miguel and others in their situation recently sought the help of attorney Joan Ochoa Sada, requesting that he file a writ of amparo — similar to habeas corpus in U.S. law — against the legislation that approved the transfer. They say that opposition to the transfer is nearly ubiquitous among navy sailors in the National Guard.

A federal judge had already blocked the move as a result of a previous writ of amparo brought by Ochoa — one of over 70 filed against the legislation — but Miguel and his colleagues are prepared to file another if the suspension is overturned in the courts. 

“Combining the navy with the army has complicated things,” Ochoa said, adding that the navy is one branch of the armed forces that has remained almost entirely sealed-off from the influence of organized crime. 

“The other branches have many links to criminal organizations, as we’re starting to see,” he said, referring to recent leaks of hacked army emails that are still being scrutinized by the media and civil society groups. One document leaked by the hacktivist group Guacamaya (Macaw) in September revealed that Mexican army soldiers sold grenades to members of a criminal group in May 2019. 

“Now navy sailors are caught up in this matter, because in the end, they have to follow the orders they are given,” Ochoa said. “It’s a crime in Mexico to not follow orders in the military.”

While López Obrador has said on several occasions that corruption no longer existed in the federal government, he walked those words back during a morning press conference last week.

“I’m convinced that the main problem with Mexico was corruption,” he said. “And yes, there’s still corruption, but now it’s not the same.”

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