Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will AMLO Be Able to Bring Peace and Security to Mexico?

Mexican Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete said in July that his country would need to do more to protect its border from illegal weapons flowing south from the United States. Mexican Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete said in July that his country would need to do more to protect its border from illegal weapons flowing south from the United States.

Homicides in Mexico surged in the first half of this year, increasing 16 percent over the same period last year and breaking a record since comparable data collection began in 1997, the Associated Press reported. Over the past 12 years, successive Mexican presidents have declared war against the country’s drug cartels, but critics point out the violence continues almost unabated. President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador will take charge of the country’s security strategy himself once he takes office on Dec. 1, according to an aide. Has Mexico’s security and anti-narcotics strategy over the past decade been a failure, or has progress been made? What are the reasons behind the sharp increase in killings this year? What will López Obrador’s security agenda look like, and will he be able to curb the country’s violence?

James R. Jones, chairman of Monarch Global Strategies and former U.S. ambassador to Mexico:“The attempt over the past three presidential administrations to thwart violence and disrupt drug organizations has been commendable. But it hasn’t been successful. Many lessons can be learned. First, the most important thing Mexico needs to do is to establish a rule of law that instills confidence among Mexicans themselves. Ninety-seven percent of crimes are never punished. Judges need to be trained on how to administer the judicial reforms that call for honest transparency to replace corrupt secrecy. Prosecutors and police need to be trained, equipped and paid fairly. Right now in most law enforcement, officials don’t know how to collect, preserve and present evidence, so public confidence in the judicial system is very low. President-elect López Obrador is correct to target young people with job training and jobs so that they won’t drift into a life of crime. Community policing should also be considered so that police can earn the trust of communities to help law enforcement fight these criminal organizations. That has worked both in the United States and in some Latin American countries. All of this will take time to bear fruit. However, AMLO’s total package to create hope for those who don’t see a better future today—nearly half of Mexicans—will go a long way toward building confidence and support for his crime-fighting efforts.”

Gerardo Rodríguez Sánchez Lara, academic coordinator of the global impunity index at Universidad de las Américas Puebla: “The strategy on security and against drug trafficking in general terms has been a failure for several reasons. First, organized crime groups in Mexico that are engaged in the transfer of drugs and chemical precursors at the domestic and global levels continue to significantly operate. Also, high levels of violence are still occurring throughout most of the country. Political violence is a new reality that accompanies Mexican democracy. We can explain the increase in homicides with structural and functional shortcomings of the security and justice systems in Mexico. The underlying structural factor is the impunity that is well-explained by the chronic destruction of security and justice institutions responsible for the rule of law. In structural terms, Mexico has lagged behind in terms of having a professional police force in the states. There is a deficit of at least 120,000 local police (approximately 50 percent). A police career is not attractive for the new generations because it does not offer a stable work scenario with a competitive salary that allows for long-term professional development. The areas of forensic investigation are also virtually non-existent in state governments. Finally, local justice systems are insufficient. The trend of violence and homicides in the country will not be reduced for at least two years. The new government’s strategies can stop the recent sustained growth in crime and homicides. However, it is necessary to make fundamental structural reforms to the security and justice institutions in terms of capacity building, professionalization and operations. The inter-institutional discoordination and power conflicts between the security agencies of the Mexican state also should be addressed.”

David Shirk, director of the master’s program in international relations at the University of San Diego:“The dramatic increase in the number of homicides over the last decade has been attributable to violence involving organized crime groups. It has also been exacerbated by government efforts to take down top-level organized crime figures, or ‘kingpins,’ which has contributed to greater splintering and competition among criminal organizations. Indeed, our 2018 report on Drug Violence in Mexico suggests that the fall and eventual extradition of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán led to the rise of a new violent criminal organization known as the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). CJNG’s efforts to establish itself as Mexico’s dominant criminal organization have led to a dramatic increase in homicides in key drug trafficking areas. Incoming Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, has few policy options to lower violence. It is unlikely that AMLO could put the genie back in the bottle by setting up the kind of state-sponsored protection racket that allowed drug traffickers to rise and flourish in Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, he is clearly averse to the Calderón-era policies that escalated and militarized Mexico’s counter-drug efforts. Legalizing drugs, as he has proposed, would dramatically weaken organized crime in the long term, but it would also lead to more violent predatory crimes (such as kidnapping, robbery and extortion) in the short term. Arguably, no matter what course he chooses, there will be a need to invest heavily in professionalizing police and the judicial sector.”

Eduardo Arcos, Mexico analyst at Control Risks:“The strategy implemented over the past decade has led to a sharp rise in violence nationwide, with murders hitting record rates and border cities becoming some of the most violent in the world. It has not reduced drug trafficking. The strategy has consisted mainly of a full crackdown on criminal groups while other areas have been neglected, including the judicial system, which remains broadly deficient, prone to corruption and unable to process and prosecute the vast number of criminal cases in the country. Infiltration by criminal groups into the authorities remains pervasive, particularly at the local level. This year is on track to become the deadliest on record. The deterioration is attributed to the fragmentation of criminal groups and the diversification of crimes. Since the government launched its anti-narcotic strategy, focused on the murder or detention of major drug traffickers, the previously large organizations have been fragmented into many groups, each vying to maximize revenues from criminal activities and combating rival organizations for control. This has provoked criminal groups to diversify their activities and engage in crimes such as extortion, human trafficking, and fuel and cargo theft. AMLO has described the security strategy as a failure and will seek to implement major changes through a more holistic approach, focused on reducing revenues for drug trafficking organizations by decriminalizing marijuana. He has proposed amnesty to petty criminals jailed for minor offenses or for being recruited by organized criminal groups under threats. Mexico’s penitentiary system is overcrowded, and the authorities’ backlog of cases for minor offenses dent their capacity to handle more dangerous criminals. AMLO has also proposed to establish fuel theft as major crime in the constitution and to increase jail terms for it. The policy’s success will remain dependent on his ability to strengthen the judiciary, reduce corruption and infiltration within security forces, and allocate resources for institutions that are overstretched. Given the complexity of the environment, security will remain challenging in the short term.”

James Bosworth, founder of Hxagon, LLC:“The security threats that AMLO faces are both worse and more complex than the situation faced by Presidents Peña Nieto or Calderón at the starts of their administrations. The largest criminal organizations continue to divide and fight each other for territory, trafficking routes and influence. While some analysts continue to mistakenly identify this as a drug war, many criminal groups have diversified their activities, now including extortion, kidnapping, fuel theft, cargo theft and money laundering. Graded on the short-term security statistics, Peña Nieto’s administration did a terrible job. He also did a poor job on the long-term issues of reforming the country’s police and penitentiary institutions, leaving both areas worse off than they were six years ago. Impunity has increased the power and influence of criminals including in the political sphere. During the campaign, López Obrador promised several large shifts including negotiations and potential amnesty for criminal groups, with limited details for what those policies would mean. Whatever his strategy, AMLO and his advisors will need to carefully manage the implementation and be willing to adapt to reality if and when things don’t work. Otherwise, he’ll fall into the same traps as his predecessors.”

The Latin America Advisor features Q&A with leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. The publication is available to members of the Dialogue's Corporate Program and others by subscription.

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