Enter the Generals: The Rising Influence of the Military in the Mexican State

Mexican troops take part in Independence Day Parades in León, Mexico, in September of 2013. Source: © Tomas Castelazo www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Unlike much of Latin America, Mexico did not experience a military dictatorship during the latter part of the twentieth century. Rather, the military forces of Mexico found themselves caught up with the “perfect dictatorship”, a political regime in which the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) controlled almost every aspect of government until democratization in 2000.[i] However, the Mexican Armed Forces’ influence has reached extraordinary levels under the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO). This increased power is detrimental in three ways. First, it inhibits the growth of civilian institutions necessary for good governance. Second, it risks tarnishing the military’s image among the population. Finally, it threatens the existence of healthy civil-military relationships in Mexico.

The Mexican military, run by General Porfirio Diaz, governed the country from 1876 to 1911. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the PRI established itself as the dominant faction in the country and built a regime that stayed in power until 2000. The PRI domesticated the military, crushing the last military uprising in 1939.[ii] Following the transition to democracy, the military’s allegiance to the civilian government did not waver.

Every new responsibility the military undertakes that is unrelated to national defense occurs at the expense of a civilian institution. The military has been entrusted with tasks ranging from building a railroad across the south of the country to managing major ports.[iii] The AMLO administration does this because it believes that the military will do a better job than corrupt civilian officials, or because the military will get the job done quickly as opposed to other agencies that would require long planning periods before undertaking major projects.[iv] Civilian institutions are then stuck in a cycle in which they do not gain valuable experience or are allowed to build public trust via their efforts, diminishing their ability to undertake effective governance. If the Mexican Customs Bureau is not entrusted with customs duties, how will it ever develop the capacity to handle that task in the future?

The democratization of Mexico over the course of the 1990s left the country with civilian agencies that were unaccustomed to operating transparently and institutional processes that focused on back-room negotiations.[v] The outbreak of the Mexican Drug War in 2006 unfortunately halted or reversed much of the progress that was made at adapting institutions to the new democratic system.[vi] The growth of cartels that caused the war to begin in the first place stemmed from weak state control, which will not be remedied if civilian institutions are not empowered. Prior administrations chose to rely on the military to impose order rather than attempting to reform and strengthen public safety institutions such as the police or Secretariat of the Interior. The AMLO administration has taken that a step further by abandoning reform efforts in other sectors of the government, especially those established under his immediate predecessor, and giving the military responsibility over duties such as construction and immigration instead.[vii] The government has once again turned to the military to shore up the state’s ability to manage basic tasks rather than implementing necessary reforms on civilian agencies. This dependence will continue to impair governance and weaken the state’s control over national affairs.

The Mexican military is widely held as one of the most trusted institutions by the Mexican population, with 70% of Mexicans saying that they believe it to be trustworthy.[viii] However, the more responsibility that the Mexican military assumes, the more likely its public image will be spoiled. Such distortion occurred when the military was tasked with fighting the cartels, after a number of human rights abuses by the military came to light and seriously damaged its public image.[ix] The Mexican military is unlikely to perform effectively in each of its new tasks, leading to discontent with the institution as failures or delays begin to occur. After all, many of the systemic issues that affect Mexican society are unlikely to be resolved because generals replaced civilian bureaucrats, meaning that the armed forces will increasingly become the target of discontent. Furthermore, while the military is less corrupt than other institutions, it is not completely free of that issue.[x] If the military continues to be entrusted with large financial matters, such as construction projects or customs collection, will likely increase public corruption in the armed forces, further eroding the public’s trust in the institution.

One of the reasons why the military is so popular is because the majority of Mexicans alive today never experienced military rule and the PRI largely kept the armed forces out of public politics. That perception of an impartial military, necessary for healthy civil-military relations, will be sorely tested by the increased influence of the military in civilian government. The more that the AMLO administration leans on the military to support its policy agenda, the more it will be seen as part of the President’s political coalition. Dragging the military into electoral politics is hardly a recipe for civil-military harmony, especially in Latin America.

Furthermore, a civilian government reliant on the military to accomplish basic tasks is one that will be at the mercy of the armed forces. Any disagreements between civilian and military leadership will occur in the context of a power imbalance, since the cooperation of the armed forces will be necessary not only for defense matters but also other issues ranging from fiscal policy to infrastructure projects. Military pressure may have played a role in convincing AMLO to push back vigorously against the arrest of General Cienfugeos in the United States for drug trafficking charges, impacting the all-important Mexico-U.S. relationship.[xi] As the military’s power grows through its responsibilities, it will amass more influence in all matters of state.

While the expansion of the military’s responsibilities in Mexico may seem to be an attractive solution to many of the problems of governance, in the long run it will only worsen the situation. Mexico’s civilian institutions will not be reformed or allowed to grow, and the public popularity which the military enjoys will not last forever. More significantly, the success that Mexico has had in subsuming the military to civilian control is threatened by the increasing powers granted to the armed forces. These warnings are applicable to the rest of Latin America and even the United States, where the military has recently had difficulties distancing itself from partisan politics. The last time that the military was entrusted with so much in Mexico was a period that led to military rule and revolution. If Mexico is to successfully face the challenges of this century, it cannot repeat the mistakes of the last one.


[i] El País Staff. “México Es La Dictadura Perfecta: Españoles, y Latinoamericanos Intervienen En La Polémica Sobre El Compromiso y La Libertad.” El Pais, August 31, 1990.

[ii] Jowett. Latin American Wars 1900-1941. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2018: 14.

[iii] The Economist Staff. “Mexico’s President Is Giving the Armed Forces New Powers.” The Economist, April 29, 2021.

[iv] San Juan. “La Inquietante Militarización de México: AMLO Le Ha Dado Poder al Ejército En 30 Tareas.” Infobae, January 4, 2021.

[v] Oppenheimer. Bordering on Chaos: Mexico’s Roller-Coaster Journey Toward Prosperity. New York City: Back Bay Books, 1998: 88.

[vi] Agencia Reforma Staff. “La Guerra Contra El Narco En México, Costosa, Cara y Mortal.” Chicago Tribune, December 12, 2016.

[vii] The Economist Staff. “Mexico’s President Is Giving the Armed Forces New Powers.” The Economist, April 29, 2021.

[viii] Moreno. “La Confianza En El Ejército.” El Financiero, November 20, 2020.

[ix] Diaz. “Victims of Mexico Military Abuses Shudder at New Security Law.” Reuters, December 15, 2017.

[x] Clouthier. “Combatir La Corrupción En El Ejército.” El Universal, November 27, 2020.

[xi] Ramírez. “La Inaudita Exoneración de Salvador Cienfuegos, El Poderoso General Mexicano Que EEUU Arrestó Por Narcotráfico y AMLO Defendió.” Infobae, January 17, 2021.

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