The current administration has opted for military control of ports, because the president has the perception of less corruption in the Army
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has proposed to make changes. He trusts the Army more and more. Now, ports and customs will be put in the hands of the military. A plan that provokes criticism.
For years, Mexican authorities have tried (unsuccessfully) to stop the smuggling of weapons and drugs, but also of minerals or illegally extracted timber, through the country’s ports. Criminal gangs often control the handling of goods that are hidden in containers and are dispatched by bribed or threatened port and customs officials.
” Organized crime in Mexico has undergone a mutation in the last 15, 20 years, it is no longer just about drugs, but more and more about territorial control”, says Falko Ernst, an analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in an interview with DW.
The cartels in Mexico have diversified their business model. In addition to murder, kidnapping, and drug trafficking, they are also involved in mining, the timber trade, and real estate.
“Corruption in ports and customs has been known for years,” explains to DW Raúl Benítez Manaut, political scientist and security expert at UNAM’s Center for Research on North America (CISAN), in Mexico City.
“President (Andrés Manuel) López Obrador assumes that the Armed Forces are less corrupt and more capable of countering organized crime.”
Not the first try
The government plans to transfer ports and customs from the civil administration through the Ministry of Transportation to the Army, to fight corruption and smuggling. The corresponding changes in the law got around the first hurdle in the Mexican Congress last week. The adoption of the reform is considered safe.
Such efforts are not new. Under previous governments, there were repeated attempts to modernize customs. In November 2013, the Army occupied Lázaro Cárdenas, one of the most important ports in the country, because the local police were suspected of cooperating with the drug cartels.
Ernst also points out that ports such as Lázaro Cárdenas or Veracruz have been under military control for a long time. “ The ports through which drugs and other goods pass make huge profits. Controlling them would take the government one step closer to controlling the whole problem, ”he estimates.
However, he believes that it is an illusion to be able to control these flows effectively, something difficult even in countries with stronger institutions. The large volume of the containers already makes it impossible.
Protest in the Government
However, López Obrador promises to solve the problem. “We are going to act cleaning, renovating the entire customs and ports system of the country,” he announced in mid-July. This idea generated rejection even within the government. The then Minister of Transport, Javier Jiménez Espriú, resigned in protest.
The opposition and other critics fear a “militarization of ports” and negative economic effects. “The problem is that it suffocates, strangles Mexico’s foreign trade, because they do not have the capacity, the experience, or the knowledge to administer the ports and customs and the merchant marine,” declared Marcelino Tuero, president of the Navy Advisory Council Mercante, to the newspaper El Sol de México.
He also regretted that the initiative would give the Navy “a monopoly to build all the maritime works in the country.” This would make the Armed Forces an economic actor in its own right.
Economic power for the Armed Forces
“It is a bad sign that the Army is assuming many of the responsibilities that civilian forces would assume in a normal democratic government,” says Benítez. It weakens other institutions.
“A lot of power, not only political but also economic, is concentrated in the hands of the Armed Forces,” says Ernst. “Meanwhile, apart from ports and borders, Mexico’s Defense Secretariat is de facto already the largest construction company in Mexico, and the trend continues.”
The more activities the Army undertakes, the greater the danger of corruption. Ernst calls López Obrador’s argument that the Armed Forces are less corrupt a fairy tale. “There has always been corruption, illegal assassinations, missing people in them as well.” According to him, there is a lack of control and transparency mechanisms.
The fact that López Obrador wants to support himself so much in the Armed Forces is related to his ambitious project, Ernst believes. “His own ambition is nothing less than to go down in history as a great reformer who changed Mexico.”
López Obrador’s experience, also fueled by his controversial defeat in the 2006 elections, is that corruption is deeply and widely embedded in the institutions.
“So the gaze goes to the Armed Forces as a rigorous and hierarchically organized institution, with which the possibilities of achieving this change in a shorter period of time are greater, provided that sufficient power and resources are shared to avoid a coup. against oneself.