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As military music is to music, military justice is…

27 October 2010

One of the most significant reforms to come out of Mexico’s participation in the Second World War (or, as it is known in Mexico, the “The Anti-Fascist War”) was the formal removal of the military from a political role.  As I wrote in Gods, Gachupines and Gringos:

President Ávila Camacho used the war as an excuse to professionalize the military.  The old cowboys, miners, farmers and factory workers with the rank of colonel or general or still enlisted in the armed forces couldn’t meet the new requirements and found other jobs.  Officer’s pensions had often been based on how much of a threat the old officer had been.  Wartime, and the need to watch the military budget, was the excuse for reorganizing these pensions… The Mexican military budget actually dropped during the war and has continued to decline ever since.

In 1948, formation of the PRI, as successor to the PRM, completed the process, removing military cadres from the then-ruling party hierarchy.  While 1950s President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines had been an Army officer (in the Quartermaster Corps), since the War, presidents have been civilians, and — although as Commander-in-Chief — actually do hold military rank, were reluctant to admit to using the military in civilian operations.  This is not to say that the military was not used as enforcers in civil controversies (they were… again and again:  in the 1958 railroad strike,  in 1968, in the “dirty war” of the 1970s, against the Zapatistas in 1994, and on other, less “celebrated” occasions), but that it was always done under civilian authority and often only with the reluctant participation of the generals and admirals.

As a Revolutionary (or “Institutional Revolutionary”) state, militarism continued to have an important place as a symbol of the increasingly abstract people’s government.  Vicente Fox, the first non-Revolutionary Party President, made important — if subtle — changes that sought to project the civilian nature of state authority:  trying to turn the always impressive Mexico City Revolution Day parade into a celebration of sports and health rather than a show of military hardware (the military still marched, but the army cooks, Servicio Militar marching tree planters — armed with shovels and seedlings — and the disaster recovery teams all were turned out smartly),  commuting the few remaining convicts under a death sentence in military prisons to life imprisonment, and allowing an important courts-martial case to be televised.

The last — often forgotten — may have been more important than we thought.  I honestly forget what the case was about, and the exact date, but remember I had students (I was giving English conversation classes to executives at the time) fascinated with the show.  It perhaps didn’t have the addictive quality the Watergate Hearings held in the United States, but did bring national attention, if only briefly, to what was then completely forgotten in the seeming de-militarization of the State:  that the military justice system was separate from civilian control and — by extension — that the military itself was a thing apart from the civil government.

While calls for reforming the military justice system continue (none going as far as Argentina, which simply folded the military code into the civilian legal code) are under discussion, but have so far stalled,  a more troubling trend is that — under the rubric of the “drug war”, or the more generic term of “insecurity” — Felipe Calderón has reversed the trend towards demilitarization and civilian control.  Some is symbolic:  he is, as far as I can tell, the first President since the War Against Fascism to be photographed in a military uniform.  Much more worrisome, it seems Calderón is encouraging the military itself to seek a larger role in the affairs of state.

John Ackerman recently wrote in Proceso of a document distributed to PAN Delegates and Senators that (in my translation) “asserts that the mission of the Armed Forces is ‘perverted’  when they are ‘subordinate’ to civil authorities and are ‘overwhelmed by an assignment to internal security’.  He quotes General Luis Crescencio Sandoval, who makes the public argument that “the Armed Forces cannot come to the aid of a civilian administration when that administration is, itself, incapable of confronting the problems of national security and lacks the capacity to safeguard against threats, foreign and domestic”  (again, my translation).

In other words, since civilian control cannot contain “insecurity”, then civilians should have no say in what is done to regain control.  Which, of course, begs the question — when control is regained, who is the controller?

While military abuses do receive some airing (usually in small circulation “alternative” media), not much is said about creeping militarism in Mexico.  Ackerman points out that Articlo 129 of the Constitution is explicit: “In peace time, no military authority shall exercise any power other than those related to military discipline”, and some outsiders (such as Philip Caputo) have suggested that a creeping coup is underway, more attention is civil authorities inability to deal with “insecurity”  — as Lourdes Cardenas writes in her El Paso Times column “Mexico in Focus” (which perhaps is better titled “Juarez in Focus”, but is always worth reading, and worth bookmarking):

It is evident that the federal government’s strategy to fight organized crime has failed. It is evident that the government is incapable of bringing security to the city and to the country. What is most obvious is that fact that people cannot be safe, even in their homes—teenagers cannot celebrate and party, people cannot walk outside their homes without the fear of being shot…

Alejandro Marti, a powerful business man whose 14-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered in 2008, coined a famous phrase that made waves in the political and social arena. After his son was killed, he went on television and said, “¡Si no pueden, que renuncien!”, which means  if the authorities cannot control the criminals, they should resign.

I can’t say whether Sr. Marti’s position is correct, and can take no position on what the elected officials should do about insecurity. The use of the military (even if unconstitutional) seems to restore the semblance of security (and least temporarily), but I question whether simply abrogating authority to the military resolves the problem, or whether it simply replaces one problem (the temporary — and largely artificial — problem posed by the narcotics trade and the failure of the elected officials to craft a workable solution) with something more serious.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Tomas permalink
    28 October 2010 7:48 am

    “Some is symbolic: he is, as far as I can tell, the first President since the War Against Fascism to be photographed in a military uniform. Much more worrisome, it seems Calderón is encouraging the military itself to seek a larger role in the affairs of state.”


    Let the honest local police solve the problems of insecurity.

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