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Fuero militar

29 July 2009

I had to gloss over a lot of Mexican history when I wrote “Gods, Gachupines and Gringos“.  I wasn’t prepared to get into the nitty-gritty of every coup, counter-coup and counter-counter coup of the 19th century … it seemed enough to note that there were two broad factions — Conservatives and Liberals.  The Conservatives were not anti-development, but sought to preserve the cultural system inherited from Spain; Liberalism, influenced more by capitalist theory, accepted that foreign influence and tolerance for outsiders was the cost of doing business.  Eventually,  Liberalism would win out — for the most part.

To the Conservatives,  if the culture was to be preserved, the guardians of the culture were the Church and the military, both institutions having their jealously guarded “fueros” — special legal rights.  Naturally, the Church and the Army both generally sided with the Conservatives.  By re-defining the military as a guardian of the State, not the inherited culture, the Liberals were finally able to win their struggle with the Conservatives, though only by leaving military fueros largely in place.

The military itself remains a largely conservative institution.  While Porfirio Diaz was a professional army officer (and, though we consider him a reactionary today, in his own time was considered an advanced, liberal leader), and Mexico’s political leadership has come until very recently from the military, the great military men seen as politically “liberal”  — Morelos, Villa, Zapata, Obregon — were self-taught in the art of war.  Zapata was the only one had military training, but was never more than a sergeant.

On the other hand, Mexico — unlike most of Latin America — was able to eventually take the military out of politics.  The 1910-20 Revolution created a new military caste which controlled the Revolutionary Party, but with the foundation of the PRI in 1949, the military was finally separated from an active political role.  Incidentally, this was the same year that Costa Rica removed their military from a political role through the radical step of abolishing their military forces.

While military officers continue to influence political decision making, it’s mostly behind the scenes.  That the Army and Navy are used for political ends is no secret (witness 1968, or the Zapatatista uprising of the 1990s), but for the most part, the military has played a very small part in contemporary Mexican political life.

Until recently.  The “War on Drugs”, as reported in foreign papers, is identifed as “Felipe Calderon’s War on Drugs”… which is about right.  With questions about Calderon’s legitimacy in office never having gone away, and with the mid-term elections showing large repudiation of Calderon’s governance, it’s no longer just the Mexican left questioning the seemingly increasing military role in civilian life.

Bloggings by Boz, which is a pretty reliable source for U.S. “inside the beltway” attitudes towards Latin America (or at least the smarter ones)  comments on one recent news story:

Related to Mexican President Calderon’s fight against drug trafficking organizations, today’s Washington Post headline “New Strategy Urged in Mexico” has one problem: it suggests there was an old strategy.

Boz assumes the strategy was to fight the cartels, not to maintain the present administration’s legitimacy.  And, that the Calderon Administration is “Conservative” — in the very old fashioned, 19th century sense.  It’s not a matter of Conservatives being pro-military, but of Conservatives seeing Church and Army as the pillars of civilization.  PAN’s clericalism is better known, and — something I never much considered — much of the PAN elite’s disappointment with Vincente Fox might have to do with his generally anti-military biases.

In many ways, Fox was a “liberal” — in the 19th century sense.  His election was largely due to managing to tone down the rougher edges of traditional conservatism (although, under the influence of his wife… and the party “base”… he did pander to the Catholic Church) and focus on the capitalist free-market traditions considered part of modern conservatism.

But, consider that as soon as the “War on drugs” took off, Calderon was being photographed wearing a uniform.  I think Lazaro Cardenas was the last president to wear a uniform in photographs.  I don’t recall Manuel Avila Camacho, the World War II President (and a General) ever wearing one, nor any president up until Calderon (who never did  military service).

Forget for now  the human rights issues and whether or not the “war” is winnable… if the strategy is to impose the conservative vision on Mexico, then –yes — keeping the military in the streets makes perfect sense.

While Argentina has gone the furthest in putting the military under civil control, taking the radical step of doing away with a separate military justice system and Ecuador refused to renew the lease on Manta airbase to the United States at least in part over concerns for the “fuero militar”*, the Calderon Administration has been seeking to broaden them.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Dick Cheney, to cite a well know U.S. conservative thinker, suggested using the Army to arrest a few suspected terrorists in Lakawana New York. Not because the arrests required any special military skills, or out of a distrust of civilian police, but because it would set a precedent.  As someone on the Rachel Maddow Show (one of the few U.S. news programs I see once in a while) put it, it was a “Demonstration model” of political power:   in this case, to return the military to a role in civil control.

*The United States has avoided signing international conventions on human rights, and insisted on immunity for its soldiers in foreign countries, mostly out of concern that the soldiers could be extradited to stand trial for activities associated with the military duties.

But, for the “host” countries, sometimes the issues are much simpler.  In Ecuador, as in other countries where U.S. bases are politically unpopular, much of the local opposition to Manta came from local women and business owners.  U.S. soldiers — like any other group of young guys — don’t always behave as they should.    U.S. soldiers who’d shoplifted, or been in bar fights, or impregnated local women — had to be tried (if they were tried) by U.S. military courts, which made it difficult or impossible for shop keepers to get their money back, bar owners to get compensated for broken glassware and abandoned women to get child support.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Telzey permalink
    29 July 2009 12:04 pm

    It is interesting to note that the US is not the only Western country that refuses to sign on to the International Criminal Court (which would then have jurisdiction over crimes committed by US soldiers abroad). All of the European countries participating in the invasion of Afghanistan – which is basically all European countries – signed an agreeement just prior to the invasion stating that their troops in Afghanistan would be exempt from all forms of international justice, including the ICC. That all of these countries had themselves signed on to the ICC in 1998 was a small detail that didn’t seem to bother them very much.

    Which means, I think, that the West really has no interesting in the ICC except as an instrument to use against Third World countries.

  2. 30 July 2009 10:06 am

    I think you’re right about the U.S. and the ICC.

    U.S. conservatives treat the whole concept of international law as controversial. They’re all for international law for other countries, but they don’t think the U.S. should have to follow it if it doesn’t feel like it.

    Republicans held up the nomination of the State Department’s top lawyer because he’d had the audacity to suggest that judges in the United States could learn things from the rulings of judges in other countries. This was considered a scandalous act of heresy.

  3. Telzey permalink
    30 July 2009 4:36 pm

    Well, Lindsay, the US is at least more honest about its refusals. It will just say straight out: No way. Our European friends, on the other hand, make a big show of signing up for the ICC, and condemning anyone who doesn’t do the same, then behind their backs they quietly exempt themselves from its authority.

    Isn’t this worse?

  4. 30 July 2009 7:32 pm

    I let you two duke it out over the ICC… what’s at issue in places like Ecuador, and likely to be a bone of contention in Colombia, are not international war crimes, but ordinary criminality and misbehavior exempted from local courts… you can’t expect somebody just trying to get compensated for something like an auto accident to wait on to U.S. military courts, let alone the ICC.

  5. Telzey permalink
    31 July 2009 11:51 am


    But it’s my understanding that the “exemption agreements” that the US is demanding other states sign is precisely to secure exemption from the authority of the ICC. I’m sure the US military wants exemption from local authorities, as they always have. But the real pressure for exemption agreements only came into existence after the ICC became operational in 2003.


  1. Fuero militar « The Mex Files | Ecuador Today
  2. The slaughter of the innocents « The Mex Files

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