By foregoing the use of a security detail, Mexico’s president-elect is putting public interest at risk.
On July 1, Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected as Mexico’s new president. His victory marked a historic day for the country: López Obrador is the first left-wing presidential candidate to become successful in recent history. After two failed attempts at the presidency, he became the most popular winner in the country’s biggest election, taking more than half (53%) of the nearly 60 million votes cast on election day.
Although the most anticipated announcement was the name of the winner in the presidential race, there were more than 8,000 public offices open for competition to tens of thousands of candidates from nine national parties and many independent contestants across the country. Of these candidates, 132 would never see the end of the elections. They were killed during the campaign — two of them right on election day — in what was the deadliest contest in Mexico’s political history.
Local politicians, including candidates, public servants and campaign staff often face threats to their lives, families and properties from organized crime. “If politicians, from whatever party, seek to tackle corruption or criminal activities, they quickly become targets of organised crime. Drug cartels, in particular, are using the elections to ensure that politicians seeking election do not threaten their power base. They are using homicide as a strategy to maintain political control over local communities,” argues Deborah Shaw from the University of Portsmouth. In a country where 99% of crimes go unpunished, it is unlikely that the culprits will ever be found, let alone face justice.
Despite this volatile security situation, López Obrador confidently toured the country in an effort to win support for his candidacy, party and platform. He visited almost all the municipalities across Mexico, including some which the incumbent president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and other presidential candidates have never been to due to security risks. As president-elect, López Obrador has vowed to tour the country again to raise support for his incoming administration. Worryingly, he has stated that even as president-elect he will not to use a security detail for his personal protection.
Historically, the security of Mexican presidents has been handled by the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), the elite arm of the Mexican army dedicated to protecting the head of state. Traditionally, this security is also afforded to newly elected presidents from election day until taking office, which in Mexico takes place on December 1. López Obrador, however, has vowed to not take the EMP protection. Even when threats have been made against his life, he has stated: “I have nothing to be afraid of. I have nothing to hide. My conscience is clear. I have a view of life … where one walks straight ahead toward an ideal. Does not stray [from it]. And, if in that walk toward an ideal, one falls, that is it.”
To justify his decision, López Obrador has pointed to the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the candidate from then-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party), who was assassinated at a campaign rally in in Baja California during the 1994 presidential campaign. López Obrador argues that even the life of sitting presidents is at risk, and that not even the protection of the highly praised US Secret Service prevented the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.
By foregoing the use of a personal security detail, López Obrador hopes to convey a message that he will deal with insecurity in a way that is closer to the daily experiences of ordinary Mexicans. López Obrador insists that he aims at making radical changes to the way in which political power has been historically exercised in Mexico. This is a signal that the incoming president aims to eliminate — not just limit — the privileges that he considers were abused by those who governed the country before him.
Symbols of Power
In his line of reasoning, the existence of a security detail is meant not to just provide protection to the head of state but serves as a show of strength and opulence, its staff and protocols all part of the theatrical features that have characterized political power in Mexico. They are signs and symbols of status that elites use to shape the act of governing and how they want ordinary people to look at the authority they hold.
This interpretation of the uses of the presidential security apparatus is close to reality. For instance, from January to August 2017, President Peña Nieto’s staff spent about $1.5 million on his protection while on official business around the country. From January 2013 to January 2016, his staff spent $10 million on 41 official trips abroad.
While these expenditures might appear to be small, the amount of money spent on providing security to Los Pinos, Mexico’s presidential residence, is often off the charts. To secure the residence, just between January and May 2017, the president’s office spent $48 million. This amount includes the money spent on securing the 56,000 square metres that make up Los Pinos — a complex 14 times larger than the White House, which consists of several buildings whose commercial value is estimated to exceed $92 million. The budget used to secure the residence could be substantially reduced should the activities of the president and his staff be moved permanently to the National Palace — the official seat of the Mexican government’s executive branch — as López Obrador has proposed.
However, Mexico cannot be described as a safe country by a long stretch, and the threats that have been made against López Obrador’s life are very real — to the point that former President Felipe Calderón has stated that “beyond any political differences, these threats, in this case, against López Obrador, are inadmissible, and that the State’s response should be firm.” By foregoing the use of a security detail, López Obrador is putting public interest at risk.
To his supporters and those who voted for him, seeing López Obrador reach the country’s highest office is the vindication of a popular struggle, the culmination of a long fight for true democracy in Mexico. Even to his critics and those who did not vote for him, an attack on his life would put Mexico’s political and social stability at risk. To both groups, López Obrador is now the president-elect. In the words of one journalist, “This is the institution of the presidency of the republic, this isn’t just one person.”
There are a number of alternatives to López Obrador’s promise to run a government that is closer to the people. One of them would be using a smaller security detail. Another would be to make a more cautious use of the Mexican federal government’s transport fleet, which includes the Presidente Juárez plane, a Boeing Dreamliner 787 that cost over $350 million, making it the most expensive of its class in the world. Another option would be to limit the number of out-of-office official activities, which commonly involve the participation of more than 2,000 personnel.
Should López Obrador and his team discuss and consider these and other alternatives, there are many viable solutions that would both fulfil the need to provide security to the head of state while keeping him “close to the people.”
Many Mexicans want to see justice being delivered for the families of the 132 candidates who were killed during the campaign. But many of them also want to see López Obrador assume office. As of July 1, López Obrador has ceased being a social leader and candidate and, as president-elect, must act with full responsibility because his safety is now synonymous with the safety of the head of state and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Accepting the protection of his life and integrity is protecting Mexico’s interests and stability. These are matters of national security that he simply cannot disregard.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.