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Public Security: AMLO's Proposal that Colombia Is "Repenting"

While Mexico is betting on a “Colombian model” in public security, Colombia is considering betting on the (still) current “Mexican model” of civilian command.

Andres Manuel López Obrador

Photo: IG-lopezobrador

LatinAmerican Post | Luis Angel Hernández Liborio

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Leer en español: Seguridad pública: La propuesta de AMLO de la que Colombia se está "arrepintiendo"

A great stir has been caused by the announcement by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of incorporating the National Guard (a body that acts as the national police) into the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA), thus breaking his commitment to maintain it as a civilian institution. In contrast, Gustavo Petro (Colombian president) proposes the opposite in Colombia, to disincorporate the National Police from the Ministry of Defense to turn it into a full civil institution. What is the reason for these discrepancies?

The Metamorphosis of Security in Mexico

Since its creation in 2019, the National Guard has been attached to the Secretary of Security and Citizen Protection. However, this was achieved thanks to the intervention of the Chamber of Deputies, which made the approval of the creation of the security body conditional on its having a civilian nature, outside SEDENA (which includes the Army and the Air Force) and of the Secretary of the Navy. To guarantee its creation, AMLO accepted the civil command for the institution, thus disappearing the Federal Police. Still, despite its civilian command, the National Guard has functioned in the military sphere, both in terms of equipment and training, drawing criticism from the opposition and activists.

The latest blow has come with its announcement of incorporating it into SEDENA and thus eliminating its civilian character. His argument is to consolidate the institution before the end of his government and ensure order, discipline and, above all, the guarantee that it will not be a “corrupt” institution (from his point of view) like the Federal Police and its predecessor, the Federal Preventive Police.

The Mexican Armed Forces (Army, Air Force, and Navy) enjoy prestige among Mexicans, followed by the National Guard, according to 2021 data from the National Institute of Statistics, Geography, and Informatics. The Navy is the one that generates the greatest confidence, with an acceptance of 90%. Historically, the armed forces have been well qualified by the population, especially when it comes to civil protection tasks in cases, in addition to the peaceful nature of Mexico and the absence of coups in the last century. The last Mexican president who was in the military ruled during World War II, since then the government has been civilian and the separation has worked. Hence, the commotion of AMLO's decision, to break with that tradition. It scares those who think that the line can be blurred and that it also goes against the recommendations of international organizations, activists, and the opposition.

AMLO thus intends to give immediate security results in a turbulent period, in almost 4 years of government the more than 100,000 deaths exceed those of his predecessors: Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto. He has gone from being a great critic of the military (before assuming the presidency), to supporting his government in them. With the National Guard in SEDENA, the military will have total control of national security, which adds to the control of customs, construction of works such as the Felipe Ángeles International Airport (which it will also manage), the Tulum Airport and other tasks that the president has handed them over.

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Colombia, for a Historical Debt

Another great critic of the army has been Gustavo Petro, the president of Colombia. Like AMLO, he expressed concern about the actions of the Colombian Army and the National Police in the country's security tasks. But being the president is a different thing, you can't just turn your back on either institution. The problem exploded in Iván Duque's hands, the National Police was the target of Colombians' complaints for its exaggerated actions and the repression of the civilian population. The president had the opportunity to make a historic decision, to give Colombians a truly civilian police force, removing it from the Ministry of Defense, instead, Duque only announced a renewal that did not leave the population satisfied.

And it is that the conditions of Colombia are very different from those of Mexico, the internal difficulties of the South American country are much more complex and of long duration: drug trafficking and guerrillas, mainly. A lot of that issues have not given respite. It should not be easy for the Ministry of Defense to let go of the country's public security tasks. This is where Petro has the main challenge, if he intends to turn the National Police into a fully civilian body. His government must guarantee the mechanisms that make it efficient, respectful of human rights and that it is not easy to be corrupted by organized crime. That was the main reason why AMLO disappeared the Federal Police in Mexico, which he considered corrupt, poorly qualified by the population, poorly trained and inefficient.

Petro's plan is to incorporate the National Police into the new Ministry of Peace, Coexistence and Security, where it would have a civilian command and character without direct intervention by the Ministry of Defense. The Colombian president thus seeks to show the difference between the tasks of the Army and the Police, which are radically different, in the streets, he is committed to greater respect for human rights and a measured use of force.

This is accompanied by a restructuring of the leadership of the Colombian Armed Forces, which has already generated controversy, and the reduction of defense spending, which is 3.38% (2020), according to World Bank data, compared to 1.44% and 0.57% from Brazil and Mexico, respectively. It is still early to say whether Petro will maintain and achieve these plans, but if the trend continues, it will be able to satisfy the historical debt with Colombians and align the country with the recommendations on human rights issues, one of the key points for which the National Police could come out of the Defense portfolio.

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