Over the past two decades, Mexico has been touted as a democratic success story. After decades of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI, the country developed vibrant political contests, leading to the landmark election of several non-PRI presidents. But Mexico's political system has also gone backwards in one key area: the role of its military. As the Latin American drug trade has blossomed and its neighbors have become less stable, the military has stepped in, and used its leverage to control an ever-widening sphere of the civilian political system.
In several Mexican states, in fact, the military essentially commands the area, dominating law enforcement and other civilian institutions. The Mexican armed forces now contain nearly 260,000 troops, an enormous leap from just 150,000 men in uniform in 1990. Military personnel now occupy hundreds of positions traditionally held by civilian personnel, especially those in law enforcement. “The military is becoming the supreme authority — in some cases the only authority — in parts of some states,” Mexican political analyst Denise Dresser told the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.
The Mexican military's quiet power grab is emblematic of a new and disturbing trend throughout the developing world. In the past, when the military took control, it was obvious. The armed forces claimed the entire government, forced out the president or the prime minister, and then either ran the country themselves or appointed a servile leader. In this way, General Alvaro Obregón used the Mexican military to oust president Venustiano Carranza at the end of the Mexican revolution. Throughout the 20th century, Mexico's neighbors, from Guatemala to Chile to Argentina, experienced bloody coups as military leaders took control of the government by force. During the Cold War, in fact, the idea of military men running governments became almost commonplace, from Idi Amin in Uganda to Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan.
Now military leaders are increasingly controlling governments from behind the scenes. From 1950 to 1990, there were more than 100 coups or coup attempts worldwide. Since the 1990s, however, violent military takeovers have dropped in number, and there have only been eight coups since 2005.
Since the end of the Cold War, unconditional American support for military dictators has diminished and democracy promotion has taken center stage in US foreign policy, making putsches less acceptable. Militaries also have had to adapt to a world where foreign investment has made the image of a government more important and new forms of communication have made it harder to simply install a servile prime minister and crack down on the populace. Instead, militaries today find it is easier to function as kingmakers rather than kings, while still maintaining the fiction that the armed forces are neutral in politics. The armed forces walk this fine line by using their influence, in the background, to keep governments in power or topple them. At other times, the military uses its expertise in handling dangerous security threats like drug trafficking or terrorism to build up its power again.
Call it military rule 2.0. And as a result, in many developing countries the military is more powerful than it has been in years. Thailand, where the military once seemed to have retreated to the barracks, now finds the armed forces playing a critical role in the current political standoff. In Pakistan, which also appeared headed toward democracy a decade ago, the military has returned to its role as the central power base. From Mexico to Peru to Honduras, Latin America has over the past five years witnessed a weakening of civilian rule over the military, as the armed forces act with increasing impunity.
It's a dangerous kind of power. Armies can commit abuses virtually unpunished, dragging down developing democracies that seemed to be beyond the era of military influence. And, by presenting themselves as the only institutions with long-term stability — even as they simultaneously undermine that very stability — the new generation of military men undermine civilian leaders in another way: They make themselves indispensable to foreign partners like the United States.
For decades, Thailand's military played politics the old-fashioned way: When it wanted to run the government, it just took over. Between 1932, the end of Thailand's absolute monarchy, and today, the country has witnessed 18 coups or attempted coups. But after the last coup, which deposed the populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, the army realized the old days were gone for good.
After a wave of anti-Thaksin protests by elites in Bangkok in 2006, the Thai military took over, forcing Thaksin out. But the army soon ran into setbacks. Its installed prime minister, a former general, appeared to have little idea how to manage Thailand's complex and globalized economy. It threatened capital controls, which scared off foreign investors and precipitated a run on the stock market. It also failed to enact policies to boost Thailand's global competitiveness, even as neighboring countries like Vietnam were attracting more investment. Two years after the coup, Thailand's top military leader at the time, Supreme Commander General Boonsrang Niumpradit, told reporters, “Under the current situation, problems in the country are too complex to be easily tackled by a coup.”
Thailand was hardly unique. In next-door Burma, the ruling junta, which seems to manage most of the economy, has essentially run a once-promising country into the ground, according to a study by Sean Turnell of Macquarie University in Australia. Indeed, as capital has become more globalized, major developing nations have become more dependent on trade, foreign investment, and tourism, and need far more sophisticated economic management than a few generals can provide. Over the past three decades, developing regions like East Asia and Latin America have enacted a range of free trade deals, from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China agreement to the Mercosur trade deal in South America, all of which have had the effect of liberalizing trade among developing nations.
Compared to the 1960s or 1970s, too, militaries in developing countries can no longer effectively control the media, nongovernmental organizations, unions, or other avenues of dissent. New communications technology, including social networking, cellphones, and the Internet, allow the media in most countries to get around censorship; a flowering of nongovernmental organizations, many with links to the West, are much harder to control than the small number of nonprofits in developing countries in the 1960s or 1970s.
For example, following an attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002, supporters of Hugo Chavez were able to quickly link up and rally for him, helping install him back in power within 48 hours. And, after a military intervention in Bangladesh in early 2007, many private organizations that did not even exist during previous generations of military rule mobilized to fight the army takeover. Even in Burma, one of the most isolated countries in the world, local journalists in 2007 were able to get images of the military crackdown on monks' “Saffron Revolution” out to international media outlets.
Of course, militaries can still effectively rule outright small, very poor nations like tiny Guinea Bissau in West Africa, which weathered a coup in early April, since these countries are less dependent on foreign capital and less connected to the global economy. The list of successful and lasting coups over the past decade consists mostly of small and poor African states, such as Mauritania, the Central African Republic, and Guinea.
During the Cold War, Washington was willing to sanction outright coups by military men who (at least theoretically) shared America's anticommunist stance. Yet US policies often still aid militaries that seek more control of their governments. With Pakistan, the Obama administration, while rhetorically supporting the government of President Asif Ali Zardari — Obama's envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, last year told Congress the White House “unambiguously” backs Zardari — has in reality conducted much of the relationship through Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani, according to press reports in both the United States and Pakistan. In so doing, the White House seems to have bought into the Pakistani army's line that civilian governments are inherently unstable and the armed forces alone can provide the continuity Washington needs.
From Mexico to Peru to the Philippines, armies have learned to portray themselves to beleaguered civilian leaders as the only chance to defeat the security challenges — so long as the government agrees to the military's demands for greater funding, more autonomy, and a larger role in politics. In Pakistan, the armed forces last year grudgingly launched an offensive into Waziristan, an Islamist hotbed. And in so doing the army gained enough clout to sandbag several of Zardari's major objectives, including better ties to India, according to Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.
In other cases, militaries have learned that by uniting behind a certain politician, or by threatening to withhold their backing for a government without actually staging a coup, they can control civilian leaders. For example, in Nigeria, according to a study by John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, a group of senior generals recently played a major role in maneuvering into power vice president Goodluck Jonathan, who took over for the ailing president Umaru Yar'adua. (Yar'adua died last Wednesday.) Similarly, because drug trafficking is a priority in US-Mexican relations, much of the relationship between the United States and Mexico has been built through their defense establishments. A majority of the $1.4 billion approved by Congress as part of the Merida Initiative will go to equipment and funding for the Mexican military. Coupled with a close training relationship between the militaries and frequent visits to Mexico by top US military officials, this aid gives the Mexican military even more leverage over civilian institutions.
The return of the men in green has many dangerous implications. In its latest report on the state of global freedom, monitoring group Freedom House noted that freedom and human rights declined in 2009, marking four years in a row of setbacks, the longest continuous slide in 40 years — and the result, in part, of weakening civilian control of militaries. And over the past decade, military spending worldwide has grown by over 45 percent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a sign of the renewed clout of armed forces. This decline of democracy is one of the most unsettling trends in the world today.
Wielding the power to make or break governments, armed forces also become virtually immune to criticism or critical investigations, allowing them to perpetrate abuses. In Thailand, the military in the winter of 2008-9 reportedly intercepted rickety boats carrying refugees from neighboring Burma, and then pushed many of these desperate men and women back to sea, where they died. No punishments were meted out. In perhaps the most egregious example, human rights groups accuse the Mexican military of disappearances, torturing suspects with electric shocks, and widespread extrajudicial killings. A recent report by Amnesty International chronicled a litany of human rights abuses by the security forces, conducted in an environment where, as one Amnesty interviewee says, “No one will do anything to us because we're soldiers.”
Worse, behind-the-scenes military rule stunts the growth of other institutions that might be able to handle security threats more effectively. In Mexico, the militarization of the drug fight has not delivered many victories — Ciudad Juarez is now the murder capital of the world, and a blue ribbon panel led by former Latin American leaders last year reported that the drug war is a “failed war” — and that the militarization has marginalized the Mexican police and courts, which desperately need to be modernized, not ignored.
The return of military influence is not inevitable. In countries like Turkey and Indonesia, popular and politically savvy civilian leaders have drawn upon their popular appeal, and popular suspicion of the armed forces, to create laws restraining the armed forces and to finally convince some military officers that they are no longer needed as a stabilizing force in politics. Not coincidentally, Indonesia now has leapfrogged countries like Thailand to become the most vibrant democracy in Southeast Asia, while Turkey has in the past decade strengthened its democracy and become a major political player in its region. For now, though, Indonesia and Turkey remain very much the exception.
Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Shelby Leighton is a Research Associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.