on security

Violence, Security and the Next Mexican President

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READAug 14, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
In this photograph, police investigate the killing of a colleague in Acapulco, Mexico, on July 23, 2018.

Policemen work at a crime scene after a colleague was killed in Acapulco on July 23, 2018. Mexican President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will take office on Dec. 1, inherits a messy war on drug cartels from his predecessor Enrique Pena Nieto. Since Mexico deployed its army to fight drug trafficking in 2006 during the presidency of Felipe Calderon, the country has been engulfed in a wave of violence that has killed more than 200,000, left more than 30,000 missing and resulted in complaints against the heavily armed security forces due to rights violations, extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances.

  • Despite the fears of some, the incoming administration of President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador appears less radical than many had predicted. 
  • The campaign promise of an amnesty for narcotics crimes appears be quite limited and will not apply to those who have been involved in violent crimes. 
  • Mexico may decriminalize marijuana and may attempt to regulate the cultivation of opium poppies. 
  • Removing the military from the war against the cartels will remain difficult.

In just over three months, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will be inaugurated as the next president of Mexico. He will be armed with a public mandate to tackle corruption and drug violence. His party, the National Regeneration Movement, will also enjoy a majority in both houses of Congress. That control will give him an opportunity that presidents Enrique Pena Nieto, Felipe Calderon and Vicente Fox did not have – a strong chance to carry out his political agenda.

Tackling Mexico's endemic corruption is one important part of that program. Another closely related topic is the country's security challenges, which have dominated the agendas of several recent administrations, consuming their attention and political capital. Indeed, in November 2012, I analyzed Pena Nieto's plans to address security, and in 2017, I examined some of the limitations that the next president was going to face. Now that we know the names of some of the people in Lopez Obrador's national security Cabinet and some of its proposals, it's time to take a closer look.

The Big Picture

With murders at historic highs, criminal violence will remain a significant challenge for the administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Like the past two administrations, he and his team have outlined initiatives to reduce the brutal lawlessness and take the military out of the cartel war. However, it remains unclear whether offering an amnesty for drug crimes or legalizing some drugs will prove effective in curbing the carnage.


National Security: People and Preparations

Though there were concerns that Mexico might skew hard to the left due to Lopez Obrador's nationalist and populist rhetoric, two of the president-elect's early security picks are decidedly mainstream. One selection is Olga Sanchez Cordero, Lopez Obrador's candidate for secretary of the interior. President Ernesto Zedillo initially appointed Sanchez Cordero to Mexico's high court, the National Supreme Court of Justice, where she served two terms from 1995 to 2015.

Another significant pick is Alfonso Durazo, who worked in the administrations of both Fox and Carlos Salinas. Durazo has been tapped to lead the Secretariat of Public Security, which was a Cabinet-level organization created under the Fox administration in 2000. The agency was dissolved under the Pena Nieto administration in 2013, and its functions were folded into the Interior Ministry in the form of the National Security Commission. The commission now oversees the federal police, the federal protection service and the federal prison system. Lopez Obrador also plans to restore the public security ministry to a Cabinet-level agency.

Amnesty for Narcos?

On the campaign trail, Lopez Obrador vaguely discussed the possibility of somehow working a deal with cartel leaders to reduce violence. He also ambiguously talked about offering amnesty for narcotics crimes, producing a great deal of controversy. However, since the election, the details of the proposed amnesty have begun emerging, allaying the fears of many.  

At a July 7 news conference, Durazo and Sanchez Cordero said women and children coerced into working for criminal organizations or farmers forced to grow illegal drugs would be the primary beneficiaries of pardons. Those involved in violent crimes such as homicide, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking and sexual assault would not be eligible. Sanchez Cordero also said some repentant drug traffickers might receive amnesty if they help solve serious crimes and locate the bodies of victims.

This definition of amnesty is clearly not a blanket that will apply to all cartel figures. In fact, most Mexican cartel groups and street gangs are involved in violent crime against people – it would be hard to find a Mexican criminal group that has not been part of the brutality wracking the country. Therefore, the number of criminals who would qualify for the amnesty will be quite limited – if any are even interested in applying for it to begin with (or think they would survive the process).

Hot wars among Mexico's cartel groups are feeding the country's record number of homicides. The carnage can be found in border towns such as Tijuana, Juarez and Reynosa; in drug production areas such as Guerrero state; at retail drug sales points such as Mexico City and Cancun; and at hot spots for petroleum theft such as Guanajuato. It will clearly take more than an offer of amnesty to people involved in nonviolent crime to solve this array of problems – especially given the lucrative nature of these illegal acts. It appears that the amnesty proposal was just a campaign promise that is now being given lip service, rather than a broad program to help criminals return to civil society. 

Legalization: Marijuana and Opium

Sanchez Cordero has also stated that with marijuana now legal or decriminalized in Canada and several U.S. states, it doesn't make much sense for Mexico to continue to spend so much time and resources prosecuting cannabis cases and eradicating such crops. At the same time, the Lopez Obrador administration will consider decriminalizing the recreational use of marijuana in Mexico, she said. While such a move would certainly cause angst for the U.S. federal government, it would be difficult for the United States to place too much pressure on Mexico since it would follow decriminalization measures by Canada and several U.S. states.

The new administration will consider the legalization and regulation of the opium trade, perhaps permitting the sale of opium gum to pharmaceutical companies.

Sanchez Cordero also said the legalization and regulation of the opium trade would be considered, perhaps permitting the sale of opium gum to pharmaceutical companies. That policy shift would create a legal market for the country's gomeros, as opium farmers are called, and perhaps relax the grip of the drug cartels over the trade. It could also help decrease the amount of Mexican heroin shipped to the United States. In addition, legalizing the trade could help quell the intense fighting over the control of opium-growing areas such as Guerrero state. 

But such a move would not strike a fatal blow to Mexican cartel groups or end the U.S. opioid crisis. In recent years, the cartels have learned that fentanyl is cheaper and easier to produce than heroin, and they have increased production of the potent synthetic opioid. Indeed, record poppy crops and the transition to fentanyl have produced a glut of opium gum in Mexico, dropping the price from upward of $1,250 per kilogram to just $250 per kilogram. In a search for a better return on their efforts, some farmers have switched from producing the labor-intensive opium gum back to growing marijuana. 

But the United States is not the only country being plagued by the drugs trafficked by the cartels. Mexico's internal drug markets have grown at an alarming rate, and cocaine, meth and opioids also present a significant public health threat there. These developments would therefore make it difficult for the Mexican government to relax enforcement on hard drugs or the organizations that produce and sell them. 

Pulling the Military Out of the Drug War

Like the Pena Nieto administration before it, the Lopez Obrador administration has promised it will remove the military from the war on drugs. Durazo has said the public security ministry can be expanded to assume the law enforcement role being performed by the military. This is not unlike Pena Nieto's plan to create a 40,000-strong paramilitary police force or gendarmerie. Durazo has also mentioned a plan to create a new border police force to help keep illegal immigrants and illegal weapons out of the country.

The past several administrations have recognized that soldiers and marines do not make ideal police officers.

The past several administrations have recognized that soldiers and marines do not make ideal police officers and have sought to end the military's role in providing basic security. Pena Nieto attempted a bold move with his plan for a gendarmerie, but various political and economic factors led to the demise of his vision for the new police force. Perhaps Lopez Obrador will have the political muscle to succeed were Pena Nieto failed, but such a program will be particularly expensive. Given the number of other political initiatives Lopez Obrador has announced, including expansions of many social spending programs, it may be difficult to find the funding to finally create a force that will allow the military to return to its intended role.

On Dec. 1, Lopez Obrador will be sworn into office for a single, six-year term. Mexican voters have given him a free hand to take on the endemic graft and the brutal cartel violence that are hampering the country's economic growth. And for the first time since 1997, a single party will control the presidency and both houses of Congress, giving Lopez Obrador a rare opportunity to make a real difference in Mexico's future. But having power doesn't always guarantee success; that, instead, will depend on how well the new administration executes on its promises and on how well its proposals actually reduce the violence.

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