The Mexican Army, on trial after the capture of Cienfuegos

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The general’s arrest compromises the relationship of the Armed Forces with the López Obrador government, which has given the uniformed more power than anyone else

The arrest of General Salvador Cienfuegos, Secretary of Defense with Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), has set Mexico’s eyes on the Army. The indictment of five drug trafficking charges puts two relationships under scrutiny: the links between high-ranking authorities and organized crime, and the power that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has given to the military during his tenure. The first directly affects López Obrador’s predecessors and his fight in the war against drugs. The second splashes the current government unexpectedly. “They are fundamental institutions for the development of our country, pillars of the State, and they are so strong that not even issues such as the involvement of a Secretary of Defense in drug trafficking cases weaken them,” the president has defended. To illustrate, the chief executive said goodbye to his morning press conference early to go to supervise the works assigned to the Armed Forces for the new Santa Lucia airport, on the outskirts of the capital.

The Armed Forces, which have remained silent about the detention of Cienfuegos, have been one of the most benefited fellow travelers during the so-called Fourth Transformation, the López Obrador government project. The president has opted for the National Guard, a military-style security body created last year, a few months after taking office, as a solution to the wave of violence that has hit the country for more than a decade. “We need discipline, the professionalism of the Navy and the Army to face the problem of insecurity and violence,” justified the head of the Executive Branch last May. The proposal has had the backing of state governments, overwhelmed by insecurity and corruption in local police.

Despite a scandal of historic proportions such as the capture of Cienfuegos, the Army remains year after year as one of the institutions best evaluated by citizens and police corporations, among the worst, according to the historical monitoring of Consulta Mitofsky. The fall of the general now calls for a deep purge, similar to that announced by Alfonso Durazo, Secretary of Security, a year ago after the call Culiacanazo, the failed operation to capture Ovidio Guzmán, son of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, in Sinaloa. “When the head is in collusion, you cannot speak of a bad apple, but rather of the deterioration of an institution,” says Alejandro Madrazo, professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching.

“We are not going to put out the fire with fire,” said López Obrador in the campaign, as a candidate who complained that the war against the narco it only implied “hitting the hornet’s nest” and insisting that the Army “no longer take care of the tasks that it has been entrusted to date.” Then came the turn. In September 2018, Madrazo says, the president-elect met with officials from the Ministry of Defense. Soon after, he filled the military with praise. By November, two weeks before taking office, he formally announced the creation of the National Guard. “They intimidated him, we have a president who did not dare to confront militarization and who is subject to the Army,” says the academic.

The National Guard has not only assumed security tasks in various hot spots in the country, it has also patrolled hospitals in the midst of the pandemic, has been deployed during the passage of Hurricane Delta, has carried out traffic operations on roads and has attended breakdowns caused by the rains. Civil organizations and academics criticize militarization due to human rights violations, corruption and violence associated with the military, and the Government defends that its options for trust are limited in a country with more than 100 murders a day.

Security is not the only reason the Army has left its barracks. This Saturday marks one year since the president entrusted the defense works at the Santa Lucia airport. The old military base will be the new air terminal. Earlier this month, López Obrador announced the construction of an airport for Tulum, in the Riviera Maya, and also assigned it to the military. “We are seeing the use of the Army to govern, but the military cannot do these tasks in times of peace, it is already a blatant and openly unconstitutional process of militarization,” says Madrazo.

When the president needed to distribute textbooks and medicines to the population, he called the Army. When he wanted to advance the Mayan Train, a mega-railway project in the southeast, he relied on engineers from the militia. When the influence of drug trafficking surpassed the ports, he announced militarization. When the combat against huachicoleoAs the theft of fuel is called in the country, he asked that the soldiers guard the gasoline pipes to overcome the shortage. When he promoted Sembrando Vida, a program for reforestation and reactivation of the rural economy, he had the military planting trees. When Mexico reached out to former Bolivian President Evo Morales at the end of last year, his journey in search of asylum across the continent was in a military plane. The list also includes collection of sargassum in the Caribbean, construction of military schools, development banks and addiction prevention campaigns.

The “uniformed people”, as the president calls it, has assumed the tasks and also the rewards in this and past governments with military discipline. An investigation by EL PAÍS documented that the Army diverted 156 million dollars to shell companies between 2013 and 2019. Another investigation revealed this week that while the ruling bloc decreed the extinction of 109 key trusts for science, culture and sports, it gave a historic increase in funds allocated to the military in four other trusts. The criticisms do not question the sacrificed work of thousands of soldiers and lower-level commanders, but rather the reluctance to be held accountable for abuses, unauthorized payments and the participation of the military in security operations.

The country’s transparency laws hold back when it comes to a matter of national interest or security. In the case of a defense secretary, there is only one person who is above him in the hierarchy: the supreme commander of the Armed Forces, that is, the president. “The eventual responsibility of Cienfuegos is not good news for López Obrador,” he writes and Twitter the analyst José Antonio Crespo: “He throws the premise that there is no corruption in the Army and that it justifies the current militarization, and he exhibits it as someone who does not know what is happening in his country.”

“We will continue to support ourselves in these institutions, they are basic for the Republic,” insisted the president one day after the anniversary. Culiacanazo. The lowest point of López Obrador’s presidency also called into question the work of his Security Cabinet and, of course, the Army, with which the United States has been reluctant to collaborate time and again. Everything indicates that the capture of Cienfuegos was not a joint operation between the two countries. Analysts say the White House did not want to risk the leaks. The promise is that all those involved in this matter “will be suspended and placed at the disposal of the competent authority.” The certainty is that Cienfuegos, as the president has admitted, was not being investigated in Mexico.

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