What Military Control of the Mayan Train Means for Mexico

Credit: Geocomunes.org

The Tren Maya (Mayan Train) will be operated and controlled by the Mexican military, while proceeds from its operations will go directly to its coffers, bypassing the finance ministry, revealed a top Mexican official in an interview to El Financiero.

Rogelio Jiménez Pons, director of the National Tourism Promotion Fund (Fonatur) in charge of the project, detailed the entirety of the train in the Yucatan Peninsula would be property of the National Defense Secreteriat (Sedena); initially, only three of seven sections of the infrastructure project would be under military control. Additionally, all profits from the transport of passengers and cargo will fund military pensions, until now administered by the Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit (SCHP).

Jiménez Pons explained the government’s rationale: “It’s a perfect reward for the armed forces. If we have a nationalist long-term vision of property, that this is a business, but for the state, we will try to make it a business to benefit the most Mexicans possible. Who better than the Army to take charge of this enterprise? It guarantees us many things, in particular, that it is not privatized.”

The announcement has been met with widespread criticism. These are reactions from across the political spectrum.

Some criticism reflects skepticism of military accountability and opposition to further militarization of the country, while others merely reproduce moralistic and opportunistic outrage so adroitly leveraged and manipulated by the political opposition. However, beyond the monotonous black-and-white narrative of AMLO’s megaprojects adopted by both right and left-wing critics, there is a critical political and institutional reality that cannot be ignored.

  1. Institutional incentives to prevent privatization. The decision rewards the Armed Forces with funding for military pensions, gratuitously bypassing the civilian finance ministry. By giving the military significant financial stake in the train’s operations, the government assures there is overwhelming incentive for the military to control the project after completion. There is of course the high possibility of corruption in the management of pension funds.
  2. Critical and strategic infrastructure. The government confirmed it considers the southeastern megaprojects a matter of “national security”, as the Fonatur director explicitly mentioned in the interview. Turning over complete ownership and operational control to the military eliminates the possibility of private control over this infrastructure and it ensures a securitized perspective prevails over other logics.
  3. Slow drift to left nationalism. AMLO began his administration with a lukewarm stance toward private and foreign companies in strategic industries and megaprojects. Over time, AMLO has gradually solidified his policies as more nationalist than he let on at first. For instance, AMLO first welcomed Blackrock’s participation in the fifth stretch of the Mayan Train, only to shut it out of the project, assigning this sector to the military. Lithium, oil, electricity and mining are other sectors where the government has hardened its left nationalist position since 2018.
  4. Growing military presence in the southeast. Around 30 thousand National Guard troops are currently deployed in the southeastern region of the country, according to academic estimates by Dra. Ana Esther Ceceña. As part of its southern border strategy, the Mexican government set up a “Containment Zone” across the Tehuantepec Isthmus to deter migrants. In 2020, AMLO handed over to the Navy and Army control of seaport operations and customs entry points, placing both ends of the Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (CIIT) under military administration. The CIIT is the “core” of the southeastern development megaprojects; as the equivalent of a “second Panama Canal,” it is expected to become a site of intense geopolitical competition.
  5. Control of the interoceanic corridor. The southeastern megaprojects are all linked and cannot be analyzed in isolation. The Tren Maya, the CIIT and the Dos Bocas refinery are all part of an economic integration and regional development strategy that fortifies the U.S dominated North American integration project, a long-term regional project that necessitates a faster Atlantic-Pacific route, as energy and transport demands have demonstrated recently. The only reason the United States has not vetoed the Mexican interoceanic corridor like it torpedoed the Nicaragua Canal is because it falls well within its sphere of influence and range of control. Mexican military control of the Mayan Train risks generating friction, as it is in U.S. interests that this vital infrastructure is under private control, over whom it can more easily exercise its influence.
  6. Geopolitics and institutional environment. It is important to note that the Mexican government’s decision is not a blanket militarization strategy, nor is it a sign that AMLO is a dictator-in-waiting, as the punditry’s outcry would suggest. Rather, this policy choice must be seen in context, engendered by the aforementioned geopolitical situation, as well as the institutional environment. For instance, AMLO’s flagship megaprojects are high in the government’s priority due to its perceived benefits (overplayed or not). It is also the president’s belief that the Mexican military is the state institution most insulated against private interests or institutional capture — again, whether this is true is irrelevant, as it is the perception that conditions AMLO’s policy menu. Taking into account the institutional and policy environment at the present political juncture contextualizes this decision and tempers alarmist accusations of anti-democratic regression and out of control militarization.
  7. Accountability and the Armed Forces. The military is by no means a transparent institution and it has a complicated history of state-sanctioned violence against civilians. The government’s counterinsurgency approach to the low intensity armed conflict in the country will undoubtedly play out in how the Armed Forces operate in the strategic southeastern region. For instance, the role of the Army and Navy in population displacement around extractivist and infrastructure projects is a documented phenomenon, as is the National Guard’s immigration/population control. On the organized crime front, this massive transportation and tourism infrastructure risks skyrocketing human trafficking in a particularly problematic zone for cross-border smuggling and sex tourism. The modernized transportations networks will also likely lend themselves to other forms of trafficking, like drugs and merchandise. Ultimately, the exact impact on violence or militarization is largely unclear, as the train will begin operations until 2024, but it should be studied from a complex approach that takes into account all these conditions, and avoids falling into the tired trap of moral outcry with no substance.

Related article: The Isthmus Project: A Second Panama Canal

Investigative journalist and political consultant based in Northern Mexico and the US Southwest