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September 6, 2022

Militarization and the National Guard Reforms

Early Saturday morning, in a largely party-line vote, Mexico’s congress passed a set of controversial reforms to the National Guard. The Senate is expected to approve the legislation in the coming days. The reforms to the National Guard, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s signature security project, will serve to further cement the role of the military in internal affairs.

Since its inception, the National Guard has been marred by its clearly militarized nature, despite the fact that it is constitutionally established as a civilian institution that would replace the (civilian) federal police. To be clear, it was not created to provide specialized enforcement around organized crime, but rather to serve as the country’s single public safety institution that would coordinate with local authorities and would receive support from the armed forces. The goal was to have the National Guard respond to public safety issues including organized crime when needed.

The new reforms—enabled by changes to regulations rather than a constitutional reform—will formally transfer control of the force to SEDENA, giving the military control over its administration and operations. SEDENA will control training, budgets, discipline, personnel, and National Guard members will be subject to military (rather than civilian) justice systems.

Opposition party members in the PAN have promised legal challenges to the reforms, which are likely to arrive in the Supreme Court. Even if the Supreme Court upholds the legislation, some have suggested that the reforms may create ongoing legal disputes that could cripple the administration of the National Guard.

There are four points that help understand the significance of these reforms:

1) Meaning of Militarization. In many ways, this reform is the logical endpoint of the National Guard’s flawed institutional trajectory. The original National Guard force was principally comprised of Military Police, transferred from SEDENA, and the attempt to integrate civilian members (from both the Federal Police and through new recruitment efforts) did not alter the institution’s overall composition: nearly 80% of its members are members of the army or navy.


Indeed, “militarization” should not be seen as a passive or accidental development, and it is essential to understand SEDENA’s role in laying the foundations. Beginning around 2014, SEDENA began to expand the size of the military police within the army: from around 12,000 members in 2012, the number of military police grew to almost 36,000 at the start of López Obrador’s government in 2018. Repurposing military police from traditional tasks, such as guarding bases, to domestic law enforcement was a deliberate strategy, and included a wave of deployments of military police to states such as Sinaloa, Nuevo León, Puebla, and Tamaulipas in 2016 and 2017. These deployments often involved contracts with state governments for equipment and the construction of bases.


When it was formed in 2019, the National Guard was the beneficiary of that SEDENA strategy. The new institution was viable precisely because SEDENA transferred those 36,000 military police—helping to ensure that López Obrador’s flagship force would not experience the same fate as Enrique Peña Nieto’s gendarmerie. This continued to be the case in the following years, as recruitment into the National Guard passed through SEDENA. According to the National Guard’s annual report, 73,805 out of the 113,833 of its members are transferred from SEDENA.


The reforms thus consolidate both SEDENA’s existing influence over the National Guard, as well as is its economic stake: the combined budgets of the two forces (which SEDENA will administrate) will reach historic levels. In this context, taking formal control of the National Guard appears to be the conclusion of a longer SEDENA effort to displace civilians from security operations.


2) Implications for Security, Transparency, and Human Rights. There are a number of immediately obvious concerns over whether these reforms will reduce accountability for abuses by the National Guard because members will be subjected to military—rather than civilian—justice processes (the “fuero militar”). These concerns are not abstract. National Guard members have been involved in shootings that killed civilians, as well as sexual assaults and beatings of migrants.[1] SEDENA’s record is still worse, with the recently released report on the Ayotzinapa disappearance finding that members of SEDENA were actively involved, despite the fact that a soldier infiltrated among the students was among the victims. Moreover, justice for SEDENA’s human rights abuses is hard to come by, with cases such as that of the Tlatlaya massacre dragging on for years, and victims often needing to recur to international tribunals.

Additionally, there is reason to worry that the further expansion of SEDENA’s administrative responsibilities will open the door to new forms of corruption, as the military has a decidedly poor record on fiscal transparency. SEDENA’s interest in generating revenue, beyond budget capture alone, has been identified as a troubling development in recent years. Controlling the construction of bases or equipment purchases offer opportunities for institutional enrichment, and potential practices such as “renting” the National Guard by providing special security services for a fee further explain how SEDENA benefits from this reform.

On the other hand, there is little reason to believe these reforms will change Mexico’s security landscape. As noted in the previous edition of El Acarreo, large-scale deployments did not prevent outbreaks of violence in Tijuana, and the National Guard model of largely preventative policing (rather than investigative or intelligence-based security operations) is likely reinforced by its incorporation into SEDENA.

3) Process Matters. The reforms have advanced as an almost entirely partisan project, pushed forward by the executive under López Obrador. The plans for the reforms were announced on August 25th, one week before they arrived in congress, giving activists scant time to mobilize opposition. While it would be wrong to call this an undemocratic reform, the process has nevertheless been rushed. What is concerning is that the design of security policy should be a pluralistic effort, with buy-in from experts and activists: this was not the case here. Arguably, the López Obrador administration is taking advantage of a clear divide between experts and activists and the average citizen. While the National Guard has, from the outset, been criticized for its militarized nature, and many organizations have expressed concern about the massively expanded role of the armed forces in domestic security under López Obrador, surveys such as the ENCADE have found that there is broad trust in the army among the general population, including for its expanded role in domestic affairs such as vaccine distribution and construction.  For instance, ENCADE found 72% of the population trust the armed forces for distributing benefits of social programs. Moreover, academic studies have found that exposure to violence leads voters to support more severe responses to criminal groups, including vigilantism, suggesting that many Mexicans may support a muscular approach to policing.


4) The Fast Fade of US Security Cooperation. Even before the Bicentennial Framework replaced the Mérida Initiative as the mechanism for US security cooperation with Mexico, the institutional relationship between SEDENA and the US military had begun to soften, with trainings and funding decreasing dramatically after the 2018 fiscal year. Given that US officials had a notoriously touchy relationship with SEDENA even before the Cienfuegos debacle, and US lawmakers have imposed restrictions on assistance to military-led policing, the logical outcome of the reforms will be to further diminish the possibility of any meaningful federal-level security cooperation. While US assistance has pivoted toward human rights training and support for institutions such as the national search commission and the protection mechanism for journalists and human rights defenders—aid that will likely be unaffected by this change—several areas still require robust binational cooperation. In particular, arms trafficking (a major area of interest for the Mexican government) and disrupting the production and trafficking of fentanyl are areas where Mexico and the US can and should work together.

[1] It is worth noting, however, that the National Guard has a far less lethal record than SEDENA, carrying out a greater number of arrests with fewer fatalities.



Call to Action: The details of Rosario Lilian Rodriguez's abduction and murder in Sinaloa last week show an appalling failure of the state government to protect those who are at risk. Immediately after she was abducted, 911 calls from her son received no response by police, and activists' calls to both the Comisión Estatal de Búsqueda and the subsecretary of human rights went unanswered. "We know that the first 20 minutes are crucial, and nobody did anything,” the activists told local journalists.

This was a crime foretold: in apparent retaliation for her advocacy and attempts to find her son, who is among the state’s many disappeared, Rodriguez had been threatened, gasoline was poured on her house in an arson attempt, another son escaped an attempted abduction, and her car had been stolen. Authorities were not unaware.

The state knows that buscadoras face threats, and too often acts as though this risk is somehow acceptable, suggesting that search groups are making a choice to face this danger. In doing so, the government abdicates both its legal responsibility to protect all citizens, and its moral responsibility to those who must undertake the dangerous task of advocating for victims and searching for the missing precisely because the state has failed in its duties.

The chilling effect of this murder is obvious. Corazones sin Justicia, the collective of rastreadoras in Elota that Rodríguez had helped form, has now ceased its activities. This comes after ongoing harassment, including from municipal police.

We join the demand that the administration of Rubén Rocha guarantee safety and security for the state’s buscadoras and activists.

Learn more about the risks and challenges facing buscadoras in Sinaloa here:

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