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Militarization and Human Rights: Don’t Expect Big Changes from the 2024 Elections

Anna Braverman Headshot

Since assuming the presidency in 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has further militarized public security, despite his campaign promise to return troops to their barracks. When the Supreme Court blocked any attempts to normalize the use of the Armed Forces on public safety issues, AMLO successfully rewrote the Constitution. He transferred responsibility for public safety to a nominally civilian-led National Guard, composed of members of the Federal Police, the Army and Air Forces (SEDENA), and the Navy (SEMAR)—as a “temporary” measure. However, the temporary nature of the reform wasn't exactly what was promised as AMLO passed a decree extending the tenure of the National Guard until the end of his mandate; in 2022, it was extended until 2028.

Under AMLO’s leadership, the National Guard has been given numerous responsibilities, including the construction of many of his signature projects, the administration of major ports and airports, and immigration enforcement, among others. In total, AMLO has increased the Army budget by 22% and the Navy budget by 17%. And the budget is only expected to increase: SEDENA’s total 2024 funding request more than doubled its 2023 budget, with SEMAR’s funding request also increasing.

These measures suggest that AMLO represents the new authoritarian, as described in Harvard professors Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book, How Democracies Die: he is an elected official disintegrating democracy through institutional channels. AMLO has been aided by the fact that there are not strong unwritten democratic norms limiting the use of the military in public life. The erosion of democracy has been so severe that the Economist Intelligence Unit has downgraded Mexico from a “flawed democracy” to a “hybrid regime.”


The effects of militarization are grave both for Mexico’s democracy and for the protection of human rights. 2022 was the most violent year ever recorded by the National Public Security System: 15 journalists were murdered, human rights defenders were attacked, and at least 109,889 persons were reported missing. Moreover, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that the military should only be used for law enforcement tasks in extraordinary circumstances.

The militarization of the military has also negatively impacted migrants, especially women. Pressured by the Trump administration in 2019, Mexico agreed to take “unprecedented” steps to curb migration and allow more U.S.-bound migrants to be returned to Mexico while awaiting their immigration proceedings. Then, in 2021, the Biden administration, Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala agreed to temporarily surge security forces to their borders to stem migration to the U.S.

Since Mexico placed the National Guard in charge of migration verification and control throughout the country in 2019, there has been an increase in unregistered detentions, torture, use of force, and forced disappearances. In one incident, on March 23, 2020, members of the National Guard entered a migrant detention center in Tapachula in Chiapas and assaulted the migrants therein for several hours, stripping some of them naked and attacking them with their shields, pepper spray, Tasers, and bats, among other instruments. Relatedly, gender-based violence is on the rise: in 2022, 754 women and girls were murdered and, over the last six years, the number of disappeared women and girls has tripled.

Unfortunately, neither Sheinbaum nor Gálvez seems likely to halt militarization if elected president. In January 2023, as Mexico City’s mayor, Sheinbaum deployed the National Guard  ostensibly to protect subway passengers from technical failures, though critics pointed out that the military could not do anything to address the problem. In addition, as AMLO’s chosen successor, it is unlikely that Sheinbaum will radically depart from his agenda. Though a member of the opposition party, Gálvez has supported the use of the military in playing a “controlled” role in public security. She has also refused to revoke military control of public companies unless they are performing poorly.

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Anna Braverman Headshot

Anna Braverman

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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more