At the end of 2018, a few days before assuming the presidency of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador met privately with that country’s military elite to discuss its security strategy, but he only received orders, as recounted by retired Brigadier General José Francisco Gallardo.
“Andrés Manuel thundered. They folded it. I said: ‘Sir, if they threatened you, if they told you something, tell us,’ “said Gallardo to the program ‘Los Periodistas’, in which he warned that there is a “brotherhood” of generals that supposedly controls the president in turn and that some call ‘The Syndicate’.
“What is the scope of this factual power, General?” Asked the driver Alejandro Páez Varela.
“Well, we’re seeing it … they dubbed the president,” Gallardo insisted, referring to the diplomatic pressure that Mexico exerted after the former secretary of National Defense was arrested in California. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda. That action led to the withdrawal of the drug trafficking charges he faced.
It was an unprecedented event and it happened very quickly: in a hearing of about 15 minutes, they dismissed the accusation filed in a federal court in New York, nine hours later, US Marshals they had already transferred him to Mexico and, a few minutes later, the Mexican Prosecutor’s Office released him.
The following morning, López Obrador applauded the repatriation of Cienfuegos, who was head of the Army during the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), underlining that there should be mutual trust between both countries.
“It is a fact that reaffirms that we are a free and sovereign country (…) Have confidence, that we have the commitment not to fail the people,” he said about the judicial process that Mexican prosecutors are now leading.
This is the first time the United States has decided to drop a high-profile drug trafficking case and return the accused to Mexico so that the investigation can continue there. The Department of Justice (DOJ) indicated that the objective is to maintain bilateral cooperation in the fight against organized crime. He did not explain more.
One of several theories that revolve around this case is that top commanders of the Mexican Armed Forces were so upset that they demanded that López Obrador bring him back and he obeyed.
“What is happening is so serious that a hypothesis – indeed – is that the president could be blackmailed, pressured (…) It seems to me that the president has been the victim of a trap (…) that someone locked him in a only option, almost like an ultimatum ”, says Anabel Hernández, an expert in drug trafficking, in an interview with the journalist Julio Astillero.
From combat to the ‘huachicoleo’ to the Mayan Train
What Hernández says is part of a heated debate on both sides of the border. Those who share that idea link it to the increasing military influence in the civil life of Mexico.
It is not only the responsibility of soldiers and sailors the fight against crime in the most insecure areas of the country, They also entrusted them with medical care in the midst of the pandemic, the rescue of Mexicans stranded abroad by the coronavirus outbreaks and the customs and ports administration.
They also carry out the works of the Santa Lucia airport, fight the billionaire fuel theft (huachicoleo) and they used their prestige to promote the railway project called Tren Maya.
The Army’s role in the war on drugs began in 2006 and was consolidated at the end of 2017 through a security law, the passage of which leaves soldiers on the streets indefinitely. López Obrador did not allow the “uniformed people,” as he calls them, to return to the barracks, failing to fulfill one of his main campaign promises. In his government the levels of violence are even worse.
The militarization in Mexico has been deepened by the creation of a new military force, the National Guard, which was founded a year ago taking elements of the defunct Federal Police.
History indicates that the soldiers have been the ace up the sleeve of Mexican presidents and some even used them to repress social movements, going as far as the massacre of Tlatelolco students in 1968 and the disappearance of opponents during the so-called ‘Dirty War’. It was a dark time when there was an unwritten rule for the press: the president, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Army were untouchable.
Despite the influence they have had for 107 years, they have never staged a coup in Mexico, unlike most Latin American countries. Some argue that their power is exercised harshly and effectively behind the scenes, so it has not been necessary to remove an uncomfortable ruler.
“The military has always weighed, even the retired have privileged treatment,” says Fred Álvarez, an expert in public safety, in an interview with Univision Noticias.
The friction for the Ovid case
This Friday, at an event that commemorated the 110th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, the current Secretary of Defense of Mexico, Luis Crescencio Sandoval, reiterated his loyalty to López Obrador, who has the supreme command of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy and the National Guard.
“It is evident that we do not yearn for any power because our reason for being is far from political or other pretensions (…) because we depend on the Executive, to whose authority we are subordinate by law, by the democratic decision of the people of Mexico, but above all out of conviction, ”he said.
It is a symbolic act that is repeated every November 20 and that seems to reassure the acting president.
But in the López Obrador era, not everything has been honey on flakes. There was a public confrontation in October 2019, five days after the humiliation suffered by the Army when it detained in Sinaloa Ovidio Guzmán López, one of the sons of drug trafficker Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán.
By orders of the president they set him free, warning that only in this way was a massacre in Culiacán avoided.
That day, at a breakfast held by the Association of Graduates of the National Defense College of Mexico, General Carlos Demetrio Ochoa Gaytán delivered a highly critical speech: “We are concerned about the Mexico of today. We feel aggrieved as Mexicans and offended as soldiers ”.
Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya
While the arrests of several generals Accused of having ties to drug trafficking have tarnished the image of the Army, few were convicted for it. In addition, different reports indicate that its troops continue to exceed their strength and abuse human rights without being punished.
The Army is the Mexican institution with the most complaints of forced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial executions before the National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH), according to a report that documented the “failed” strategy to combat drug trafficking, spanning from 2006 to 2018.
The report prepared by the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights cites that in that period tortured 313 people, using punches, jets of water, electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, controlled drownings (waterboarding) and threats.
It also warns about sexual abuse: “Elements of the Army have perpetrated sexual crimes in different ways, from lewd touching to rape,” the commission denounces.
In late September, López Obrador said that among the 70 suspects they sought to arrest for the disappearance of the 43 normalistas of Ayotzinapa in September 2014 there were elements of the Army. These defendants are or were part of the 27th Infantry Battalion, based in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero.
One of many versions is that the military in collusion with drug traffickers participated in the kidnapping and possible murder of the teaching students. To the date, only one Army captain has been detained for this event that marked Peña Nieto’s six-year term.
The father of one of the missing youth, Antonio Tizapa, protested outside the Brooklyn Courthouse this Wednesday to denounce that Cienfuegos “obstructed justice in the Ayotzinapa case” being the head of the Secretariat of National Defense. But that same day, the retired general went to Mexico.
Another incident that tainted Cienfuegos’ career occurred just three months before the Ayotzinapa case. In June 2014, members of the 102nd Infantry Battalion were pointed out for their alleged participation in the Tlatlaya massacre, as they have called it. to the murder of 22 people in a warehouse in the town of San Pedro Limón in the municipality of Tlatlaya, in the State of Mexico.
The official version is that it was an organized crime confrontation, but the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico (CNDH) concluded that at least 12 people were executed and that the soldiers had altered the crime scene to make it appear that there had been a shooting.
In 2015, a report by the Miguel Agustín Pro organization documented that the military they had orders to “shoot down criminals” in the Tlatlaya area before that massacre was recorded. To date, no military personnel have been punished for these events.
Video shows Mexican officers torturing a woman
“This situation is scandalous”
Fred Álvarez, an expert in public security, believes that retired generals and other figures added to the pressure on the president to repatriate Cienfuegos, perhaps fearing a cooperation of the former secretary with the United States Attorney’s Office to avoid a more serious punishment and a possible trial scandalous.
“That made people nervous, because if someone has a lot of information about all of Mexico (about businessmen, political parties, governors) it is the Secretary of Defense,” he mentioned.
Álvarez highlights that the military influence was evident when Cienfuegos returned to Mexico. “The general arrived dressed in a suit and went home to sleep. They gave him an exclusive treatment, “he said.
Many were also surprised by the turn in López Obrador’s speech. The day after the general’s capture, on October 16, he described it as a “very regrettable” incident and emphasized that it reflected the corruption of previous governments. But on Thursday he qualified it by saying phrases such as “we cannot accept that crimes are made” or “No one can be charged if there is no evidence.”
“It is an absolutely atypical defense and it is not congruent with the first expression that the president himself made a day after Cienfuegos was arrested,” she criticized in the interview with journalist Julio Astillero.
“This situation is scandalous in all areas, both in the United States and in Mexico,” he said.
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