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The debate over how to militarize Mexico's "War on Drugs" misses the point. The type of militarization is not the problem; militarization itself is the problem.
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It started with an invitation. In the rural highlands of Guerrero, not too far from the resort city of Zihuatanejo, a small group of friends gathered to slaughter a cow in January 1970. The cow’s owner invited his friends to his home in the small village of El Varillal to help him butcher the animal and sell the meat. As the men cut and prepared the meat, a detachment of soldiers from the Mexican Army suddenly appeared at the home, brusquely demanding to know the whereabouts of an alleged marijuana trafficker. When the erstwhile butchers failed to provide information—it’s not clear they even knew the narco—the uniformed men with guns detained and later executed them. When word of the massacre spread throughout coastal Guerrero, the local military zone commander held a press conference in Acapulco. Soldiers had only acted in self-defense after the cow’s owner and his friends fired upon them with high-powered rifles—the sort of rifles increasingly used by narcos. Implication as explanation.
In Mexico, the militarization of counter-narcotics approaches and, more broadly, public security, has killed and continues to kill. What happened in El Varillal in 1970 has proven tragically unexceptional in the decades since, as the Mexican military became the spearhead in the “War on Drugs.” The many “El Varillales” that populate archives, newstories, and popular memories testify to the murderous failure of seven decades of militarized drug interdiction throughout the country and the Global South more broadly.
“They say the dead never complain,” the great Mexican author Juan Rulfo once wrote, but they can haunt.
The current political debate raging in Mexico over the continued militarization of public security—sparked by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) decision to place the recently created, nearly 100,000 strong National Guard under command of the Secretariat of National Defense1, approved subsequently by Congress—needs a sort of historical reckoning that places El Varillal as the starting point of critical rethinking. For the debate between AMLO’s ruling MORENA party and the opposition remains largely entrenched within a militarization framework that tends to differ only by degree.2 As things stand between rival political parties in government, the hundreds of thousands of deaths and disappearances since 2006 have apparently produced a tautological understanding that the “current climate of violence” fueled by militarization demands further militarization. Publicly, politicians will nuance this position through rhetoric—AMLO still argues that he’s following his campaign “abrazos, no balazos” (“hugs not bullets”) approach—or thin counter-proposals that seem more like bad faith political attacks than actual plans for much-needed radical reform. Security analyst Alejandro Hope recently characterized the PRI’s counter-proposal as a hastily created “bad joke.”
As the opening story suggests, militarization itself is the problem. Pushed and prodded by the US government since the late 1940s to adopt militarized forms of interdiction that violently attack the supply of drugs—and using those campaigns to brutally assert state authority in rebellious, even insurgent, rural peripheries—Mexico’s efforts have produced more drugs, more narcos, more violence, more death. Indeed, popular dissatisfaction with these horrific consequences help explain AMLO’s overwhelming victory in the 2018 elections. A vast majority of Mexican voters demanded radical change.
I briefly mention the role of the US because the question of violence in Mexico is directly connected both to the USian demand for illicit narcotics and to the USian mass supply of military grade weapons to criminal groups south of the border—not to mention the use of drugs and drug wars to advance US imperial interests past and present. This debate, like others (climate change and migration, to quickly name two), highlights the difficulties faced by sovereign nations to mitigate and reform issues with key transnational components.
The Mexican Military and its Myths
To understand the history and consequences of this decades-long militarization of public security, let's briefly focus on one of the main actors in this story: the Mexican military (specifically the Army and Navy). One of the most opaque, least accessible institutions in all of Latin America, the Mexican military continues to enjoy a robust level of popular support and trust (though, as with all polls, it depends on how the questions are framed and how military operations are described). Indeed, those poll numbers are used by AMLO (and past presidents) to justify the continued deployment of soldiers throughout the country in policing and counter-narcotics roles. In contrast to thoroughly corrupt local, state and (now defunct) Federal police forces—the argument goes—the military is incorruptible, more honest, more impervious to the allure of narco dollars.
This contemporary belief in the military’s incorruptibility, according to historian Thomas Rath, depends on a series of myths formed and perpetuated in the decades after the 1910 revolution under the PRI dictatorship. The myths go something like this: an army of popular extraction borne from revolution willingly retreated from the political sphere after a couple of tumultuous decades and achieved political neutrality by the 1950s. Unlike most other Latin American militaries it did not launch coups, seek the conquest of political power and wage ideology-fueled civilizational struggles against foreign-inspired leftist “internal subversion.” Rather, its history is “one of institutional unity, neutrality and unquestioned obedience to presidential authority.”3 The Mexican Army, in other words, successfully demilitarized.
As both the opening anecdote and Rath’s great study show, this “sanitized version of the army’s history”4—the version that sustains political arguments in favor of continued militarization—avoids a complicated, troubling past. The Mexican Army has long exchanged obedience to the presidency for institutional autonomy (hence the opaqueness) and a relatively free hand with how it has operated as a domestic police force—particularly in the countryside. While the massacres and repression of protestors committed by the army in urban centers have historically garnered much attention (1946 León, 1956 Mexico City, and 1968 Mexico City), it was in the countryside where soldiers violently enforced unequal and exploitative social orders in quotidian fashion as essentially a domestic police force. By the 1960s, experience with this form of violent militarized social and political control allowed schoolteacher-turned-socialist-guerrilla Genaro Vázquez to warn protesting Mexico City students in September 1968 to anticipate state terrorism. Almost a month later, on the night of October 2, soldiers massacred hundreds (perhaps more) of students during a rally in Tlatelolco.
The Mexican army thus never fully demilitarized. By the late 1970s, it escalated a process of remilitarization after a decade of waging state terrorism against peasant guerrillas, peasant land invasions, and peasant drug farmers. Counterinsurgencies doubling as counter-narcotics operations—complete with US-provided aircraft, arms, technology and US-trained officers—tortured, displaced and disappeared thousands in the Mexican countryside. A journalist sent to cover army-led so-called “drug wars” in northwestern Mexico during the late 1970s remarked that the region looked like any South American country then under bloody military rule. In the following decade, even as the Mexican state lost capacity in the aftermath of the 1982 debt crisis and subsequent neoliberal “structural realignment,” the army continued to grow. With expanded numbers, budget, and policing roles in a country mired in turmoil, it did what it had done for decades: enforce and maintain militarized social control in the provinces and countryside.
And the drugs kept flowing north.
Where does the State “End” and the “Narcos” Begin?
Today, this militarized approach to governance is characterized more by continuity than political rupture or “democratic transition.” AMLO admitted as much when he recently said that “the mess he encountered when taking office” changed his mind about the vanguard role of the military in public security. Certainly the decision in 2006 by then-President Felipe Calderón to begin a “War against Drug Cartels” led by the Mexican military marked an important watershed moment that increased the scale and magnitude of militarization. It intensified a longer process decades in the making.
By looking at that process historically, we can see that the question of violence is not just about drugs, cartels and guns. It is also about state power and sovereignty. The current political debate continues to hinge on a binary understanding that pits a Mexican state and its security forces against an array of paramilitarized drug trafficking organizations based in local/regional strongholds. As such, it completely misses the fractious history of state formation after the 1910 revolution in which formal and informal (even criminal) configurations of political power at the local and regional levels sustained the long-ruling PRI. At these levels, state authorities and institutions worked with what anthropologist Romain Le Cour Grandmaison calls “de facto sovereigns” within unstable alliances. Rather than establish itself as “sole sovereign” with a monopoly on legitimate violence on the ground, state authorities worked to reorganize power configurations with their local allies.
Within such arrangements, violence worked as a resource, a way of doing politics, a form of mediation between local actors and state authorities. In Mexico, the “rule of law” has long depended on violence. It still does.
Sometimes those local allies were the very narcos purportedly targeted by drug wars. In Guerrero and Sinaloa during the 1970s, drug traffickers at times carried out the dirty work of the state in attacking popular protest and social movements alongside the army and police. The same army that attacked El Varillal looking for narcos faced accusations from other rural guerrerense communities that soldiers had provided marijuana seeds and tried to force peasants into growing the illicit crop. Since the 1980s, the numerous arrests of high-ranking police and military officials for working with drug traffickers (once even a drug czar) suggests that this is a structural feature of power and violence in Mexico.
Continuing the militarization of public security thus ignores the porous boundaries that have historically existed between parts of the Mexican state—particularly the military and police—and drug trafficking organizations. This type of collaboration is systemic both for the drug business and state governance. Where does the state “end” and the narcos “begin?”
Meanwhile, the mass murders and disapperances continue.
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The Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) commands Mexico’s Army and Air Force.
This might be changing. In early September 2022, a bill presented by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the Chamber of Deputies calling for the military to remain in a policing capacity until 2028 has apparently split their electoral alliance with the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and the ideologically confused Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Within the PRI, several senators also voiced their disapproval of the bill.
Thomas Rath, Myths of Demilitarization in Postrevolutionary Mexico, 1920-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), p. 172.