In Stratfor's 2017 Third-Quarter Forecast, we wrote that U.S. pressure to restructure the North American Free Trade Agreement could push Mexican voters toward populist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Recently, Lopez Obrador suggested he would consider providing amnesty to cartel leaders to stem violence in the country. But considering how vital Mexico's cooperation is to the United States' international counternarcotics strategy, the move wouldn't be accepted lightly by Mexico's northern neighbor.
Mexico's presidential frontrunner has proposed providing amnesty to cartel leaders to reduce violence, but the proposal would be virtually impossible to implement. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador made the proposal — which would be a significant departure from previous administrations' approaches to security — during a campaign rally Dec. 2 in Quechultenango, Guerrero state. But it is important to note that the suggestion is just that, a suggestion, and may not translate into actual policy should Lopez Obrador be elected. But even if the candidate does attempt to grant cartel bosses amnesty, a mountain of institutional and logistical obstacles will likely block his efforts.
By claiming that his administration will approach public security differently, Lopez Obrador may be trying to appeal to the rural populations hit hardest by violence in recent years. But just how differently the candidate can actually approach security is an altogether different question. Lopez Obrador has said in the past he would move away from a military-centric security approach but has walked back from that statement in recent months, likely realizing the impracticality of the proposal. Similarly, even if Lopez Obrador believes that amnesty would be an effective option against crime, he will soon be faced with the impracticality of it as well.
Granting amnesty to cartel leaders would encounter stiff resistance — both in Mexico and in the United States. Mexico's cooperation against organized crime is a key part of the United States' international counternarcotics strategy and domestic security policies —particularly under the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. As president, Lopez Obrador and his administration would have to carefully weigh the benefits of negotiating to demobilize criminal groups against the risk of antagonizing a security-minded U.S. presidential administration. In addition, amnesty proposals would lead to major domestic political resistance. And if the Mexican Congress determined that an amnesty law were necessary to demobilize criminal groups, passing such legislation would be all but impossible.
Even if it were legally possible to grant criminal groups amnesty in Mexico, choosing which criminals to give amnesty to would risk opening a Pandora's box full of unending requests and pressure from various criminal organizations. Mexico's criminal landscape has fragmented over the past decade, as several large cartels have broken apart under law enforcement pressure and years of turf battles. Granting any particular group amnesty in Mexico would not guarantee any immediate public security benefits.
A comparison could be drawn to the Colombian government's peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In Colombia, the FARC's internal unity and hierarchical structure helped reduce militant attacks virtually overnight after the group enforced a unilateral ceasefire in July 2015. In Mexico, criminal gangs are highly decentralized and are driven by profit rather than ideology, which could hinder any government-sponsored negotiation to significantly curb violence at a national level. Still, Lopez Obrador's amnesty proposal cannot be dismissed. After all, it is a policy option proposed by Mexico's presidential frontrunner. There are enough obstacles to the successful implementation of any amnesty deal, however, that the attempts would likely fail.