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Mexico's president gives the military sweeping new powers — and protections

By Kate Linthicum and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

MEXICO CITY — As a candidate for president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador denounced Mexico's armed forces and the "mafia of power" that he said controlled them. He accused soldiers of human rights abuses in the country's bloody drug war and publicly clashed with Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, then secretary of defense.

But after taking office, Lopez Obrador changed his tune, embracing the same military leaders he had once bashed.

After Cienfuegos was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport last month and charged with drug trafficking, the president rushed to his defense, threatening to withhold security cooperation with the United States unless charges were dropped. U.S. authorities caved this week and returned the 72-year-old retired general to Mexico.

It was an unprecedented gift for the nation's insular but increasingly powerful armed forces.

Traditionally, the military has played a limited role in civilian affairs here, setting Mexico apart from much of Latin America, where coups and military governments were once common.

Under an arrangement set eight decades ago by the then-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, the military was left to its own devices so long as it didn't interfere in governance.


Under Lopez Obrador, that wall has begun to crumble.

The president reneged on his campaign vow to end the military's involvement in Mexico's war against drug traffickers while vastly expanding the role of the armed forces in other civilian matters.

Troops now lead the fight against illegal immigration, the coronavirus pandemic and the widespread theft of fuel from gas lines. They run the country's biggest infrastructure projects and will soon control the nation's ports and border crossings.

Lopez Obrador has drawn the armed forces closer in part because they are popular.


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