Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has outlined a ten-
point plan that he hopes will bring about a positive change for Mexico in
terms of security policy and put an end to widespread corruption and
López Obrador launched his ‘Plan Nacional de Paz y Seguridad 2018-2024’ (National Plan for Peace and Security: 2018-2024) soon after assuming office on 1 December 2018 and after a consultation period that he used to discuss his ideas with politicians, civil society, local officials, members of the clergy and the general public. During last year’s electoral campaign, López Obrador put forward several potential security policy shifts to address the ongoing violence linked to criminal activity. Among these, he suggested amnesties for small-time criminals, alongside a push to wind down the military’s role in combating criminality and the possible legalisation of the cultivation of marijuana and opium poppies.
However, in presenting his plan last month, López Obrador placed a notable emphasis on promoting social and economic development instead of his previously announced measures. He said that the government needs to focus on the origins and causes of the structures that drive youngsters towards criminal gang membership and violence, noting that “[most criminality occurs]…where the social fabric is broken, where it affects values, where there is the greatest disintegration of the family structure”. He made sure that special attention was paid in the plan to family life, which he called “the best social security institution in the country”.
The new president said that as much as 80% of his plan was related to the prevention of crime through the strengthening of social and familial relationships and an improvement in the economic opportunities for young Mexicans to deal with the problem at source. The economy could certainly act as one of López Obrador’s security policies if his government succeeds in improving life prospects for the young. The minimum wage has already been increased to M$103 (US$5.10) per day from M$88 (U$4.38), a measure that comes into force on 1 January 2019.
During the event for the launch of the plan, the president also highlighted his team’s differences with previous administrations, criticising what he saw as a misguided and failed focus on “prisons, iron fist polices, ever more severe laws”. The public is certainly war-weary and thus when it comes to overall results, the security measures that have the chance of the longest-lasting consequences are unlikely to be those that involve greater military or police powers. While major measures may still be backed by the government and imposed during the years in office he has to come, López Obrador may find that if he can steer the Mexican economy towards balanced growth, if he oversees an improvement in the rule of law with investigative and judicial institutions that function properly and if he can make a dent in corruption among lawmakers and the security forces, that the changes the country longs for may start to be realised.
Bring about change?
The new president campaigned on such a message of change but how much will his security policies be significantly different from those of his predecessor? López Obrador has already watered down several suggestions he has made in the past, notably rowing back from his pledge to take the army off the streets. Another of his proposals is to create a new ‘national guard’ which will be manned, run and trained by serving military forces.
López Obrador must ensure that his new body does not suffer the problems that previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), endured when he tried to set up his own Gendarmería Nacional (national gendarmerie) federal security force. Despite its launch as a flagship security measure by the Peña Nieto administration, its two main aims of a reduction in rural crime and an increase in the number of successful criminal prosecutions were left unfulfilled.
López Obrador says that at present only the federal police can be counted upon to combat criminality and violence around the country. He said a restructuring of the police forces was needed, with widespread “decomposition” in the municipal and state police, institutions which have suffered from infiltration by drug trafficking organisations (DTOs). For this reason, the new president said a national guard was necessary, and that it would be formed of the federal police, along with the military and naval police. However, in the preliminary 2019 budget set out by the new government earlier this month, there was no provision made for such a body.
One of the major challenges that López Obrador faces is the shifting geography of the violence. He will not be able to apply ‘catch-all’ measures nationwide because of the fractured nature of the violence and the regional peculiarities of the DTOs’ strongholds. When former president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) unleashed the military against organised crime in a public show of force as part of the so-called ‘war on drugs’, there were several major DTOs focusing mostly on drug trafficking for their main source of income. In the last six years, the captures or killings of many of the main crime bosses have resulted in an explosion in the number of smaller gangs.
These local criminal organisations have diversified their activities away from a total focus on transnational drug smuggling to regional extortion, the theft of oil and other easier revenue streams. Rather than previous administrations’ aims of simply trying to cripple the major DTOs, the new government will have to deal with this growing trend of regional-focused crime groups who specialise in particular parts of the country – such as in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán.
López Obrador’s proposals will take time to come into force and so the public should not expect a quick fix from his government in the same way that the president himself should not attempt immediate solutions to deep-set problems. Trying to bring to an end the twelve years of the war on drugs will require resolve, after more than 200,000 killings and with more than 30,000 people ‘disappeared’ since the armed forces were first sent onto the streets. There are many complicating factors: institutional weaknesses in criminal investigation and prosecution; the entrenched corruption between state institutions and criminal groups; and the fact that a tailored approach to each region will be required.
Of all the public security horrors that Mexico has suffered in recent years, none has gripped the national and international media like the abduction and likely murder of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college in Guerrero state in 2014. The Peña Nieto administration ordered an inquiry at the time, but the claim that gang members confessed to burning all 43 bodies in a dumpster on the instructions of the municipal police has been disputed by international experts, who highlighted what they said were irregularities such as confessions obtained by torture and a lack of physical evidence.
It is an incident like this one that López Obrador hopes will resolved by the truth commissions that he would like to set up and during his inauguration speech he did indeed announce the creation of a commission to “punish abuses of power” related to the Ayotzinapa students’ disappearance. For him, the past broad-brush excuse of ‘fighting drug trafficking’ has been used to at best play down and at worst promote human rights violations and illegal acts by the authorities. Indeed, since 2006, the Mexican National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has found that in more than 100 cases of alleged abuse military personnel committed serious human rights violations.
The new president has been strident in his denouncement of state corruption and his rallying call against what he described as the “mafia de poder” (the mafia in power) rang out among crowds during his election campaign. But he must also tread a fine line when it comes to, on one hand, fighting state abuse of power and physical, sexual and psychological abuse in state institutions and, on the other, relying on the military to train and run his proposed ‘National Guard’. Furthermore, for now, soldiers deployed on the streets are not going to be sent back to the barracks as he promised in the campaign.
López Obrador says that “corruption has converted into the principal function of political power” and he intends to try to weed out dishonest police officers by beginning at the top and rooting out shady politicians first. He is asking for a change of mentality and has been at pains to highlight that this begins with him as the president. In his inauguration speech he repeated his pledge that he and his family would not live in an elevated position above and outside the law.
At the same time, he also appears to be trying to realign the conversation about violence and this is evident in how he wants to reset the tone of government away from a ‘top-down’ administration towards a more ‘bottom-up’ vision of governance. He decries previous presidents for what he sees as a martial approach to leadership and promotes in his ‘Plan Nacional’ (National Plan) an “ethical regeneration of society”. López Obrador argues that you can tackle broader, nationwide security problems by looking at the roots of the issue at a local level which he says partly stems from “social resentment due to poverty, marginalisation and the denial of basic rights”.
The new president should be lauded for at least attempting to change the narrative – notably with the strength of emotion in particular parts of the National Plan, saying that “the bellicose police strategy of the last 12 years has caused a human and social tragedy of incalculable dimensions”. Although he has been criticised for a nebulous approach to some national issues, his policy ideas for dealing with security and violence span a range of ideas: the formation of a national guard; putting an end to impunity; supporting greater victims’ rights; and potential drug legalisation.
Fresh thinking has been desperately needed after twelve years of the war on drugs. For now, López Obrador is laying out a generalised vision of his security policy that looks to tackle the origins of delinquency and crime. It is all very well that he pursues a different approach in words; it is a different approach through actions that will have to be judged as his term gets under way properly in the months to come, for while some investors and business leaders have been unnerved by the new president’s disruptive style, his unorthodox way of governing may open up a greater possibility of change when it comes to security in the country.
There has been extensive media coverage surrounding some of López Obrador’s more cosmetic changes to public life such as opening up the former presidential residence and office, Los Pinos, to the general public, and the sale of the presidential plane recently purchased by Peña Nieto. Yet as López Obrador’s six-year term begins in earnest, the age-old problems remain for the new administration of rising, diversified violence and public insecurity in a country where 2018 set a new record for homicides, with 15,973 murders in the first six months of the year.
A version of this article will appear in Latin News next month