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Mexico's armed forces are becoming increasingly powerful under its president

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The role of the military in civilian life is growing in Mexico. Lawmakers just extended a law that allows the armed forces to patrol streets and perform police functions across the country. This is only a few weeks after Mexico's president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, announced the military will also take over control of the national guard. That's the country's largest police force. And this seems to be a part of a larger policy under the president.

Alejandro Hope is a Mexican security analyst and joins us now from Mexico City. Mr. Hope, thanks so much for being with us.

ALEJANDRO HOPE: Thank you very much. Our pleasure.

SIMON: Isn't this the same president who campaigned to - and I'll quote him - "send the soldiers back to their barracks?"

HOPE: Yes, he did, although he has always been somewhat ambiguous on the issue. We actually look at some of his statements from his prior presidential runs in, say, 2006. He was openly campaigning on the premise that the military should be used for law enforcement purposes. This was 15 years ago.

SIMON: In your understanding, Mr. Hope, is it constitutional for the Mexican army to be involved this way?

HOPE: When they reformed the constitution in 2019 to create the national guard, the national guard was created explicitly as a civilian police institution that should be under the control of the Ministry of Public Safety. So in terms of the Mexican constitutional framework, the military should be limited to strictly national defense affairs in times of peace.

SIMON: And there have been extraordinary revelations in recent years - in recent months, really, haven't there - about the military's actions?

HOPE: Well, yes, and we just had a massive hack of the Mexican National Defense Ministry. And we're getting a look into the inner working of the military that we have never had. And the picture is not pretty in many ways. We're finding out that they tapped phones, probably without any judicial control. There is a significant pattern of sexual abuse within the military, and that those allegations are not properly investigated. We're finding out that military intelligence has files on democratically elected politicians. So it has been quite an extraordinary week for the military since this hack was revealed.

SIMON: And the military has been involved in major infrastructure projects, right?

HOPE: That's correct. They built an airport right next to Mexico City. Not only they built it, they run it. They're building a massive train project in southeastern Mexico, so-called the Mayan Train. They have plans to create a tourist infrastructure and actually creating a military-run commercial enterprise, including an airline. This is probably not the way to go for the armed forces in a democratic context. This is putting the military into areas of public policy that they have never been involved with in the past. And it is creating opportunities for corruption that weren't there in the past. This is a major challenge to the integrity of the Mexican armed forces.

SIMON: Why does President Lopez Obrador want the military to be more involved - at least, what's your surmise of that?

HOPE: He sees them as an alternate to civilian bureaucracy, which he distrusts significantly. He has openly stated that he wants all this projects and all this companies to be run by the military because it would be harder for any future government to privatize them. And he sees them as a way of doing a lot of things much faster than going the normal civilian route and having a lot of his projects protected under the mantle of national security and therefore with levels of transparency that are far less adequate than they would be if he went through civil institutions.

SIMON: And you're concerned?

HOPE: Well, sure because, I mean, Mexico is one of two Latin American countries where you have never had a civilian as minister of defense. Since the end of World War II, there hasn't been a single minister of defense that has been removed from his position before the end of the specific - of the administration where he was named. That's 75 years. So you're talking about a level self-government, level of a deficit of accountability that is quite significant. And giving them power over a number of public policy decisions is creating a massive deficit in terms of civilian and democratic control.

SIMON: Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst in Mexico City - thanks so much for being with us, sir.

HOPE: Thank you very much. Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.