41. Abrazos y balazos: strengthening the Mexican army

Mexico paradoxically has one of the most pacifist and most active armies in the world. Yet the army must be updated to function within a changed security context. That does not just require a close relationship with the population, but also 30mm bullets.

The Mexican military paradox works as follows: Mexican foreign policy avoids military intervention, and the army has practically no offensive capacity. At the same time, the army is highly visible in daily life and is ‘out there’ daily assisting in the (on some of those days losing) fight against organized crime. Furthermore, the army is hotly contested, and at the same time surprisingly popular and trusted over other state institutions, including the judicial branch. The fact that the current leftwing government more prominently involved the army in its national project has only increased the debate on its broad role in society. This is not to mention the paramilitary force of the National Guard, whose relation to the army forms a separate debate.

    This essay argues that while the army has been involved in various controversies, today the evolution is overall positive, setting the conditions for embracing the active role of the army. The time seems ripe for a significant upgrade. We will first discuss the reasons why the Mexican army is so weak in terms of firepower. Afterwards the changed security context will be discussed, followed by an assessment of what should be strengthened. I want to note that armed forces are only a small (and not the main) element of a national security strategy, and that this essay is part of a broader vision, including legal, penal, police and social policy reform.

While Mexico has a large army, it has limited and outdated hardware. It lacks certain assets completely, and has for example no tanks, jet fighters or attack helicopters. Yet there are good historical reasons for this.

    To start with, Mexico is consistently pacifist in its foreign policy. While recently the conservatives tried to entangle us in the Ukrainian war, tradition wills that Mexico observes a strict respect for national sovereignty and generally does not meddle with countries. Mexican soldiers do not serve to murder people at the other side of the globe and call it defense. This healthy lack of imperialist ambition means that the country simply has no need for heavy offensive hardware, such as bombing aircraft, submarines or missile systems. Note that the old joke that “we are not a power because we can’t be” is malinchista nonsense, for there are many smaller countries (Algeria and Greece, to name two), both in GDP and population, with more armed militaries. And there certainly are smaller countries with more aggressive behavior – it is a choice. 

    A choice that is made a lot easier by the fact that our Northern neighbor is the United States. To simplify things: no rational country would invade Mexico, because that would threaten the United States and trigger heavy handed intervention from the latter. And the only country that would invade us is the United States itself, in which case we can’t stop the invasion. This unique situation means that Mexico historically had little use for heavy defensive hardware such as main battle tanks, anti-air systems or jetfighters.

    The last, more speculative justification is that many people prefer to see the army weak because of the risk of power abuse. Mexico is one of the few Latin countries where the military didn’t play a central political role in the last seventy years (the elite counted on the police and media instead), yet it has its sins. Those range from grave errors such as shooting students, to heavy repression of indigenous resistance and collusion in the (cover up) of crimes against humanity. Still, we must remember that heavy weapons are not required to have a police state.

I claim that today the situation is sufficiently different to justify strengthening the military. To start with, the army evolved to be more in the service of the people. Additionally, it has a more careful (but still imperfect) approach to conflict. It is well known that currently the army is involved in the construction of civil infrastructure such as airports and trains, but military assets were for example also used to grow thousands of trees and plants for the Sembrando Vida project. With some overstatement, the army is becoming a public construction company used for whatever needs to be done fast, reliably or with a high risk of corruption. Under the current administration it became part of the collective means of production of the Mexican state and thus ultimately the people.

    While the army is clearly less violent than during the Calderon years, it is hard to estimate if there is truly a sustainable trend towards ever less bloodletting. Even since the war on drugs in 2008 started, the army never truly recovered from an increased lethality in dealing with conflict compared to the years before it. What is new, is an increased openness in admitting that also civilians can get hurt in confrontations, and an overall more careful strategy. It is for example so that the army is less likely to engage in unsupported firefights and (to the frustration of some) values the life of its own soldiers far more.

    Next there is the more violent security context. Two important changes happened over the past decades. The first is the increase in internal warfare since the misnamed ‘war on drugs’, which was a grotesque act of simulation where the government collaborated with some drug cartels to fight others. This, in addition to the internal dynamics of the cartels, caused for a militarization of the drug trade. The second change is that the drug trade became an increasingly smaller part of the modus operandi of most cartels. With the advent of groups like the Zetas, cartels started to pray more directly on the population through extortions and kidnappings. This means that they started to behave more like warlords than businessmen, fighting for direct territorial control rather than sales and logistical routes. Exactly this fight for territory is what makes the fight against the ‘narcos’ a military and not just a police matter.

As Jorge Zepeda Patterson wrote in a column, the militarization of the country is regrettable, but urban elites must understand that only the army can save villages from columns of converted trucks with armed assassins. The next problem is that these fights are often fought on almost equal terms: men in armored trucks versus men in armored trucks. It is easy to make fun of situations where the army or police needs to retreat before it can strike back with reinforcements, but in a fight with similar weapons, numbers are a real factor.

    If we look at the hardware of the army, it mostly consists of armored cars, such as the famous Humvee (military hummer) or more armored things like the French VBL, in addition to the thousands of pickup trucks we usually see soldiers in. These are all decent, but not so different from the vehicles cartels employ. If we look at heavier vehicles such as armored personal carriers or infantry fighting vehicles (tracked vehicles with a cannon that can also carry troops), we see that the army employs a lot of different (thus few of each) and old vehicles. Most have relatively little fire power and are armed with machine guns or at best 20mm cannons. Many of the aforementioned vehicles stem from the 1950’s and 1960’s, with the last major purchases stemming from the 1980’s. Since the neoliberal era Mexico did not buy or make large quantities of modern hardware bigger than armored cars. The heaviest firepower the land forces obtained in some quantity, is probably the Panhard ERC in 1981. These are armored cars converted into tank destroyers by adding a big (90mm) – not particularly fitting for counter terrorist warfare.

    This brings us to the need to re-arm the army. In the past troops where often thrown into battle while lacking the armor and firepower. Both with respect to their lives and understanding that this became a conflict with warlords, the army deserves to have a clear advantage other than bravery. Keep in mind the objective is territorial control and safety, not hunting down every last criminal or ‘assaulting’ their neighborhoods like in the past.

    The systems Mexico needs do not need to be state of the art, just substantially better than armored cars and obtained in large numbers. Time for nerdy speculation. This includes armored personal carriers with protection from assault rifles (7mm) or preferably machine guns (12mm), and some protection against explosions. Examples of this are the Russian BTR-82’s or the Stryker vehicles the Americans use. We also need infantry fighting vehicles, with at least 30mm autocannons. The latter is a type of gun that can shoot fast and easily destroy the so called ‘monster tanks’, which are trucks with armor welded on. These are no threat to real tanks, nor do they cause large explosions, in line with Mexico’s pacifism and potential use in urban environments. Classic examples of these vehicles are the mass produced Russian BMP2 or BMP3, or the more protected American Bradley vehicle. Although there is no tactical reason to acquire tanks, having light or even medium tanks might have the strategic advantage of intimidation. It is better to avoid a confrontation altogether, especially for the civilians: cartels would think twice before raising hell in a town after the arrest of a leader if there are tanks on the town square. Since we are not fighting international wars, Mexico could buy cheap outdated-but-intimidating hardware such as Russian T-72 tanks that many countries seek to replace after their failure in Ukraine. All these types of assets could either be bought second hand from the previous generation (see the examples I gave), or newer but cheap options from various countries such as China, South Africa, Brazil, etc.

It is difficult to make an argument for bigger bullets from a progressive perspective. For one, such an investment does not fit in the current policy and spending plan of the 4T; and would be an idea for the next administration. In particularly in a second-hand scenario such investments could make financial sense if they allow a more consistent functioning of (rural) economies. Second, security is a traditionally conservative issue, however Mexican conservatives have been particularly unsuccessful in delivering it. During the so-called war on drugs, which in retrospect looks more scandalous each year, soldiers were send in without sufficient advantage over their foes. Just like with nationalism, security – even in its forceful aspect – is a political topic that was practically vacated by the Right.

    We cannot ignore the need for the involvement of the army in guaranteeing the right to security, especially for the rural poor. We cannot deny that the conflict with the cartels became a war for territorial control, not to be confused with the broader fight against drugs or crime itself, in which there has been progress. Still, what is proposed here is only useful as part of a bigger plan, that includes above all social welfare to undercut the social basis of (organized) crime, as well continuing the fight against corruption and a thorough reform of how prisons (and criminal justice) function in society, amongst other things. But that is for another time.