EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – In 2012, then-presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador promised to stop using Mexican soldiers for civilian tasks such as law enforcement and return them to their barracks. That came at a time in which drug violence reached record levels as did allegations of brutality against the army.
Nine years later, the president of Mexico is using soldiers and ex-soldiers in his newly created National Guard for immigration enforcement. He also plans to put them in charge of airports, customs houses, community banks and the new multibillion-dollar Maya Train tourism project in the Yucatan Peninsula.
The situation worries migrant advocates in Texas as well as Latin American policy experts. They point to the military’s spotted record on human rights abuses and due process, and the potential for even greater violations.
“I was in Chiapas (Southern Mexico) two years ago and heard reports of soldiers entering homes and hotel (without warrants) to look for migrants. Two years later, we’re hearing the same thing in Juarez,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of El Paso’s Border Network for Human Rights. “The National Guard is carrying out military functions in both the Southern and Northern border of Mexico, and that is going to lead to more abuses against Central Americans and Mexicans” of indigenous descent.
On Thursday, Mexican media reported National Guard raids on at least two hotels in Juarez. They were looking for Central American and Cuban migrants.
The controversy of Mexico using soldiers against migrants has flared again as the Biden administration is asking Mexico to help stem migration flows from Central America, which eventually end up at the U.S. border. Former President Donald Trump made a similar, yet more forceful request in 2019. The result was the same: more soldiers and ex-soldiers patrolling the Mexico-Guatemala border, staffing dozens of highway checkpoints and raiding homes and hotels looking for migrants.
In a paper published this week, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), questioned the president of Mexico’s commitment to get the military off the streets.
“Lopez Obrador has failed to demilitarize public security. On the contrary, he has deepened various aspects of the militarized model,” a WOLA analyst wrote on a piece called “Militarized Mexico: A Lost War That Has Not Brought Peace.”
The research points out that the military’s entry into the war on drugs failed to disband the cartels and led to “a widely documented pattern of arbitrary detention and torture of civilians, including innocents charged for crimes they did not commit.”
WOLA also questions the president of Mexico’s assertion that the National Guard is a civilian law-enforcement organization.
“The majority of its 100,000 members are military troops, it is housed in barracks and its commander is a general who went from active status to retired status,” WOLA said. Further, leaked official documents show the Ministry of Defense assumed operational command of the National Guard last October 6.
Border scholar Tony Payan said it’s clear that Lopez Obrador lied on the campaign trail and will continue to empower the military. “He said what he needed to say at the time to get elected,” said Payan, director of the U.S.-Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy and professor at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez.
Payan said the president of Mexico’s increased reliance on soldiers puts not only migrants but other civilians at risk as well.
“If you don’t do what they want you to do, they will fire. They will beat and abuse people. We ought to expect an incredible increase in human rights violations and due process because the military is not trained except in the use of force during war,” he said.
Garcia of the Border Network said Mexico’s use of soldiers for immigration control stands to yield the same results as its failed war on drugs: more deaths.
“This is a policy of deterrence. In any given highway (out of Chiapas) there are 10 National Guard checkpoints. Not only will we see a dramatic increase in abuses against migrants who pass through those checkpoints, but we will see Central Americans crossing at more dangerous places like mountains, jungles and open sea. People will get lost, people will drown, people will die,” Garcia said.
The long-time migrant advocate said world leaders seem not to understand that migration cannot be stemmed using force. “These flows have to do with economics, with social conditions, with failed political systems” that must be addressed in each region, he said.