MEXICO CITY, Sep 14 2023 (IPS) - Courage, sadness and impotence are expressed by Mayan indigenous activist Sara López when she talks about the Mayan Train (TM), the Mexican government’s biggest infrastructure project, which will cross the town where she lives and many others in the Yucatan Peninsula.
“These are things that cause damage. In the communities, both the National Guard (a civilian security force, but made up mostly of military personnel) and the army are present. People tell us they have lost the peace they used to have. There are communities that have been invaded, there has been a very strong impact,” the member of the non-governmental Regional Indigenous and Popular Council of Xpujil told IPS.
“The entire Yucatan peninsula is militarized,” she said from Candelaria, in the southeastern state of Campeche. Agriculture and livestock are the main activities in the municipality of some 47,000 inhabitants, which will be the site of a TM station."The military are not trained for many functions. The government is concerned about economic growth and development, and to preserve that model it has put the military in charge. They think it will be achieved through infrastructure and extractive projects." -- Aleida Azamar
The megaproject consists of seven sections along some 1,500 kilometers and will also cross the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan, which share the peninsula with Campeche together with the states of Chiapas and Tabasco.
The railway will run through 41 municipalities and 181 towns, with 20 stations and 14 stops.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who begins his sixth and final year in office on Dec. 1, has transferred the administration of ports, airports and rail transport to the Secretariat (ministry) of National Defense (Sedena).
This is despite the fact that there are no records of their performance in the management of these key areas in the recent history of the country, in which their experience has been limited to the production and sale of supplies.
Aleida Azamar, a researcher at the public Autonomous Metropolitan University, argued that uniformed personnel are not prepared for these tasks.
“The military are not trained for many functions. The government is concerned about economic growth and development, and to preserve that model it has put the military in charge. They think it will be achieved through infrastructure and extractive projects,” Azamar, who is coordinating a new book on the military and natural resources in Mexico, told IPS.
“In their view, the fastest way to finish them is with the army, because it is more difficult for the public to put up opposition when they see someone with a gun. It is not the most adequate solution.”
López Obrador announced on Sept. 4 the transfer of control of the Mayan Train from the state-owned National Tourism Development Fund (Fonatur) to Sedena, in an intensification of the trend of ceding more civilian responsibilities to the military, by handing over his flagship megaproject.
The president’s argument for this strategy is that he aims to reduce corruption in public works. But actually it may be due to other reasons, such as the culture of discipline in following orders so that the works advance as quickly as possible and thus meet the deadlines set.
Sedena will be responsible for the completion of sections five, six and seven of the railroad, whose works were started by Fonatur in July 2020 and which López Obrador promised would begin to operate by Dec. 1. Other sections are being built by private companies.
The resistance to deploying the military into the TM and other civilian areas is also due to its actions since 2006, when then President Felipe Calderón launched the so-called “war against drugs” using the military, which led to extrajudicial executions, disappearances, human rights violations and impunity, according to local and international organizations.
In fact, so far this century the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the highest regional court attached to the Organization of American States, has condemned Mexico on at least five occasions for military crimes such as forced disappearance, sexual violence and arbitrary detention.
The government promotes the TM as a major new engine of socioeconomic development in the southeast of the country and its trains will transport thousands of tourists, and cargo such as transgenic soybeans, palm oil and pork, the main products in the area.
The administration claims that it will create jobs, boost tourism beyond traditional attractions, and invigorate the regional economy, which has sparked highly polarized controversies between its supporters and critics.
From the barracks to business
Historically, the armed forces had been limited to producing supplies and building government facilities, such as hospitals and other infrastructure.
Sedena’s General Directorate of Military Industry operates at least 16 ammunition and armament factories.
However, thanks to the policies of the current government, Sedena has created the corporations Tren Maya, Aerolínea del Estado Mexicano, Grupo Aeroportuario, Ferroviario, de Servicios Auxiliares y Conexos Olmeca-Maya-Mexica (Gomm) and the Felipe Ángeles International Airport, located in the state of Mexico, adjacent to the Mexican capital.
Gomm is also involved in the operation of 12 airports, and will receive more in the future.
In addition, it will operate the revived Compañía Mexicana de Aviación, the country’s oldest airline and one of the first in the region, privatized in 2005 and closed since 2010. Under the new name Aerolínea del Estado Mexicano, the government resuscitated it in January, buying the brand. The armed forces will also manage hotels along the TM route.
At the same time, the Secretariat of the Navy (Semar) manages five shipyards in various areas of the country.
To run seven airports, including Mexico City’s, out of the 19 facilities under state control, Semar created the company Casiopea.
Mexico has 118 ports and terminals, of which 71 have been given in concession in 25 administrations of the National Port System. Since 2017, Semar has been administering the ports.
This scheme requires a lot of money, provided by the public budget. The clearest case is the TM, whose cost rose threefold, from the initial projected investment of 7.2 billion dollars to the current estimate of over 28 billion dollars.
For 2024, Sedena has already requested 6.7 billion dollars for the railroad, the second highest figure for the TM since 2020, when allocated funds totaled 349 million dollars.
Military requirements for all civilian sectors under their administration have grown, as Sedena requested 14.55 billion dollars, compared to 6.27 billion in 2023, and Semar asked for 4.02 billion, compared to 2.34 billion this year – in both cases more than double.
Behind this is the fact that state-owned companies under military management are not yet profitable, so they require subsidies. The non-governmental organization México ¿Cómo Vamos? calculates that it will take 17 years to recoup the investment in the TM and 22 years in the case of the Tulum International Airport, under construction in the state of Quintana Roo.
As in the case of military involvement in security and public safety, military business management poses risks of information concealment, corruption and economic losses.
The armed forces are the institutions that most violate human rights, including cases of murder, torture and sexual violence. Between 2007 and 2020, some 70,000 people suffered physical aggression after being apprehended by the army, according to the Citizen Security Program (PSC) of the private Ibero-American University.
The number of military personnel involved in public security already exceeds the total number of municipal and state police, in a proportion of 261,644 to 251,760, according to data reported by the PSC.
López the activist and Azamar the academic warned of the risks of military management.
“Only the government knows how much they have spent, how much is going to be spent,” said López. “There is no real report on what they are doing. Since the megaproject began, there has been no real information. They have never talked to us about environmental, cultural or economic impacts. It has caused us problems, it has been chaos for us. And once it is operating, the situation is going to get worse because of tourism.”
Azamar warned of increasing reliance on the military, the potential erosion of civil rights, a distorted perception of the approach to security and public safety and the undermining of trust in civilian institutions.
“There is a problem of lack of transparency and accountability: what is spent and how. It is risky, because there is no real, disaggregated data. This creates an environment of impunity that allows secrecy to continue and does not make it possible for other information to be made public. If there are no effective oversight mechanisms, abuses could be committed. We are in a gray area, because we do not know who controls them,” she argued.
In November 2021, López Obrador classified the TM as a “priority project” by means of a presidential decree, a strategy that facilitates the fast-tracking of environmental permits and thus hides information under the broad umbrella of national security.
This despite the fact that a month later, the Supreme Court reversed the national security agreements to annul the reservation of information, due to an appeal by the autonomous governmental National Institute of Transparency, Access to Information and Protection of Personal Data.
Mexico’s problems will not end in the short term, as pro-military policies will condition the next administration that will take office in December 2024, regardless of where it stands on the political spectrum, although the polls point to presidential hopeful Claudia Sheinbaum of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), López Obrador’s party, as the favorite.