The center of gravity in the institutionalization of the presidency and its power–key to Mexico’s governability–rests with the Armed Forces. This is true both in the authoritarian era (1929-2000) and during the weak democratic transition (2000-2010). However, the equation has been altered by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States[1] and by the ill-considered strategy for fighting drug trafficking launched by the Mexican government.

The Armed Forces constitute the last bastion in the institutionalization of defense of Mexican sovereignty, national security, and more recently, internal public security. Nevertheless, the character of current transnational threats and the establishment of a security perimeter defined by Washington that includes Mexico and Canada now means that the Armed Forces find themselves moving toward unprecedented security and defense collaboration with the “Colossus of the North.” It is important to step back and examine the risks that come with such changes from the perspective of Mexico’s national interest.

The necessary and urgent U.S.-Mexico relationship requires recognition that Mexico has no State strategy for defense and foreign policy on which to base its collaboration with the Pentagon and to prepare for risks to the country in the long-term. Nor does such a conceptual and political strategy exist in the domestic sphere, as seen in the debates on the Law of National Security in the National Congress in 2010.

In the context of these changes, the center of gravity has remained divided among the Army, Navy, and Presidential Military Staff since 1946, when President Miguel Alemán separated the branches of the Armed Forces and returned them to their barracks following the close collaboration with the United States during World War II. In doing so, he had two primary objectives. One was to head off a coup d’etat in the change from general officers to civilians in 1946, and another was to reduce the power military leaders had acquired by the end of the War during their collaboration with the U.S., by giving them a central role in internal security. This led to internal and external frameworks for security and defense that are inadequate for dealing with the risks presented by the security threats Mexico faces in the transnational context and the challenges of a hostile and unruly world.

The police forces across the country are even more problematic. There is a lack of systematic and coherent organization, responsible management, administration of justice, and respect for human rights. For decades this situation has allowed corruption, impunity, and organized crime to go unchecked. The absence of an effective system of public security in Mexico has escalated to crisis proportions, which affects national security and defense because it has reached the point of putting at risk the nation’s security with regard to the United States.

Strains on the Center of Gravity Due To the Political Crisis of 2006

The post-revolutionary order emerged with the premise of stabilizing and pacifying the country in the aftermath of the chaos and anarchy of the Revolution, and the task had to be taken on by the Executive Branch. A balance of power developed among the Presidential Palace, and the ministries of Defense (Army) and the Navy. The system acquired extraordinary historical, institutional, and political importance as seen in grave crises like 1968, 1988, 1994, and 2006 that affected the very nature of the Mexican political system. During those crises, the Armed Forces demonstrated loyalty and discipline to political authority.

The civilian-military pact of the post-Revolutionary era guaranteed the security of the regime and it made possible (among other things) for nine presidents during the PRI era and two presidents in the transition era to complete their terms of office. The Armed Forces made it possible for Felipe Calderón to take office in 2006, in the midst of a crisis of legitimacy not seen since Carlos Salinas gained the presidency also amid accusations of fraud. This central role in installing the president means that today the Armed Forces are vital to the security of the regime.

After the courts decided that Calderon had obtained the majority of the vote on Sept. 5, 2006, the Presidential Military Staff physcally cleared the way for the Fox-Calderón transition by escorting Calderon into the National Congress to receive the presidential banner in the midst of mass chaos. Shortly thereafter the new presisidnet announced the war on crime.

Washington recognized the precariousness of this moment in Mexican politics and not only gave its support to the incoming administration, but also signed on to the “total war against drug trafficking” by presenting the concept of “shared responsibility.” Nevertheless, the Mexican defense and security system has been at the center of attacks on the administration.

Felipe Calderón received a very weak mandate in 2006, calling into question its democratic basis and the legitimacy of his administration, and limiting his effectiveness in office. His power depended, instead, on the support of the Armed Forces. It was a moment diametrically different from the transition six years earlier when Vicente Fox took office.

There are at least five points to be made regarding Calderón’s weakness:

1. The presidency has had little room for maneuver in both domestic policy and foreign affairs.

2. The war on drugs was launched at a time when the government was divided and the country was politically at odds.

3. It opened the door for the Army to resume a more public political role.

4. It removed the gates that for decades had been the basis for frank and open cooperation with the United States through bilateral and trilateral cooperation.

5. Mexico is less secure as a result of the total war against drug trafficking.

Was this scenario anticipated in the Presidential Palace?

Challenges to Security

The deep divisions in Mexico are reflected in its institutions, its economic inequality and its political parties and their leaders. They go deeper as well, into society as a whole, reducing the possibility of reaching common goals as a nation.

The federalist system is also fractured by state and municipal dynamics that are at odds with each other and with the national government. The historical backlogs in promoting development and education have led to a breakdown in social coherence across the mosaic that is Mexico. These gaps and problems have created fertile ground for emigration and are connected to the scale of lawlessness in which drug trafficking and organized crime have flourished.

Four structural divisions come together to reduce the possibility for concerted national efforts:

1. Ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity is a source of great cultural richness, but it also presents challenges for full incorporation into the development and productivity of Mexico.[2]

2. The creole/colonial legacy that always looks toward the United States and Europe.

3. The huge numbers of poor–47.19 million people in multidimensional poverty make up 44% of the population.[3]

4. Political divisions deepened by the 2006 election are now exacerbated in the buildup to the 2012 presidential race.

More Risks to Defense as the Basis for National Security

The Armed Forces are currently being put to the test. They are under pressure from the United States, the international community and an excessive proliferation of missions. If we remember history, the fact that the country did not break apart after the Revolution of 1910 made it possible for the authoritarian pact to lead to stability. Now with so many tasks at hand, the possibility for this long historical balance to remain in place is cast in doubt. More questions are raised by the intervention of the Armed Forces in political and social conflicts; the protection of ballot boxes; dealing with natural disasters; facing guerrilla movements; protection of strategic installations, airports, customs facilities and borders; police activities; and in some cases its participation in public investigation and prosecution; and of course in the war on drugs.

This situation has caused the Armed Forces to be stretched thin, and increases the dangers to their central role as indispensable protectors of the nation.

In the Drug War

As if all this were not enough, illicit drug activity in Mexico generates $20 billion annually,[4] and employs around half a million people.[5] This is in sharp contrast to the national budget for security and defense, which amounted to only $8,478,000,000 for 2010.[6] The difference between the drug economy and expenditures on security and defense is $11,522,000,000 in favor of narcotraffic. These figures give an idea of the disadvantage of the governmental structures compared to the funds generated by illicit drug trafficking and the ability of the latter to corrupt authority.

The most insecure region of Mexico lies along the border with the United States. For an effective shared responsibility with Washington, this requires the government to make a true governmental commitment—not only a rhetorical one—to the fight against drug use and for the reduction of weapons coming from the United States for there to be real shared responsibility with Washington. Basically, as things now stand, the lack of an effective response in the United State is causing greater insecurity in Mexico, which in turn evokes the idea of U.S. military intervention in Mexico to respond to the instability.

In this situation, why does the Mexican government insist on an all-out war against drug-trafficking based on the same strategy, and without the response from Washington that the circumstances require?

Reconsidering the Course

There is no doubt that the central instrument in Mexico’s national security apparatus is the Armed Forces, which have as their core mission the use of force to confront internal and external threats. National security, however, includes a wider array of missions that require a broader view and the dedicated participation of the state and the nation. In this context, the legitimate use of force is insufficient.

Some factors are fundamental: There must be an ambitious institutional restructuring of intelligence in the civilian, military, financial, and judicial spheres, building a coordinated institutional structure that has never before existed to dismantle criminality, move against organized crime, and fight corruption decisively. The State must make a firm commitment in the following areas: economic and regional development, a foreign policy with vision and leadership, education, scientific and technological development, the promotion of public health, preservation of natural resources, the effective promotion of federalism, and a decisive policy for protecting national borders. There must be a strategic vision with the support of a professional and multidisciplinary community of civilian and military groups who can work together to strengthen social cohesion in our country.

In sum, Mexico still lacks an integrated civil and legal system for national security capable of effectively regulating the participation of the Armed Forces and combining national security with social and economic development and foreign policy to guarantee Mexico’s national interest. The great challenge is building a geopolitical and international strategy that brings together the nation’s varied interests, aspirations, and opportunities; that inspires confidence and offers certainty and stability to the majority of Mexicans; and that is capable of redefining a responsible and mature partnership with the United States and the international community.

Abelardo Rodríguez Sumano is a researcher for the Center for North American Studies at the University of Guadalajara. He has a PhD in International Relations and Comparative Politics from the University of Miami, and a Masters in Latin American Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and is a member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT (National Council  of Science and Technology). His  Postgraduate studies were done at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied International Relations and Latin America. He holds a BA in Political Science and Public Administration from UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico).

Among his books are: La urgente seguridad democrática. La relación de México con Estados Unidos (The Urgent Democratic security: Mexico’s relationship with the United States), Taurus, 2008. Co-editor of Atlas de la Seguridad y la Defensa de México 2009, Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia (The Atlas of the Security and Defense of Mexico 2009, Collective Security Analysis with Democracy, AC, 2009). He has also been published in the Journal of Strategic Security and Homeland Security Affairs. He collaborates with the CIP Americas Program

Translator: Tom Holloway

Editor: Laura Carlsen

[1] For example in the framework of the Bucareli Agreements of 1928, World War II, the massacre of students in 1968, the Zapatista Rebellion of 1994, the High Contact Group of 1997 and more recently with Mérida Initiative.

[2] There are 62 different indigenous languages; in 2005 there were 6,011,202 people above age 5 who speak an indigenous language, of which 2,959,064 were men and 3,052,138 were women.

[3] Moreover, there are 82.7 million people who lack at least one social necessity, comprising 77.2% of the population.;jsessionid=7C63D7D903C2CD93CACF97574C50D931

[4] Data from the federal Attorney General’s office, cited in Sergio Aguayo Quezada, Todo en Cifras, Almanaque mexicano 2008; Aguilar Nuevo Siglo, 2009; p. 214.


[6]Calculated on the National Budget for Income and Expenses compiled by the Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público: