Mexico President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador has set himself the task of shifting the country’s heavy-handed, militarized security policies against organized crime to more holistic solutions. But how realistic are his proposals?

López Obrador, who will take power on December 1, promised change to a disheartened electorate that has suffered more than a decade of militarization and brutal violence during the so-called “war on drugs,” which has claimed more than 200,000 lives since it began in 2006.

From rooting out endemic corruption to scaling back militarization, InSight Crime ranked López Obrador’s five main security proposals by their likelihood to succeed, with the first being the most promising.

Enacting Progressive Drug Policies

With forward-thinking former Supreme Court judge Olga Sánchez Cordero tapped to head Mexico’s Interior Ministry (Secretaría de Gobernación – SEGOB), drug policy in Mexico may undergo a progressive shift.

López Obrador wants to deescalate the so-called “war on drugs” in part by reportedly decriminalizing drugs — regulating the opium industry for medical use and decriminalizing marijuana. Sánchez Cordero said the president-elect gave her the green light to do “whatever is necessary to restore peace in this country.”

“I think this could be a really key moment for Mexico in terms of rethinking drug policy across the board,” Maureen Meyer, the Director for Mexico at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told InSight Crime. “Mexico has a chance to be a leader on decriminalization and legalization.”

However, security analyst Alejandro Hope* believes that while it’s feasible that López Obrador’s openness to drug decriminalization and legalization may lead to more well-rounded drug policies, it won’t bring down the violence.

“Decriminalizing drugs would reduce the number of homicides by between zero and nothing,” Hope told InSight Crime. “It’s more an issue of public health than security. In terms of security, it’s not particularly relevant.”

Most of Mexico’s drug production and the related violence it creates is due to US market demand. While legalization in the United States does affect Mexico’s criminal dynamics, it’s not likely that legalization in Mexico will have the same effect.

Amnesty for Drug Traffickers

When López Obrador first proposed the idea of granting amnesty for drug traffickers last year to help pacify Mexico, it sparked an intense debate.

López Obrador has since clarified that the amnesty would only apply to disadvantaged youth and low-level criminals who fall into working with and doing the dirty work for organized crime groups, in part due to a lack of viable alternatives.

However, an amnesty is not likely to go over well with the hundreds of thousands of families of Mexico’s drug war victims, many of whom were murdered or disappeared by the very people who would benefit from this.

But it’s unclear what exactly López Obrador’s amnesty proposal will look like and how it will impact security on the ground. At the very least, Ximena Suárez-Enríquez, WOLA’s Assistant Director for Mexico, said that, “The idea of using an amnesty to better understand the root causes of violence in Mexico is a good idea, but implementation is always a main challenge.”

While an amnesty may be achievable, Hope cautioned that it’s “not particularly relevant” in terms of Mexico’s broader security picture.

Offering an amnesty would not undo Mexico’s increasingly fragmented criminal landscape, which is the main driver behind the record levels of organized crime-related violence seen in recent years. 

The End of Widespread Corruption

Endemic corruption has come to define politics in Mexico — as it has across the region. Rooting out graft was a staple of López Obrador’s campaign. He has proposed, among other things, appointing an intermediary to oversee the transfer of federal funds to the state level in an effort to try and eliminate corruption.

But this strategy might face its own challenges.

According to Meyer, the key to tackling corruption is strengthening the totality of Mexico’s judicial system in addition to creating more control mechanisms.

“Just adding people to the equation may be important for oversight, but it shouldn’t take away from the implementation of the new anti-corruption system,” Meyer said.

Hope agreed that this proposal does not get to the root of the problem.

“It just transfers the pressure point,” Hope said. “It might reduce corruption at the state level at the expense of more corruption at the federal level.”

Selecting an Autonomous Attorney General

Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office has played a fundamental role in some of the nation’s most politically-charged cases, including the disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college in 2014. A failure to secure convictions and growing pressure from civil society to root out widespread graft forced Mexico’s last attorney general to resign in October of 2017.

A coalition of organizations is demanding that López Obrador commits to ensuring the country’s next attorney general is selected through a “transparent, public, and participatory procedure” to guarantee that a qualified and impartial candidate is selected.

However, López Obrador has repeatedly said that he will select Mexico’s next top prosecutor following the procedure outlined in a 2014 reformHope thinks the next attorney general is almost guaranteed to be “hand-picked” by the incoming president.

According to Meyer, the push for autonomy and independence within Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office is to “remove political influence” over investigations. This type of influence allegedly halted some high-profile investigations in the past, including into whether or not current President Enrique Peña Nieto’s 2012 presidential campaign was funded by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

López Obrador’s apparent unwillingness to create a more transparent process for selecting the next attorney general suggests that achieving judicial autonomy may have to wait.

Scaling Back Militarization

In 2017, President Peña Nieto deployed more than 50,000 soldiers to the streets of Mexico for domestic security operations — equivalent to nearly 25 percent of the entire force — and codified the military’s crime-fighting role with the passing of the strongly criticized Internal Security Law.

López Obrador has vowed to roll back militarization. He will have a unique opportunity to do so with the congressional majority he won after the July presidential election.

Since winning the election, López Obrador has made a u-turn on a campaign proposal to create a national guard made up of some 200,000 soldiers and 50,000 marines that would essentially perform the same duties as those now deployed on the streets. Instead, López Obrador said the proposal will not materialize in the short-term and that efforts will be placed towards naming a new secretary of public security and removing the military from the streets.

Still, López Obrador’s national guard proposal is almost a carbon copy of attempts by past presidents — most markedly that of current President Peña Nieto — to mark their arrival with new security forces that follow old patterns.

“There is likely to be continued military deployment in the foreseeable future,” Hope said. “I don’t see them developing any different criteria for where and how [the military] intervenes [domestically].”

*Alejandro Hope is a member of InSight Crime’s Board of Directors.

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