Rampant military politicization puts Mexico and Brazil at risk
Are the armed forces of Latin America becoming politically active again after decades in which they remained largely in barracks and confined to their normal professional role? We are seeing worrying signs from Mexico and Brazil, the two largest countries in the region, and ironically it is the elected presidents of these countries who involve the military in their political projects. Mexican Andres Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) is an avowed leftist and opponent of the Mexican elite. Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, is the scourge of the left. Yet despite their ideological differences, the two sought to steer their nations’ armed forces away from neutrality.
Mexican political leaders have worked for decades to separate the armed forces from political life. Traditionally, the Mexican military has been respected but kept relatively small and limited to conventional security activities. This included fighting the relatively small Zapatista rebellion in southern Mexico and, beginning with AMLO’s predecessors Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, engaging in anti-drug operations.
When AMLO ran for president in 2018, he campaigned against the military’s role in the fight against narcotics. It was part of his broader approach to the drug problem, which he said could not be solved by punitive means, but only by increasing social welfare spending – a policy he called “hugs, no hugs(hugs, not gunshots). This policy, of course, appealed to his leftist constituency which was historically suspicious of the military.
But while he did put the brakes on aggressive counter-narcotics enforcement, the military by no means stood still. Actions against drug cartels slowed, but did not cease, and AMLO had no choice but to use the military when the lack of state presence in some areas became blatant. Along with this, he also called on the military for operations against urban crime.
Soldiers turned cops
Perhaps the most dramatic step was the creation of the “National Guard”, a new paramilitary uniformed police force to replace the previously corrupt and inefficient federal police. While such entities are found in many countries and range from reputable institutions in established democracies such as the Spanish Civil Guard and the Italian Carabinieri, they can be weapons of repression such as Vladimir Putin’s Rosgvardia in Russia and the own National Guard of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
AMLO wanted its national guard to be explicitly linked to the army and placed under the authority of the national defense secretariat (SEDENA), the ministry, still headed by an active general, in charge of the army. But despite AMLO’s preference, the legislation creating the National Guard placed it under the civilian-run Security Secretariat. However, he recently revived his aim to bring him back under the defense umbrella. But while AMLO himself remains popular, the 2021 midterm elections have left him with a slim majority in Congress and it’s unclear whether he will be able to secure that transfer.
AMLO’s National Guard, however, remains perfectly identified with the armed forces. It was created initially by relying on personnel from the Army and Navy’s own military police units. While some members were drawn from the now defunct Federal Police, they are very much in the minority, and allegations have surfaced that ex-police officers are treated like second-class citizens within the Guard, for example forced to sleep on the streets while the ex-soldiers can spend the night in barracks and are encouraged to quit. Top leaders are largely drawn from those who have left the military.
The guard has been tasked with maintaining patrols in Mexico City (where it is building four new barracks) and elsewhere, a move that has raised concerns. Such patrols recall the deployment of the army in 1968 to deal with protests that led to the “Three Cultures Square massacre”, in which university students were shot dead by army units. Although nothing comparable has taken place, the National Guard has faced allegations of corruption and human rights abuses, and it is unclear whether this militarized national police force is likely to do better at meeting Mexico’s law enforcement needs than its civilian predecessors. Even so, his role has expanded to include immigration enforcement as impoverished Central Americans seek transit through Mexico en route to the United States.
We are with the “Transformation”
But homeland security is not the only area where AMLO has sought to give the military a role. He sought to engage him in his main political effort: unraveling the economic liberalization that had taken place under his predecessors and creating a Mexican welfare state based on the state-led development concepts of the 1960s. which he called “the Mexican people in uniform”, must play a crucial role in the country’s “fourth transformation” (the previous three having been other perceived key historical moments).
Its program includes large-scale infrastructure projects – a new oil refinery, a second airport for Mexico City and a high-speed rail line linking Mexico City with tourist areas in the Caribbean. Faced with social and environmental objections and the resulting lawsuits, he declared them projects of national security interest placed under the authority of SEDENA, with the aim of protecting them legally from such disputes or from possible privatization by a future administration. The army took over the management of the new airport, including security. In addition to these flagship projects, the armed forces have been tasked with building hundreds of branches of the new “Bank of Welfare”, a state institution aimed at providing support to low-income Mexicans. Relatively few branches of this bank have yet been built.
AMLO’s bear hug to the Mexican Armed Forces was reciprocated. On the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution in 2021, the head of SEDENA, General Luis Sandoval, explicitly stated that the army was committed to the implementation of Mexico’s “fourth transformation”, calling on the Mexican people to be “united in the national project which is underway. Subsequently, human rights organizations and the political opposition sharply criticized the comments, fearing they marked a break with the tradition of the military staying out of politics.
From Captain to President
If the Mexican armed forces have become entangled in partisan politics, the process has gone even further in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro. While the Mexican military was sidelined from politics in the 1940s, Brazil had a military government that took power in the mid-1960s for twenty-one years under the banner of anti-communism and nationalism. While the repression and subsequent human rights abuses have risen and fallen, the arrests and disappearances are hardly forgotten.
The departure of the Brazilian military from politics was facilitated by the fact that the first civilian presidents came from center-right backgrounds, and even when Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva (commonly known as Lula) took his functions, a modus vivendi was maintained, facilitated by the fact that the commodity boom in Brazil allowed military funding to remain high, including the purchase of high-performance jet fighters for the air force and the maintenance of a development program for a nuclear submarine for the navy. Even after the economy deteriorated and accusations of unauthorized spending leveled against Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, led to his removal and succession to a more conservative figure, the question of the role military in politics has not really arisen.
Everything changed with Bolsonaro’s accession to the presidency in 2019. A former army captain, he had previously served in Congress where he was considered a fringe figure. Indeed, though pro-military, his favorite issue had been the defense of junior officers, not something likely to appeal to the generals running the military establishment. His campaign and subsequent presidency were marked by harsh anti-left rhetoric, accusing the Workers’ Party of Lula and Rousseff of being communists.
Bolsonaro has used intentionally provocative language to clarify his identification with former military governments. He invoked the memory of Colonel Alberto Ustra, who had led the military government’s secret police, praising him as a “national hero”. He said that “the error of the dictatorship was to torture and not to kill”. His son Eduardo struck a chord when he suggested that Brazil needed a return to “Institutional Act Five”, the military government decree that severely restricted basic civil liberties.
As president, Bolsonaro has kept close ties to the military, but not without using his prerogative to sack senior commanders seen as less than fully supportive. He also placed serving officers in ministerial posts unrelated to defence. Perhaps most controversially, he kept a general with no relevant experience as health minister through much of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet he was careful to protect the military. As inflation ate away at the purchasing power of Brazilians, he ensured that the salaries of the armed forces were maintained. And major military purchases such as the ongoing procurement of Air Force fighter jets continue despite rising deficits. And in a particularly high-profile move, when a former officer now serving in Congress was found guilty of making seditious remarks, Bolsonaro immediately pardoned him.