Voters in Mexico elected a new president who has promised to clean up a graft-ridden government and move the country away from a deeply entrenched militarized approach to combating organized crime. But can his administration achieve these lofty goals?
Leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known widely as “AMLO,” secured 53 percent of the votes in Mexico’s July 1 election — some 30 percent more than second-place finisher Ricardo Anaya from the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional – PAN).
In a sign of strong rejection of the past administration’s failed attempts at curbing crime and violence, José Antonio Meade, the candidate from the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI), secured less than 20 percent of the vote.
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While López Obrador has proposed a shift in security policy, it’s still unclear how his strategy will take shape in a scenario characterized by record levels of violence and an increasingly fragmented underworld.
Here are three questions regarding López Obrador’s security policy before he takes office in December.
Can He Root Out Graft?
Throughout his campaign and in his acceptance speech, López Obrador stressed the importance of tackling widespread corruption and impunity.
Indeed, a 2017 study by the Universidad de las Américas Puebla ranked Mexico as having the highest levels of impunity in Latin America, and systemic political corruption has exacerbated crime and violence nationwide.
According to Eric Olson, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American program, these “deep institutional problems” need to be addressed with “clear concrete steps.”
Mike Vigil, the former Chief of International Operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told InSight Crime that López Obrador will have to “completely rebuild the justice system because right now it’s in a very weak state.”
However, López Obrador’s intese rhetorical focus on these issues has not yet been matched by specific policy proposals for how to address them.
Experts have pointed to some potential solutions, like fully implementing a 2016 legal reform laying the foundation for a Senate-appointed citizen oversight body, as well as establishing a truly autonomous attorney general’s office.
López Obrador’s landslide victory gives him a strong mandate to push foward proposals like these. The first few months after he takes office in December will be a crucial test of whether he can translate political momentum into concrete action.
Can He Move Away From Militarization?
For more than a decade, Mexico has pursued a militarized approach to crime that has arguably left the country worse off than when the “war” began. Despite repeated warnings from top military officials and independent experts about the shortcomings of this strategy, lawmakers last year moved to codify the military’s role in the fight against organized crime.
López Obrador, on the other hand, has vowed to phase out militarization. But again, this vision of sweeping change lacks a coherent plan for realizing it.
“Nobody is questioning his desire or goal to return the military to their barracks, but putting an actual transition plan into action has been difficult,” Olson told InSight Crime.
Olson said it’s not unusual for presidential candidates to initially be vague about their policies. And López Obrador will likely be able to count on political support from other candidates from his political party, the National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional – MORENA), who won control of several important governorships as well as the government of Mexico City.
But again, shifting away from such a deeply engrained strategy will not be easy, and will require a detailed gameplan for strengthening civilian institutions to fill the gaps left by the military if and when it should retreat from its current crime-fighting role.
Can He Mend Relations With the United States?
López Obrador has expressed a desire to work with the United States on a range of issues, including security. And in a tweet congratulating López Obrador on his victory, US President Donald Trump echoed the sentiment.
However, López Obrador’s commitment to getting the military out of the fight against crime, in addition to his harsh criticisms of notoriously thin-skinned Trump, raises questions about whether Mexico’s president-elect can patch up rocky relations with the country’s neighbor to the north.
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Vigil told InSight Crime that the differences between López Obrador’s progressive rhetoric and Trump’s “America first” perspective could lead to more, rather than less tension in the bilateral relationship.
“There’s a lot of forces in Mexico that look at the drug problem as a US problem. They’ve lost 200,000 people and it’s taken a big toll on them,” Vigil said.
Still, Jaime López, a security policy consultant and former Mexican police official, told InSight Crime that it’s difficult to predict exactly how the relationship will evolve once López Obrador actually takes office.
“It will be months before him and his team develops a grasp on the specific challenges they will face and the resources at their disposal,” López said.