Mexican army suffering from burnout as 10-year drug war takes its toll

National defense secretary demands more troops and legal framework for soldiers patrolling streets

Jan Martínez Ahrens

The Mexican army does not typically complain out loud. But the national defense secretary, Division General Salvador Cienfuegos, has decided to speak out about the feeling of burnout within the nation’s armed forces. Mired for a decade in an never-ending war against the drug cartels, Mexican troops are “worn out,” said Cienfuegos, who asked for more manpower and a legal framework to regulate the military’s presence on the streets.

Tanks on parade to celebrate Mexican independence.
Tanks on parade to celebrate Mexican independence.Notimex
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Malestar en el Ejército mexicano después de 10 años de guerra contra el narco

“There is a drain [on the army], and it’s obvious why: we are working all over the country, at all times, in the mountains and in the cities,” said the high-ranking official at a seminar on national defense.

Cienfuegos is a general at war who faces a vicious enemy. Some 50,000 soldiers have been deployed to fight this battle, and there is constant confrontation, particularly in states such as  Tamaulipas or Guerrero.

“The military are performing 1,500 actions a day, and there is nobody to replace them. How could they not be worn out?” says Javier Oliva, a lecturer and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

Proportionately to our territory and population, we are the smallest army in the world

Division General Salvador Cienfuegos

The situation is not new. Ever since former President Vicente Fox decided to use military force as part of his counter-narcotics strategy, back in 2005, more than 100,000 lives have been lost.

President Enrique Peña Nieto reduced the military presence, but did not eliminate it altogether. And the army remained on the front lines, year after year, death after death.

“Every president has said that the military presence is temporary, but none of them has initiated any exit plan,” notes Ernesto López Portillo, president of the Security and Democracy Institute.

Military deployment has been dogged by allegations of abuse and excess. International organizations report that torture is routinely employed. And the terrible incidents of Tlataya, where 22 people including unarmed civilians were reportedly killed by soldiers, and Ayotzinapa, where 43 teacher trainees were abducted while soldiers allegedly looked the other way, have only increased the lack of trust.

National Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos.
National Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos.

“The crisis of violence in Mexico has deepened, and there is no civilian authority able to respond, either through prevention or persecution. That is why they resort to the armed forces,” explains López Portillo. “But that is a mistake, because they are neither a police force nor a justice agency. And they are permanently interacting with organized crime.”

Despite the criticism, opinion polls show that the armed forces are among the highest-valued institutions in Mexico, and the government is their most stalwart defender.

But 10 years on, there is no victory on the horizon. Although the army insists that there are fewer battle fronts and that the main drug lords have been captured, surveys show that there is a widespread feeling of insecurity.

And there seems to be a spike in the violence. There were over 2,000 homicides in July of this year and again in August, making them the bloodiest in Peña Nieto’s entire administration.

There is no easy way out. Citizens demand more security, the police force has been corrupted by drug traffickers and cannot be relied on, and the military admit that they are overwhelmed. General Cienfuegos noted that he leads a small army of 230,000 troops, and that the new reality requires more personnel.

Every president has said that the military presence is temporary, but none of them has initiated any exit plan

Ernesto López Portillo, Security and Democracy Institute

“We have many tasks, and if we want to do more, we need more people,” he says. “Proportionately to our territory and population, we are the smallest army in the world.”

Besides fighting the cartels, the military is also performing other tasks not typically assigned to soldiers.

“There are soldiers watching over schools in Acapulco, planting trees in reforestation programs and doing the jobs of local police officers,” says UNAM researcher Javier Oliva.

In the meantime, no legislation has been passed in these 10 years regulating the military’s street presence. This lack of political support adds to the army’s discontent.

Like Navy Secretary Vidal Francisco Soberón said at the seminar: “In the end, the military are treated like ranch dogs: they let us loose to defend them, and then put us away during celebrations.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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