Keeping the Military Weak and the Party Strong

By Ken Simons

Mexico is an authoritarian state that has maintained effective one-party rule for more than sixty years, in part through keeping its armed forces weak. Moreover, despite the resources being pumped into the Mexican government's current "dirty war" in the state of Chiapas, the country's armed forces budget has been static (in U.S. dollars and as a percentage of the federal budget) during the three years since the Zapatista uprising began. The budget currently stands at U.S.$1.1666 billion, or 0.4 per cent of GDP - the lowest such figure among the larger Western Hemisphere states.

Part of this apparent discrepancy can be explained by U.S. government "gifts" of military equipment, including 73 UH-1 Huey helicopters, four C-26 surveillance planes, and other material, over the past two years. But even when we allow for such transfers as these, the Mexican army is still considerably smaller and less adapted to internal repression than Latin American political experience would suggest.

Constitutionally, the military has no role to play in internal policing unless federal law has been violated. In the case of Chiapas, this has meant inventing the thin excuse that firearms laws had been violated, thereby justifying an army presence, which in its turn lends a stamp of legitimacy to the activities of death squads and the (politically more significant)state and federal police.

The modern Mexican state was founded on a huge, bloody, and sprawling military myth - the 1910-1920 revolutionary wars. Its presidents were, up until 1946, military men. But from the late 1930s onwards, there was a concerted effort to drastically reduce the size and thus the political influence of the armed forces. Two generals, Lázaro Cárdenas and Manuel Ávila Camacho, used their presidential terms to increase the power of the ruling party - the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - at the expense of the military. The aim was both tactical (eliminating the military as a political power base) and pragmatic (ensuring that the bloodshed of 1910-20 not be repeated). It succeeded in both these respects, and in general terms the Mexican armed forces are no longer a threat to the state's political order; nor are they essential to any government policies of internal repression .

The Mexican political order is subject to change, however. The military could become a political force again, either independently or as part of a realignment within the PRI. The U.S. government has pressured Mexico in the past to increase its military spending - gifts of equipment "to fight the drug war" are a powerful tool in increasing the profile and power of the armed forces. In the worst case, an escalation of the war in Chiapas (or any of the other low-intensity conflicts in rural Mexico) could lead to a long period of instability, violence, and direct military rule.

Ken Simons is an associate editor of Peace Magazine has has lived in Mexico.

Peace Magazine May-June 1998

Peace Magazine May-June 1998, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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