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Militarization of the Metro: Mexico City mayor sends 6000 troops to subway

Already tasked with building megaprojects and running tourism operations on top of maintaining public safety, the military will now be responsible for protecting subway passengers from technical problems on the capital’s Metro.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum announced Thursday morning the deployment of over 6,000 National Guard troops to the capital Metro system in response to recent events she called “out of the ordinary.” 

The most notable of said events was a two-train collision on Saturday that left one dead and dozens injured, the third fatal Metro accident in her four-year administration, and the fourth such incident in the system’s 53 year history. 

Her announcement came the day after videos of a fire on a subway train went viral on Wednesday, and just over two months after a blackout on the same line as Saturday’s crash forced passengers to use their cellphone lights to find their way out of the station. 

“In recent months we’ve seen episodes that we describe as out of the ordinary, that aren’t what normally happens on the Metro,” Sheinbaum said at the daily morning press conference of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. “And for that reason, I allowed myself to speak with the president and request the presence of the National Guard in the Mexico City Metro.”

The deployment is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Thursday. Sheinbaum did not provide details on the specific duties the National Guard will carry out in the stations.

A vehement opponent of the militarization of his predecessors, López Obrador had a change of heart after entering the National Palace in 2018 and has worked to broaden the trend in Mexico rather than reduce it. Ostensibly created to be a civil security force in 2019, the National Guard was transferred to army control this past September. 

The president defended Sheinbaum in the press conference, saying, "There are those who are using the accidents on the Metro … to attack her,” and adding that “we have the advantage, the enormous joy to have very good public servants in our movement."

Sheinbaum has been criticized for her management of the Metro system since the collapse of a section of elevated train in May 2021 left 26 dead and over 100 injured. The wounded victims and surviving family members of those who died continue to demand justice more than a year and a half after the collapse, and their lawyer Teo Benítez has taken on new clients in the aftermath of Saturday’s crash.

The principal problem appears to be Sheinbaum’s dramatic cutting of the budget — more than a quarter in the first three years of her administration — after years of inadequate maintenance during the governments of her predecessors, one of whom was López Obrador from 2000 to 2005.

Sheinbaum said Thursday that the Metro has “sufficient budget” just before saying that “more budget is necessary." In response to media reports of her handling of the budget, she presented fiscal data that she claimed proves that the 2023 budget is greater than in 2018. However, she presented the nominal rather than the relative value of the budget, which in 2018 was over 17% higher than the 2023 amount.

Her office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Opinions of Mexico’s increasing militarization are moot in the current situation, as Sheinbaum’s announcement begs the question: What can a soldier do to protect subway passengers from technical failures?

“Nothing,” said María Elena Morera, executive director of the government militarization watchdog Causa En Común (Common Cause). “This does nothing more than send a signal that they’re dealing with the problem, but in reality the National Guard can’t do anything.”

Public administration expert José Roldán Xopa agreed with Morera on the futility of the exercise, saying it is not the proper way to address the issues on Mexico City trains.

"It would be the right move if it were a problem of safety that the city police weren't sufficient to handle," he said.

Morera described the decision as “absurd” and placed it squarely in the broader trend of López Obrador giving more and more power to the military, which has been tasked with doing everything from building the new Mexico City airport and the Maya Train to running an airline and tourism companies.

With violence in Mexico at historic highs, it is apparent that the military continues to fail at its primary responsibility of maintaining public safety.

“The president has them doing a thousand things … and for me this represents a risk for Mexico,” she said. “We cannot have soldiers doing all these jobs, because it’s not yielding results in any of the duties they’re being given. That’s the tragedy.”

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