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Adapting, Transforming, and Modernizing Under Fire: The Mexican Military 2006-11

Adapting, Transforming, and Modernizing Under Fire: The Mexican Military 2006-11 - Cover

Authored by Inigo Guevara Moyano.

September 2011

53 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Since December 2006, when Felipe Calderon assumed the office of the President, Mexico has embarked upon the implementation of a culture of law and security that has triggered a war with organized crime involving all sectors of society. This implementation has activated a series of renovations in its armed forces, which remain the most trusted institutions in Mexican society. This Letort Paper contributes to an understanding of the structure, culture, motivators, and the challenges that the Mexican military faces in the 21st century. The Paper also provides a clear picture of doctrinal and structural transformations, adaptations, and improvements that the Mexican armed forces have accomplished over the past 5 years. This Paper discusses how the counternarcotic role of the armed forces has impacted its organization, deployments, and operations, and how it has generated new doctrinal and equipment requirements. The Paper also addresses key areas of national and international concern such as the respect for human rights and and the military justice system. Given Mexico’s importance to the United States as a neighbor, an ally, and as its third largest trading partner, understanding the transformation that the Mexican armed forces are undergoing to foster a culture of law should be of prime concern to all actors—government, private sector, and academia—involved in the decisionmaking process.


Mexico’s armed forces are in the midst of a transformation to better perform in an ongoing war against organized crime. Their role and visibility have escalated considerably since President Felipe Calderon assumed office in December of 2006.

Although the fight against organized crime is clearly a law enforcement matter, the absence of effective and accountable police forces has meant that the Army, Navy, and Air Force have been used as supplementary forces to defend the civilian population and enforce the rule of law. While the federal government has striven to stand up a capable police force in order to relieve and eventually replace the military, that possibility is still distant. Five years into the Calderon administration, the armed forces continue to be the main implementers of the National Security policy, aimed at employing the use of force to disrupt the operational capacity of organized crime. Their strong institutional tradition, professionalism, submission to political control, and history of interaction with the population mainly through disaster relief efforts have made them the most trusted institution in Mexican society.

Mexico’s armed forces have long been used as an instrument of the state to implement all kinds of public policies at the national level, from emergency vaccinations, to post-earthquake rescue, to reforestation campaigns. They have been at the forefront of disaster relief operations in reaction to the calamities of nature, within and beyond their borders, with humanitarian assistance deployments to Indonesia, the United States, Haiti, and Central America among the most recent.

The Mexican armed forces are quite unique, as they are divided into two separate cabinet-level ministries: the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (the Secretary of National Defense or SEDENA), which encompasses the Army and Air Force, and the Secretaría de Marina (the Secretary of the Navy or SEMAR), which comprises the Navy. The level of engagement with society and the results obtained from this division in military power confirms the utility of their independence. Their use as the state’s last line of defense has led to severe criticism from opinion leaders, opposition forces, international analysts, and human rights organizations. Their level of commitment remains unaltered and they have undertaken a number of significant transformations to better address their continued roles as the guardians of the State and protectors of the population.

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