In the last twelve years, Mexico has lived a militarization process that has involved greater intervention from the army in all aspects of national life. This has taken place in a context of intensification of violence exercised by different organized crime organizations, which has also incremented their power. The presence of regular and irregular armed groups has affected everyday life in rural and urban areas, and there are zones within the country that face a situation of constant violence. Peasant communities have been especially affected due to increasing difficulties in the practice of agriculture; they have also been preyed upon by different criminal groups because they are seen as cheap or slave labor. Forced displacement has become a major problem, with dimensions yet to be quantified. In this context, criminal groups seem to be acting as mercenaries for extractive companies, which seek to ensure their operation under any circumstances.
The Mexican Army in History
Looking back in history, we find that during the post-revolutionary period, the army managed to get hold of large swathes of land. Víctor López, researcher on the Mexican political system, highlights that the true beneficiaries of the agrarian reform promoted by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) were the chiefs of the winning army, who became the new landlords. Land and agricultural labor were still at the center of the economy, and the hacienda (large agricultural estate) was still an extremely relevant productive institution. General Álvaro Obregón, who governed the country between 1920 and 1924, handed land over to the generals. These army chiefs were important figures in the power map after the end of the armed struggle, and handing out land to them was a way of weaving, maintaining and consolidating control mechanisms.
Plutarco Elías Calles, successor to Obregón and a strongman of the post-revolutionary regime, opposed land distribution and attempted to eliminate the ejido (a form of communal property) and install private property in its place as the dominant form of land tenure. Both Obregón and Calles strengthened the military elite, increasing the precariousness and marginalization of the peasantry, which was also represented in the army. Historian Hans Werner Tobler (2014) explains that the direct predecessor of the current army is the northern Obregonista army – while the defeated northern Villista division and the southern Zapatista army, both had popular and peasant claims . The Obregonista army left aside agrarian demands and constituted an army in the service of governing groups (and today has its own ambitions), and frequently had a hostile attitude towards peasants. The Mexican revolution and the events that immediately followed it played a leading role in the conformation of military identity and in the current relationship of the army with land and territory.
Military institutions carried out limited but constant actions throughout the 20th century, fundamentally in rural areas, and in countless occasions repressed social, labor and student movements. Some examples of this are the so-called “Dirty War” in the 1970s – the systematic confrontations that took place during these years in the state of Guerrero against guerrilla groups – the actions carried out in Chiapas in response to the Zapatista indigenous uprising of 1994, or the more recent operations against self-defense groups in Tamaulipas, Michoacán, Chihuahua and other parts of the country. More recently, however, the militarization process has involved, among other things, greater political and economic influence of the army, and greater military presence in the streets.
Militarization and the War on Drugs
On December 8 2016, the then President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, made a war declaration against criminal organizations, and particularly against drug trafficking. This was a turning point for the role the army had been playing in our country. Between 2006 and 2011, federal government spending on security increased by 50 percent. In the eleven years that have elapsed since 2006, and with the support of the United States, bases have been built, recruitment campaigns have been promoted, innumerable operations have been deployed, and laws have been reformed in order to offer a broader framework of action and protection of the military.
The passage of the Internal Security Act (2017), approved by the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate of the Republic, is the most recent event in this chain that results in the strengthening of the army. This law grants legal certainty to the armed forces, allowing the army, the navy and the air force to carry out surveillance tasks that are currently the responsibility of the police, and authorizes these tasks to be carried out by any means without any legal processes in the future. This law, as denounced by different non-governmental human rights organizations that have opposed it, promotes military intervention, does not establish controls for the respect of human rights, and makes transparency impossible by considering all information on security confidential. Important and recognized expert voices on Human Rights, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and representatives from the National Human Rights Commission, warned senators against the approval of this law in its present terms, which would imply the modification of at least 9 articles from the Constitution.
More than 10 years after the declaration of war by President Calderón, analysts  explain that increasing the role of the army has: 1) elevated its budget at the expense of education and culture; 2) increased violence and multiplied human rights violations: cartel violence has increased rather than decreasing, and is added to the violence exercised by the military itself; 3) the commercial capacity of drug-trafficking has not decreased either, on the contrary; 4) drug-trafficking has infiltrated military and police forces, as well as government structures at its three levels (municipal, state and federal).
Repression, Displacement and Dispossession
One of the most dramatic consequences of militarization has been the intensification of repression against human rights defenders and social activists. The Centro de Análisis Político e Investigaciones Sociales y Económicas (CAPISE, Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research) has documented the links between militarization and the multiplication of state offensives against indigenous and peasant resistances – particularly in Chiapas, but also in states like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Veracruz, Baja California and Morelos. Land dispossession, forced displacement and the fabrication of criminal offences have been constant.
There are many examples of the human rights violations mentioned above. We will limit ourselves, due to paucity of space, to mention the case of the peasant environmentalists in the Sierra de Petatlán, in Guerrero, a zone with heavy presence of armed groups, including the Mexican army, since at least the 1970s. After several victories against clandestine woodcutters and the Canadian company Bois Cascade, Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera from the Organización de Campesinos Ecologistas de la Sierra de Petatlán (OCESP, Organization of Ecological Peasants of the Sierra de Petatlán) were imprisoned under false charges in 1999. This took place in the midst of a military operation against drug trafficking. The peasant leaders were tortured, forced to sign false declarations and convicted of carrying arms and cultivating marijuana. While in jail, they were awarded the Goldman and Chico Mendes prizes for their environmentalist endeavors.
In the year 2001, the then President Vicente Fox ordered their release due to their precarious health conditions. This did not imply the public recognition of their innocence, and after exhausting all available legal resources, the activists were forced to flee. This was also the case for many neighbors and colleagues of Montiel and Cabrera, so the region became inhabited fundamentally by women and minors. Women founded their own organization of environmentalist women (the Organización de Mujeres Ecologistas de la Sierra de Petatlán OMESP, the Organization of Ecological Women of the Sierra de Petatlán), which they later had to dissolve, also due to the violence suffered by communities in the zone. The army simply adds to the already large presence of armed groups, which includes drug-dealers, paramilitary and guerrilla groups.
The case of OCESP and OMESP illustrates what has happened in several rural areas in Mexico, which has been replicated throughout years and decades, showing that the presence of the army and drug trafficking obstructs peasant and indigenous organization. In other regions of the state of Guerrero, as well as in Tamaulipas and Veracruz, testimonies have been collected on how armed groups linked to the trafficking of illicit merchandises are also linked with extractive companies to guarantee their operation despite opposition from the people that live there. The issue is extremely delicate, and this is probably the reason why there is little solid data in this regard. Nevertheless, we consider it important to mention it due to the growing presence of armed groups, as well as mining and extractive projects in Mexico.
As part of the consolidation of the power the army has in Mexico, military barracks, bases and other types of infrastructure have been built. There is little information on how the Department of Defense has acquired the necessary terrains, but the press has reported conflicts related to this. For example, in Mitla, Tlacolula and Macuilxóchitl, Oaxaca, communities reject the installation of a military base. This is equally true in San Bartolomé Xicomulco, in Milpa Alta, Mexico City, and in Icacos and Cumbre de Llano, in Guerrero. Finally, in Oriental, Puebla, an intention exists to install companies that will manufacture arms, projectiles, shells and grenades, as well as carry out integral maintenance of armored combat vehicles and residential houses in terrains expropriated from peasants eight years ago, who have not received any payment so far.
Furthermore, in Papaxtla, Puebla, inhabitants denounce that the army has facilitated the dispossession of land for the instalment of a gas pipeline that will be part of the Proyecto Integral Morelos . The same thing is happening with the construction of the new airport in Atenco, in the state of Mexico.
At present, the state is being militarized while, at the same time, organized crime grows in size and strength. According to the Office of the Federal Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la República (PGR)), 45 armed criminal groups currently operate within the national territory . The Pacific, Gulf and Tijuana cartels created their own armed wings, and some of these have become independent, forming their own cartels; they have high-caliber armament and specialized military training. Deserters from the Mexican and Guatemalan armies participate in several of these groups, as do former members of elite military forces of both countries. Confrontations between these groups and federal forces are constantly reported. Frequently, these groups take ownership of land and properties, forcing males to join their ranks or flee. Other communities in Chihuahua and Guerrero have been forced to work for organized crime cultivating a state of nervousness for such communities.
In some regions, according to specialists such as Andreas Schedler (2015: 284), the situation can be called an internal armed conflict. The state has retired from rural and poor areas, and criminal groups have filled this void, sometimes through the use of force, and other times resorting to cooptation and corruption of public officials and authorities. Internal displacement, although mostly a hidden problem, has taken on dramatic dimensions . The middle class and business owners have resorted to private security, and indigenous and peasant communities to the creation of self-defense groups.
In these conditions, land dispossession linked to the actions of the army, as well as innumerable rights violations – starting with the right to life – related to militarization and the presence of diverse militias, constantly take place and mark the current historical moment in Mexico.
Werner Tobler, Hans. (2014). Peasants and the Shaping of the Revolutionary State, 1910-40. In Katz, F. (ed.), Riot, Rebellion, and Revolution: Rural Social Conflict in Mexico (pp. 487-518). New Jersey, United States: Princeton University Press.
Schedler, A. (2015). En la niebla de la guerra: Los ciudadanos ante la violencia criminal organizada, Ciudad de México, México: Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas.