MEXICO CITY -- A group of retired military personnel have created an all-military ticket to contend in Sunday’s elections for a host of public offices in a populous Mexico City suburb.
Campaigning under the slogan “Military Force,” the 28 candidates — 16 women and 12 men — promise to bring order to Naucalpan, a city of 800,000 residents.
The military slate is believed to be an isolated effort, but it will be closely watched in a country where the military has been given more responsibilities under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador than at any other time in recent history.
Forty percent of citizens say they would somewhat or very much agree with a government led by military officers, according to a recent survey by Mexico’s census agency, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.
The military ticket is running for the small Solidarity Encounter Party, which has a evangelical bent and supports López Obrador. The party’s future could depend on the results in Sunday’s elections, where Mexicans will select an entirely new lower chamber of Congress, 15 governors and thousands of local offices.
According to the military candidates, their run is not a partisan effort — their slate was presented to a number of other parties before landing with PES — but rather an “apolitical” project aimed at responding to problems of security and corruption in Naucalpan.
They say they would bring their military experience to bear in the form of management, order and hierarchy. If successful there, they say the experiment could expand.
“We could start as a base in Naucalpan, where we are going to seek peace and social justice to later spread it at a national level,” said Reyes Robles, a retired army general running for a congressional seat.
Robles is the highest-ranking member of the ticket. With 45 years of service in the army, he rejected the suggestion that Mexican politics are being militarized. He said being retired, each person on the ticket is exercising a constitutional right, like any other citizen.
“Our country does not militarize,” Robles said. “Simply, our governments, when politics fail, they lean on the armed forces for the organization and the capacity to respond to the problems we’re facing.”
Retired Capt. Oscar E. Hernández Mandujano, another congressional candidate, noted that military personnel often retire early and then must make their way as civilians. He compared leaving the military to leaving a university, only with a “national management model” based on military values.
The armed forces have always been a behind-the-scenes power in Mexican governments. Following an early series of governments led by military figures, Mexico reached an an unwritten agreement in the post World War II era under which the executive limited its involvement in military matters while the Army stayed out of government.
Former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) sent the military into the streets in his war against organized crime, and in recent years a number of local and state governments opted to put retired military officers in charge of their police forces. In some cases it led to a reduction in violence, but an increase in reports of abuses.
Since López Obrador took office in December 2018, the military has been even more in the public eye. Not only are soldiers, marines and now the National Guard — largely led and staffed by ex-military — leading a fight against organized crime, they’re also leading major infrastructure projects and running customs posts. Retired military personnel have been named to key posts in the National Immigration Institute.
López Obrador has justified this military creep by saying that soldiers are more trustworthy to get things done and not be corrupted. But there have been controversies. In late 2020, retired Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, the defense secretary under ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto, was accused of ties to drug trafficking and arrested in the United States. Mexico objected mightily, the case was dropped and Cienfuegos was returned to Mexico, where a cursory investigation was quickly closed.
Civil society groups and the United Nations have warned about growing militarization in Mexico, but most saw politics as a line that wouldn’t be crossed.
“Military personnel don’t like to get involved in politics,” said Juan Ibarrola, a military expert. “It’s not in their interest and they don’t need it,” because they already have enough power.
For more than a decade retired soldiers and sailors have had seats in the congress through various parties and that is viewed well by the military. But Ibarrola said the military itself has not promoted the Naucalpan effort.
Hernández Mandujano said that he never asked military permission to run, but the candidates do plan to “inform” the military of their intentions if they win.
“Our country’s big problem is the lack of organization,” Robles said. For that reason, he thinks voters will see his military experience as a strength rather than something to be feared.
Polls do not favor them, but Hernández Mandujano said “there was already an echo.”
“A lot of generals, troop leaders have sought us out,” he said. So they don’t rule out that in the future they could create a new political party.