Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador dropped a bombshell at his Monday press conference, announcing he would sign a decree putting the National Guard under Defence Secretariat (SEDENA) command—even though the constitution states the militarized police force shall operate under civilian leadership.

AMLO, as the president is known, previously said he would send a constitutional reform to Congress, which would assign the National Guard to SEDENA authority. But the prospects for approval in Congress—where AMLO’s MORENA party and its allies lack a supermajority—appear slim. Any decree would be challenged to the Supreme Court.

“The Federation will have a civil police institution called the National Guard,” Article 21 of the constitution—approved in 2019—clearly states. “The law will determine the organic and management structure of the National Guard, which will be attached to the secretariat of the public security branch, which will formulate the National Public Security Strategy, the respective programs, policies and actions.”

Despite announcing military leadership for the National Guard, AMLO insisted on calling it civilian and saying it would operate in such a manner. He said Tuesday:

“It’s going to continue being a civil institution depending on the National Defence Secretariat. … I have a moral obligation to defend this point and I’ll continue to do so.”

The move to put the National Guard under SEDENA control continued Mexico’s improbable path of militarization under AMLO, who self-identifies as part of the Mexican left—which historically distrusted the military over its roles in cracking down on student protests of the 1960s and 1970s and hunting guerrillas in the dirty war.

But AMLO has come to see the military as a partner in power. He has tapped SEDENA and the Navy Secretariat (SEMAR) with tasks ranging from public security to operating seaports and the customs service to building and operating a new Mexico City airport (and providing security at the old Mexico City airport) to managing a national park in the Yucatán Peninsula.

AMLO has become so dependent on SEDENA that he was forced to deal with discontent among top army brass over the arrest of former defence secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, who was detained upon landing at LAX in 2019, charged with drug trafficking and corruption offences—then sent back to Mexico, which promptly exonerated him.

Mexican publication Eje Central reported SEDENA’s budget has ballooned by 700% since AMLO took office in late 2018, while “the armed forces took operational and even managerial control of 176 institutions.” Eje Central also noted, “Such has been the demand for personnel, that both (SEDENA) and (SEMAR) have had to convince retired or discharged elements to work on other tasks, so that they join managerial or middle management positions.”

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