By RICARDO CASTILLO
Upon turning over the care of the country’s customs service to the military on July 17 in Manzanillo port, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) finished his statement by saying that the times of “el que no transa, no avanza” (“he who does not double deal does not avance”) are over.
The saying is a favorite motto of Mexican customs officers.
Needless to say, AMLO hates the motto because it glorifies corruption, which is no doubt rampant at the government customs offices.
Sources inside the National Palace have said that the president made the decision after several talks with close advisors Santiago Nieto and Raquel Buenrrostro, respectively, directors of the Financial Investigation Unit (UIF) and the Tax Administration Service (SAT), both branches of the Treasury Secretariat. Both thought the idea of having the military manage customs was a fine one; the president went ahead and now the process is on.
There were immediate consequences of the brash decision. The first was that Communications and Transportation Secretary Javier Jiménez Espriú turned in his resignation, since he was not consulted over the move. The latest news is that AMLO did not accept Jiménez Espriú’s resignation and is now discussing it with the secretary.
The decision was a radical one and will not be an easy one to implement, particularly now, when the Army and Navy already have their hands full a myriad of distinct chores that range from guarding the borders to building the New International Mexico City Airport.
Another issue with for move is finding qualified personnel in the Army and Navy. Current Customs Administrator Horacio Duarte said that there is a sizeable number of competent officers who have studied foreign trade and customs. Openings will also be offered to retiring officers. They will be trained in merchandise evaluations and tariffs for imports, but it may be a while before they arrive at Mexico’s 49 existing points of entry. In the meantime, foot soldiers are already arriving at facilities, mainly along the U.S. border.
To many, the new order is somewhat redundant since the Navy is already in charge of seaports while the National Guard has been guarding customs at land points of entry for some time now. In both cases, the main duty has been to impede the entry of illicit drugs and chemicals from South America and Asia. Also strange seems to be the fact that there is no official document behind the president’s order.
What is not clear as of yet is how the military will substitute existing personnel. Before the president’s move, there was an agreement between the National Defense Secretariat (Sedena) and former SAT Director Margarita Ríos-Farjat (now a Supreme Court judge) for the Army and Navy to give physical protection to Customs facilities in ports and border cities. Now the idea is for military officers to oversee the daily management because “the corruption problem at customs favors the activities of organized criminals such as gun running, drugs, chemical precursors and merchandise in general.”
Among other concerns are the physical protection of incoming officers as organized criminals also wield their own motto when dealing with customs officers, offering them the choice between “silver or lead.” In addition, as a questioning Deputy Lorena Villavicencio put it: “The military are corruptible too.”
Duarte also said that customs, under the Treasury, is a civil service government organization under which the military may not have their ranks recognized. Among the posts to be filled, Duarte said, are those of onsite customs administrators surveilling entry and exit of merchandise, an assistant administrator to replace the director when absent, a head of personnel at each customs house and other key positions. Upon entry, the military officers will have to be proficient in charging and collecting import taxes and compliance with non-tariff regulations.
Meanwhile, at the Chamber of Deputies, the finance committee is looking into the constitutionality of the president’s move because some deputies claim it may violate Constitutional Article 129 that delineates the use of soldiers in civilian chores.
The Army and Navy top brass, General Luis Cresencio Sandoval González and Admiral José Rafael Ojeda Durán, respectively, have already accepted the new duties levied upon them by AMLO and have started making transition moves allotting personnel to guard the facilities. The administrative moves will come as officers are trained because in this sudden move. Apparently, AMLO did not see that the move was easier said than done.
Nevertheless, the transition at the Customs Office is on, and, hopefully, the move will scare the corrupt officials, because if they don’t straighten out their ways, which constitute a crime against the nation’s income, they’ll have to find new outlets where they can say “he who does not double deal, does not advance.”
There is another aspect of this issue, and that is the shape of honesty in government under the revamped United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), already in operation But, surely, importers and exporters have, for now, their hands full trying to understand the new order in customs operations.
And most certainly, newly trained military officers will have to plunge into studying the new treatise.
…July 23, 2020