Despite his boast to have “ended” the drug war and pledge to explore cannabis legalization, Mexico’s new populist president is seeking to create a special anti-drug “National Guard” drawing from the military and police forces. This plan is moving rapidly ahead—and the military is still being sent against campesino cannabis growers and small traffickers.
Since taking office late last year, Mexico’s new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (popularly known as AMLO) has appeared to move in contradictory directions where the country’s bloody drug war and cannabis are concerned.
Last month, he declared the “drug war” to be over, pledging to reverse the policies of his predecessors, who sent the army after the cartels (and, in effect, the peasant communities that grow cannabis and opium for them). He’s also been exploring cannabis legalization—which was mandated by a Supreme Court decision last year. Yet he has simultaneously been pushing a plan to create a new “National Guard,” drawing personnel from both the Federal Police and army, to continue the use of military troops in drug enforcement.
This plan entails changes to Mexico’s constitution, and appears to be AMLO’s way of getting around the Supreme Court’s strike-down of a measure last year that would have created a legal framework for deployment of the military in drug enforcement. The Internal Security Law was declared unconstitutional by the high court in November, on the countdown to López Obrador’s inauguration. At the time, AMLO vowed to seek constitutional changesallowing such a legal framework. It is now looking like he might get it.
AMLO goes around Supreme Court
The National Guard proposal was submitted to Congress in January. Given that AMLO’s left-populist Morena party and its allies hold a majority in both chambers, and the opposition is controlled by the very parties that sent the army after the narcos in the first place, it is unsurprising that it passed overwhelmingly. On Feb. 28, the lower-house Chamber of Deputies voted up the final version of the constitutional reforms, which had already been approved by the Senate. The vote was a heavily lopsided 463 to 1.
The new force is to be under civilian command, answering to AMLO’s newly created Public Security & Citizen Protection Secretariat. This new secretariat was approved by Congress in the transition period last year, so he could hit the ground running with it upon taking office Dec. 1. It merges the now-disbanded Public Security Secretariat with those branches of the Governance Secretariat concerned with overseeing the Federal Police. But troops for the new National Guard are to be drawn both from the Federal Police and the National Defense Secretariat, which controls the armed forces.
Morena’s congressional chair, Beatriz Milland Pérez, assured that the new force will be “efficient in its action and with a new face that wins the confidence of citizens.”
With Congressional approval, the measure now goes to the legislatures of Mexico’s 31 states for ratification. Five states have already voted the measure up: Nuevo Leon, Tabasco, Guerrero, Chiapas and Campeche. At least 17 state legislatures must give approval for the constitutional change to be enacted.
Lonely dissent in Congress
The sole dissenting vote in the Chamber of Deputies was—tellingly—cast by a young womanwho was a student activist and musician before being elected to Congress as an independent, with no party affiliation. Lucía Riojas Martínez was a founder of the “Yo Soy 132” student movement at Mexico City’s Ibero-American University that was initiated with angry protests at a 2012 visit to the campus by then-presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. The movement demanded accountability in rights abuses committed by the security forces (especially the recent repression at San Salvador Atenco).
“Unanimity in the vote would have been unjust,” Rojas said in explaining her lonely dissent. She acknowledged that the Senate had added measures assuring civilian control of the new National Guard, but said “there are still elements that appear to us a risk.”
Army still chasing cannabis
Indeed, despite the legal ambiguity with the constitutional changes pending (and despite AMLO’s announced end to the drug war), the army has never been withdrawn from narcotics enforcement—and that of course includes cannabis.
On Feb. 9, a mixed force of army, navy and Federal Police troops detained 10 presumed “narcomenudistas” (small traffickers), including men and women, in the coastal town of Arriaga in southern Chiapas state, “decommissioning” several weapons and a kilo of cannabis.
On March 7, a far more impressive metric ton of cannabis was “decommissioned” by a unit of army troops at La Bufadora, in Baja California. No arrests were announced, but the army said the cannabis was being prepared to be taken up the coast in a launch over the international line to the US.
On March 8, army troops with the Mixed Operations Base (BOM) No. 4 burned a field inter-cropped with cannabis and opium at the campesino community of Corral de Piedra in León municipality, Guanajuato state.
Narco-violence grinds on —with official complicity
And violence related to the relentless struggle for control of the narco trade continues to take its grisly toll. In the latest outrage, four were killed March 2 when unknown gunmen opened fire on a party at a restaurant in Ciudad Victoria, capital of Tamaulipas state—heartland of the blood-drenched Zetas narco network.
In late December in the same city, the severed head of an unknown man was left in a cooleroutside the offices of newspaper Expreso—another grim warning to the press not to look with too close an eye at who is behind the reign of deadly violence.
And nearly every day brings more evidence of complicity and outright overlap between the security forces and ultra-murderous narco networks.
The Mexican government just issued a formal apology for police involvement in the deaths of five youths who were detained by Veracruz state police at a gas station while on their way home from a birthday party in the town of Tierra Blanca in January 2016. The teenage girl and four young men were turned over to the Jalisco New Generation cartel—who promptly put them to death, apparently in the mistaken assumption that they were working for a rival gang. Their bodies were found in a mass grave days after they were detained. Eight police officers are among the 20 that have now been arrested in the case. In his statement to the victims’ families this week, Alejandro Encinas, the deputy Governance secretary for human rights, acknowledged the state’s “profound responsibility” in the crime.
Some 5,000 have disappeared in Veracruz over the past decade, as Los Zetas and their rivals like New Generation vie for control of the state.
Legalization anticipated —but who will benefit?
Amid all this, AMLO’s government continues to study its cannabis legalization proposal—whetting the appetites of investors both within Mexico and beyond its borders. Agricultural entrepreneur Guillermo Nieto, founder of the Mexico Cannabis Industrial Association (ANICANN), told Milenio newspaper Feb. 26 that he expects the herb to be a 30 billion dollar legal business sector in the country by 2020—and even anticipated cannabis provisions in the new US-Mexico Trade Agreement.
“The first thing we have to understand is that by our geographic situation, our country is ideal for planting cannabis,” he said. “So I think we should take advantage both of the benefits of our climate and the benefits brought by the Free Trade Agreement, and begin using the same concept of export agriculture of this plant.” He said he sought to inform lawmakers of how an expansive legalization could “benefit all Mexicans.”
But if legalization moves ahead along with institutionalization of use of army troops against the illicit cannabis sector, it could mean big bucks for agribusiness but more militarization-as-usual for Mexico’s long-suffering peasantry and common folk.