Mexico inaugurates new international airport amid controversy

Mexico's Felipe Angeles International Airport. Image courtesy of @josefagbom on Twitter

The first of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s high-impact development projects has been inaugurated. On March 21, after three years of construction, the new Felipe Angeles International Airport just outside Mexico City, launched its first commercial flight. 

The new travel hub is part of a network of airports that encompass the country’s capital. Its construction, which involved building a new commercial airport on an existing military airbase, reportedly cost USD $3.7 billion, and is expected to service five million passengers a year by 2023, with subsequent development phases raising traveler capacity to 90 million passengers per year by 2050, according to El Economista.

Since its inception, the construction project has been riddled with controversy, mostly over the president’s decision to halt a previous airport construction project and replace private contractors with engineers from Mexico’s military.

The turbulent timeline of Mexico’s latest international airport 

During his presidential campaign in 2018, Mr. López Obrador promised to call off his predecessor, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s, highly touted international airport project, which Mr. López Obrador said was unsustainable and rife with corruption.

Shortly after being elected president, AMLO, as he is often referred to, carried out a referendum to assess whether the construction of Mr. Peña Nieto’s airport should be stopped and replaced with a cheaper option. 

By late October 2018, the referendum took place, with 737,000 citizens voting in favor of AMLO’s airport plans, and 310, 463 voting against.

With over 30% of its construction already completed, Mr. Peña Nieto’s airport was suspended by Mr. López Obrador’s administration. The total cost of the project’s cancellation ended up being more than USD $5 billion, paid out to investors, according to Mexico’s federal audit agency ASF.

In 2019, Mr. López Obrador would start construction of his new airport, cutting high costs and leading the project under an austerity policy, relying on the military to carry out the task. 

Control tower at Felipe Angeles International Airport in Mexico. Image courtesy of @josefagbom on Twitter.

The military’s outsized role in Mexico’s new airport 

Named after the Mexican revolutionary General Felipe Angeles, the new international airport does not end its ties to the military at its name. The airfield serves as a base for the armed forces and is AMLO’s first infrastructure project wholly owned and managed by the Department of Defense (SEDENA) through a state-owned company in which SEDENA owns 99% of the shares, with the remaining one percent owned by the National Bank of Mexico’s Army, Air Force and Navy (Banjercito). 

AMLO’s opponents have accused the project of corruption as well. According to right-wing investigative journalist organization Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad, 100% of the bidding contracts were awarded directly by the armed forces to companies of their choosing, avoiding traditional licitation processes. 

Also concerning to opponents, AMLO has made it more difficult for political rivals, journalists and citizens to obtain information about the military’s infrastructure development projects by issuing a decree that declares these projects a matter of national security, shrouding them in secrecy. 

The administration is expected to move forward in 2023 with other signature construction projects involving the military, including Tren Maya, a rail line connecting cities on the Yucatan Peninsula; an urban rail line from Toluca to Mexico City; oil refineries and dams

Mexican officials inaugurate new Felipe Angeles International Airport. Image courtesy of @m_ebrard on Twitter.