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López Obrador defends militarization of Mexico, but experts still concerned

President López Obrador said accusations he is militarizing the country lack "all logic and the most elemental good faith."

MEXICO CITY (CN) — During his third State of the Union address Wednesday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador defended his actions to broaden the responsibilities of the nation's armed forces, saying, “it’s going to take time to restore peace to the country.”

Critics have decried decisions like awarding control of his megaprojects to branches of the military and then issuing an executive decree shielding those projects from legal challenges as authoritarian and undemocratic. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, political scientist Denise Dresser traced this militarization back to the administration of Felipe Calderón, who declared war against drug traffickers in 2006. 

But AMLO, as the president is known, had a different explanation for the 250,000 people who crowded into Mexico City’s main square to see him speak Wednesday evening.

“The accusations that we’re militarizing the country lack all logic and the most elemental good faith,” he said. “The armed forces haven’t been ordered to wage war on anyone, they haven’t been asked to surveil or oppress society, to break laws, restrict liberties, or be involved in any kind of repressive actions.”

While López Obrador’s supporters are not a monolith in their approval of his changes to the country’s military, citizens who came to show their support generally agreed that he has their best interests at heart. 

Martín Caballero came from the neighboring state of Puebla to hear the president speak. “AMLO’s actions to give the military more power are important because we need to provide the people with what they need,” he said. “It protects us better in all aspects.”

Caballero and other supporters had various justifications or negations of statistics showing that violent crimes like homicides have stagnated at record-high levels during López Obrador's term. “Violence has always existed in Mexico," he said. "Now the violence is in states where there are other parties [besides the president’s Morena party] in power.”

Others simply denied the legitimacy of such stats. “I think that the situation isn’t exactly like they say,” said Mexico City resident Adriana Garrido. “Their information is wrong. It’s just people trying to discredit him.” She and others cited social programs that have improved the lives of the disadvantaged in their communities — the poor, single mothers, and people with disabilities, for example — as reasons to overlook the president’s changes to the military. 

José Arellano, also from Mexico City, didn’t go so far as to denounce López Obrador, but he did express disapproval of the recent decree meant to fast-track the administration’s ambitious megaprojects. “I don’t agree with the decree, because if you say that you’re doing everything honestly and transparently, then you shouldn’t have any reason to hide what you’re spending money on,” he said.

Morena party mayor-elect Sergio Luna Cortés (right) is surrounded by avid supporters igniting smoke bombs, lighting fireworks, and playing music before AMLO's third State of the Union address on December 1, 2021. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

The president’s more strident critics, however, claim that his supporters’ widespread approval or refusal to pay attention to these actions reveals the insidious nature of this militarization. 

“We’re not talking about a coup in the traditional sense, but rather a military co-government,” said Erubiel Tirado, coordinator of the National Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Program at Mexico City’s Ibero-American University. “The scenario we’ve got in Mexico is one of factious armed forces that have positioned themselves within the current government in terms of the administration’s sexennial goals, not the terms outlined in the Constitution.”

He said that in AMLO, Mexico has an extremely popular president — his approval rates are at an astounding 71% midway through his term — who is attempting to piggyback the military into that public esteem. 

While Tirado and other critics stop short of using definite terms like “military coup” and “dictatorship,” he described the possibility of López Obrador refusing to cede presidential power in 2024 as a “real scenario.” In Mexico, presidents are limited to a single six-year term.

“The Mexican armed forces are openly making a play for the succession of presidential power and they’re doing little to hide it,” said Tirado, who added that such actions are illegal, as they politicize the military.

Morena party voters and politicians, however, are on board with the president’s view that increasing the military’s power and responsibilities are necessary to moving the country forward. 

Sergio Luna Cortés, mayor-elect of the community of Tultepec, in the neighboring state of México, brought a band of supporters to the State of the Union address, complete with smoke bombs, musicians, and the traditional firework apparatuses known as el torito (little bull). 

“It was necessary to give the military more power, because the civil police was too corrupt,” said the Morena party politician. “I think we’re starting to get things sorted out with the armed forces, and I think we’ll all be thankful for them.”

But Luna Cortés doesn’t put blind faith in the military simply because AMLO sings its praises. He said there will have to be checks and balances on the armed forces to ensure that they don’t overstep the law. But overall, their inclusion in governmental processes is considered, if not a good thing, at least a necessary and low-level evil for accomplishing the president’s goals. 

“Don’t think that everything is perfect in the federal government. We know that no one is perfect,” he said. “But this stuff about AMLO having the wrong intentions — I don’t believe so. Surely, he may err, but in general terms, with the big projects he has planned, I think the country is moving forward.”

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