Mexico deploys National Guard to city subway amid sabotage fears

Rights groups worry about ‘lack of transparency’ as the quasi-military force deploys to address ‘not normal’ incidents.

Rescue workers exit the Raza station in Mexico City
Rescue workers attend to the scene of a fatal collision between two subway trains in Mexico City on January 7, 2023 [Fernando Llano/AP Photo]

The mayor of Mexico’s capital has announced that 6,060 National Guard officers will be posted in the city’s subway system after a series of mechanical problems and accidents that officials suggested could be due to sabotage.

Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said, in recent months, “incidents have been occurring that we categorize as not normal.” She appeared to suggest, but did not say, that it could involve some form of sabotage.

Sheinbaum added that she had asked President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to dispatch the quasi-military National Guard and he agreed. The officers would be posted at subway stations “and some other facilities” in the system and would be there “for some months”.

She did not explain how the National Guard officers, mostly drawn from the army and assigned to law enforcement, could help control a situation that appears to be caused by maintenance, design or operational flaws.

The Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez human rights centre said the announcement “is concerning, because it is obvious that this agency reproduces the military’s problems with a lack of transparency and excessive use of force.”

Accidents on the subway have been a recurrent embarrassment for Sheinbaum, who is considered the most likely candidate in Lopez Obrador’s left-wing Morena party to succeed him in the 2024 elections. Like the president, Sheinbaum has often ascribed setbacks to a conservative conspiracy against her.

Lopez Obrador was somewhat more specific, saying the National Guard would be there to prevent “provoked” or intentional accidents.

“What we want is for there not to be psychosis, for people not to have to worry about some accident in the subway, and that it could have been provoked,” the president said.

“If they call that militarisation or whatever, then we will take responsibility for that,” he said.

The latest accident came on Saturday, when two subway trains collided while between stations, killing one person and injuring dozens. Local media reported there had previously been signalling problems on that stretch of track.

In May 2021, an elevated section of the subway system collapsed, causing 26 deaths and injuring nearly 100 people. An investigation blamed deficiencies in construction, and 10 former officials have been charged with a form of manslaughter, injury and damage to property, but none has been jailed.

Poor welding, a lack of maintenance, antiquated electronic systems and the city’s frequent earthquakes and soft soil conditions have all been blamed in the past for problems on the subway, but sabotage has never before been seen as a cause.

But in the last several days, Sheinbaum said, there had been three “not normal” problems found on subway cars or tracks, including the failure of a tire “that had just been inspected”. The city’s subway cars run on both tires and rails.

Subway riders were sceptical about sending the National Guard into the largely underground metro system.

“The National Guard isn’t going to solve anything,” said Manuel Alejandro, a clothing and sneaker vendor who rides the subway almost every day. “It would be better to give the subway the periodical maintenance it needs.”

Alejandro added that the train he takes “stops a lot, [and] the lights go off”. He said of the government, “It seems like they are looking for excuses.”

Tarcisio Montaño, a building maintenance worker who generally supports Lopez Obrador and his anti-poverty programmes, said he saw politics playing a role in some of the criticism of subway problems.

“They are attacking the metro to smear the government,” Montano said, suggesting the president’s political rivals have an interest in publicising the issue.

But also he acknowledged the subway system is underfunded and poorly maintained. “Where does all the money from the tickets go?” he asked, noting that trains can take a long time to come.

Montano agreed the National Guard is not the answer.

“I don’t see any reason for the National Guard,” he said. “They are there to defend the country, not to keep watch for you on the subway.”

The Mexico City subway system has 226.5 kilometres (141 miles) of track and 195 stations. It serves an average of 4.6 million passengers every day. With tickets costing the equivalent of $0.25, it is also one of the cheapest subway systems in the world and has suffered from insufficient budgets for years.

The tech publication, Rest of the World, reported this week that current and former subway workers said the metro system’s communication network is so bad that they have been forced to rely on mobile phone messaging apps to keep in touch with train operators and avoid accidents.

In 2021, a fire in the antiquated control centre of the subway system killed one person and sent 32 others to the hospital, while knocking out service on half of the subway lines in the city of nine million inhabitants. Some of the technology at the control centre appeared to be 1970s-era analog equipment.

Source: The Associated Press