When All You Have is a Hammer

President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador recently decreed that the military would keep its public security role until 2024. What’s wrong with this idea?

“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” You need the right tools to address a problem, and continually relying on the military, the wrong tool, won’t create safe and secure communities.

Using the military for things other than national defense, or allowing the military to participate in activities other than national defense, is something that happens too often in the Americas. Giving non-defense roles to the military seems to make sense to those who govern when looking for quick fixes to problems that might require force or national level logistics. The military is big, can operate throughout the country, is highly organized, structured to take orders and, while not Amazon, has serious logistical capacity. Voters sometimes reward using the military for problem solving. It appears tough and decisive.

But the military and police are not interchangeable cogs in the machine of government. They exist for different reasons, have different missions, doctrine, training, equipment and structure.

While scholars have spent their careers debating the functions of these institutions in a democracy, simple definitions make the point clearly enough.

According the Wikipedia, the common denominator of modern definitions, the military is “…a heavily armed, highly organized force primarily intended for warfare….The main task of the military is usually defined as defence of the state and its interests against external armed threats.”

The police, on the other hand, according to Webster’s, is a civilian body, “…concerned primarily with maintenance of public order, safety, and health and enforcement of laws… charged with prevention, detection, and prosecution of public nuisances and crimes.”

Within those definitions lies the fundamental problem. Policing is about maintaining public order, crime prevention and prosecution (in some countries). The tools used in effective policing are very different than those used by the military. To prevent or investigate crime, the police need a regular presence in, and the trust of, a community. They need to work with the community.

For decades, the Mexican military has been used in public security on a “temporary basis,” often moving into a city or state plagued by corruption and violence. At times, as in Tamaulipas, state and local police have been dissolved while the military assumes their responsibilities. This can bring short-term results, a temporary homicide reduction, as the military occupies an area. But military occupation is not a public security strategy, nor should it be unless the community is the threat being defended against.

The military can occupy territory, but they don’t work with communities. They don’t resolve corruption. And, they don’t rebuild the state institutions needed to create and maintain public safety. You can’t occupy your way out of public security problems or into creating safer communities.

Using the military to do public security will not make Mexico safer because it is not the right tool for the job.

The US has been using the wrong tool, the police, to solve social problems for decades and with devastating results. In the US, we call the police for any disturbance and they are the ones who respond. When homeless people annoy businesses, we call the police. When mentally ill people cause a disturbance, we call the police. When addicts are a nuisance, we call the police. The police and criminal justice system are not designed to deal with homelessness, mental illness or addiction.

Overuse of the police to deal with social problems explains a lot about why the US has the largest prison population in the world. Too many of society’s problems are funneled through the criminal justice system.

Using the military as police will do no more to address Mexico’s murder rate than using the police to address racial problems in the US.  Remember – “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” When all you have is the military, everything will look like a problem to be solved through occupation and suppression.

Let’s find the tools, and develop the public institutions, that we actually need to address the problems we have.

This column was published in MexicoToday.com, 6/22/20.

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