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Mexico Launches Major Security Overhaul, Details Remain Unclear

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Mexico launched its National Guard over the weekend in a grand ceremony led by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

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PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: Viva Mexico, viva Mexico.

CORNISH: A first batch of 70,000 troops is being deployed now to hot spots around the country. Those include Mexico's borders, where it's under pressure from the United States to control the flow of Central American migrants northward.

They're also in Mexico City, which is where reporter James Fredrick joins us now. And, James, a few weeks ago, there was no National Guard. Now we're talking about thousands of troops. Where did they come from, and what role will they play?

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: What we know is that three-quarters of those 70,000 have just been transferred over from different military forces in Mexico, so, you know, you have soldiers or Marines just wearing different uniforms now.

But the big difference is that the National Guard, dubbed as a civilian-military hybrid, gives these troops the powers to basically carry out police functions. So that means they can arrest people. They're supposed to be investigating crimes. Everything you think of a police officer doing, the National Guard has those powers, in addition to the military firepower.

CORNISH: I want to come back to that in a moment. But first, have you seen the guard in action? Can you give us a sense of what they're doing?

FREDRICK: Well, the first time we saw the guard was when they were deployed to Mexico's southern border to help stop migrants coming north. So I saw some of them. And, really, these were just soldiers who had National Guard armbands slapped onto them.

As you mentioned, they have also been deployed to Mexico City, which is quite controversial. It's very, very rare and hasn't really happened in modern history that military forces get deployed to Mexico City. So we are - now, they're deployed all across the country, but it's very early, and we haven't seen much of what they're doing yet.

CORNISH: What does that mean for other aspects of life in Mexico? I mean, the country is hitting records in terms of murders and other kinds of violent crime, so could the National Guard have a role there?

FREDRICK: Well, that's what President Lopez Obrador says. He says this is going to be the key to solving this security crisis in Mexico. And he readily admitted that things continue to get worse right now. Mexico, again this year, is on track to have its most murders ever in a year.

But really, the question is whether the National Guard is going to be substantially different from any of the security forces that currently exist, whether that's the Mexican army, the Mexican federal police force, which is now being phased out as the National Guard comes in.

So really, the question is, clearly, Mexico does need good security forces to solve this crisis. Do they have the ability to change that? Is the National Guard actually a big change?

CORNISH: Clearly, the National Guard is somewhat controversial in Mexico. So can you talk about what are some of the concerns from critics?

FREDRICK: The No. 1 concern is training. You know, with three-quarters of these troops being transferred over from the military, we know they're trained in everything soldiers know. What we are not sure about is how trained they are to basically act as police officers - to arrest people, to read people their rights, to investigate crimes, to do the harder, longer work of dismantling criminal networks. We're not sure if they're trained for that.

Mexico's military has had several scandals in the last couple of years of extrajudicial executions, excessive use of force. The concern is that transferring those people over to the National Guard will just continue those same kinds of problems.

CORNISH: That's reporter James Fredrick from Mexico City. Thanks so much.

FREDRICK: Thanks, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.