Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador hailed a massive improvement in his nation’s security, but the gains he trumpeted have little real value.
During a press conference on January 30, López Obrador (known as "AMLO") announced that the prior day, Mexico had registered only 54 murders across the nation, a drop of nearly a third from the average of 80 murders a day. He presented this as a sign that his security policy, which deemphasizes militarized conflict with criminal groups, was already having a positive effect. In the same conference, he declared that there was no war against organized crime.
However, it is impossible to base such analysis on a single day. Entire months have been statistical outliers in determining whether a security improvement has taken root. In April 2008, murders in Juárez temporarily plummeted to less than 60 amid a robust military deployment. But within weeks, the level of violence rebounded to its prior level of hundreds per month, and the war for the border city continued unabated despite the troops patrolling the street.
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The current data indicates that Mexico remains as violent as it was under López Obrador’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto. In December 2018, the first month with López Obrador in the presidency, Mexico registered 2,916 murders. This figure, taken from the National Public Security System (SNSP, for its initials in Spanish), represents a 9 percent increase from the same month in 2017. It is also the most violent month Mexico has witnessed since the SNSP began compiling these figures in the 1990s.
Deriving any conclusion about Mexico’s public security on the basis of a single day is a fundamentally flawed approach. The administration’s determination to lower the number of murders is laudable, but any data set will have outliers, and it is impossible to know if a day’s results are part of a broader trend.
InSight Crime Analysis
The SNSP will not release its figures for January for several weeks, but there is little to suggest an instantaneous transformation. Though it is his responsibility, it is too early in López Obrador’s presidency to blame his policies for persistent bloodshed. But it is not too soon to expect him to address this issue with clarity and honesty, and his comments last week fall well short.
AMLO's statement reflects two separate trends that have prevailed in his nascent presidency.
The most obvious is that the president’s policy statements often seem mostly guided by his desired outcomes rather than empirical analysis. It appears as if López Obrador chose to believe that his new government has brought about a transformation in the nation’s security, and he is willing to latch on to any piece of evidence, however specious, to make that argument.
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This reflex was also at play in López Obrador’s dismissal of reporting from Reforma, a Monterrey newspaper that is typically opposed to his administration, on the violence in December.
Unfortunately, López Obrador’s preferred results do not appear to match developments, whether in security or energy. This governing style can be typical of populist leaders and López Obrador is hardly the first to use such posturing. However, these stances, if not corrected, can become dangerous rather than just merely embarrassing.
Second, the enduringly high murder rate highlights Mexico’s long-term security problems. López Obrador proposed a wide variety of fixes during the campaign, ranging from rhetorical shifts (hugs instead of bullets, went one informal slogan) to institutional changes like the new National Guard. But stemming violence in Mexico does not lend itself to easy fixes, and López Obrador’s ideas have fallen short of a revolutionary departure from the policies of prior presidents.
Any enduring improvement will be the product of a years-long evolution and coordination between federal, state and local authorities, not any rapid reversal from one week to the next. López Obrador’s willingness to indulge in the wild conjecture that he has engineered a sudden transformation is a sign that he has yet to appreciate the depth of the challenges he faces.