Solving Mexico's violence: new President, old problems?

By MARLENE JACOBSEN



The Mexican people have long been terrorised by the atrocities of violent drug cartels, and disappointed by fragile state institutions and corrupt elites. Desperate for profound change, they put their trust into a newly chosen leftist hero, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, who founded the social-democratic party, Morena. In the 2018 presidential election, he won the hearts of a remarkable 53% of voters with catchy phrases like “hugs, not bullets“, offering a non-confrontational alternative to the ongoing War on Drugs. Yet during AMLO’s first year in office, the murder rate has reached ever higher, with 35,588 homicides taking place in the year ending 2019. Were the prospects of change under AMLO’s administration an illusion?


The beginnings of his presidency seemed highly promising – instead of moving into the presidential mansion in Mexico City, AMLO turned it into a public park and slashed his own salary by 60%. However, he has yet to prove whether his endeavours to appear down to earth go beyond symbolic gestures. A number of newly introduced social projects, such as scholarships for children in extreme poverty, aim to benefit previously marginalised groups. The left-leaning president is dedicated to alleviating blatant inequality and hardship, which he deems the main forces pushing youths into organised crime. AMLO’s administration has already spent three times more on welfare programs and crime prevention than the two previous governments. Yet, these new policies have not turned out as redistributive as many Mexicans had hoped for, as AMLO is yet to announce tax increases for the wealthy. Instead, he argues that the resources needed will come from putting an end to corruption and excessive public spending.


Corruption is also the reason why AMLO wanted to turn his back on the security forces that are deeply mistrusted by the general public. Mexico’s to-date highly militarised response to gang violence has proven anything but effective, not least because many police officers accept bribes and parts of the military have even been headhunted by drug cartels themselves. Consequently, AMLO has promised to only employ ‘honest’ officials and pursue a less militarised strategy as ‘violence cannot be faced with violence’. However, such simplified framing of the public security crisis does not conceal that his newly created civil National Guard seems little innovative. Commissioned to patrol all corners of the country and branded as a new security force, the National Guard is composed of 60,000 agents mainly drawn from the very Federal Police, Navy and Army that AMLO has been criticising. With military officers holding management positions and thus most decision power, the same mechanisms from previous governments seem in place. However, the National Guard is currently lacking officers at violent hotspots as thousands of them were deployed to Mexico’s borders where they are tasked to control migration flows – just to fulfil Donald Trump’s protectionist demands.


Meanwhile, AMLO finds himself in no easy position as the landscape of gang violence has become more complicated over the past years. The originally few big cartels have fragmented into nearly two hundred criminal groups that benefit from a myriad of illegal activities such as human and arms trafficking. A recent incident made headlines when the police first captured a son of infamous drug lord El Chapo, but then had to release him as they were powerless against the drug cartel’s following wave of attacks. The president’s response came close to a capitulation: arresting drug lords is no longer a priority, said AMLO, as he pleaded for a shift of focus on reducing homicides instead. What sounds contradicting has in fact been implemented in Columbia where the 2016 peace agreement attempted to officially end the fifty-year long civil war. Accordingly, even those guerrillas who have committed kidnappings and killings can avoid prison as long as they confess to their crimes. However, security experts warn that a similar amnesty-based approach would turn out counterproductive for Mexico as it can embolden criminal groups. At a rate of 97% of all crimes remaining unsolved and unpunished, any approach to ending Mexico’s violence is undermined by an institutional vacuum.


Unless rule of law is strengthened and the justice system is functioning, organised crime will persist – no matter if the chosen strategy is militarised or not. AMLO has claimed to be radically different from his predecessors, a promise which has come true not only through his well-perceived populist rhetoric. Nevertheless, his National Guard does not seem that unconventional yet equally unsuccessful which has caused AMLO’s approval ratings to fall by 20%. The welfare programs were an essential first step towards equity, however they alone cannot dismantle the immense power of the drug cartels. Organised crime is still an attractive option to many in need, a vicious cycle which will be fuelled by the coming economic recession due to Covid-19. If only hugs were the answer.


IMAGE - Flickr (Eneas De Troya)