IN-DEPTH: A plan to combat corruption and fight violence in Mexico

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
violence.

Mexico new president vows to end ‘rapacious’ elite in first speech (Reuters – 1 December 2018)

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.

Major challenges

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.

Fresh thinking

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

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MEXICO ELECTION – “I will not fail you”

A progressive landslide victory for Andrés Manuel López Obrador

It was a spectacular night for the veteran left-winger, finally landing the top job after two previous presidential defeats. For the first time in 89 years, a party other than the centrist PRI or conservative PAN has control of the country, and it is a 64-year-old progressive at the helm.

López Obrador took a decisive 53% of the presidential vote, driving home his campaign polls advantage and leaving his two main rivals biting the dust. His party, Morena – which has only existed formally since 2014 – also played its part by winning five state governor races, the coup of the Mexico City mayoralty and heading for a major influx of MPs and senators in parliament.

A mother and daughter attend Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election night victory speech in Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

As the realisation dawned on the Mexico City population on Sunday evening just what was happening – that the bubble of the established parties had truly been burst – thousands of AMLO supporters flooded the city’s central Zócalo square.

One of the main drivers behind AMLO’s overwhelming results has been the large numbers of protest votes, or votos de castigo, cast by millions of Mexicans fed up with corruption, violence and the gap between rich and poor and his supporters honked horns, flew flags and cheered in a combination of disbelief and hope as Latin America’s second-biggest economy toppled entrenched interests and establishment parties with a powerful, progressive left hook.

Crowds leave the Zócalo square in Mexico City after AMLO’s victory speech, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

MEXICO ELECTION – Rivals concede, AMLO on course

Victory is all but confirmed for Andrés Manuel López Obrador

There was to be no stopping him this time. After two defeats in presidential elections in 2006 and 2012, the exit polls released after voting ended made very ugly reading for  Ricardo Anaya, representing the leftist-rightist coalition and José Antonio Meade, standing for the governing party. Both of them have conceded and congratulated AMLO on his historic victory.

MEXICO ELECTION – Anger at lack of ballot papers

Anger among people who could not vote due to an insufficient number of ballot papers

Joel, 28, an engineer working in automation in the city of Houston in the United States, happened to be in Mexico renewing his visa and tried unsuccessfully to vote at the special polling station. He and his wife, Linda, 29, were incredulous that not enough ballot papers had been printed and that there had been no official guidance from the electoral authorities, meaning their six-hour wait in the queue to vote had been in vain.

Two unsuccessful voters show what number they were in the queue to vote / Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / ©rosscullen.co.uk

Blanca Góngora, a 55-year-old lawyer from the northern city of Monterrey, said she was “just angry – simply angry” that she had been turned away from voting. She had been hoping to cast her vote for the independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez, also know as El Bronco.

One couple from the state of Querétaro, 35-year-old Gilberto and 27-year-old Dani, were disconsolate at the thought of being turned away. For them, education was the most important issue in the election and it was “just horrible” that they were not going to be able to vote.

The special polling station where this blog reported from in the video above was located near the city’s main railway station, and lines streamed around the block, totalling many thousands of people, all from different states across Mexico, as you can see below, in what would ultimately be a futile attempt to vote.

As the news filtered through that the polling station was going to be closed because there were not enough ballot papers, the queue dispersed and the crowd divided – some left and simply gave up; others demanded answers as the mood soured.

MEXICO ELECTION – Third time lucky?

The probable victory of populism south of the border

Mexico presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Abrader presents his manifesto in Mexico City, November 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero

On Sunday 1 July, more than 80 million Mexicans go to the polls in a sweeping election, the biggest in the country’s history. There are 3,416 posts up for grabs, from local positions at state level, through MPs and senators, all the way up to the presidency itself.

This is a crucial election for an embattled country. There are a number of major domestic and international issues at play, including (but not limited to):

+security – there were a record number of murders in 2017, making last year the bloodiest 12 months in Mexican history

+the country’s relationship with the Trump administration – all the candidates have rallied against the proposed border wall

+migration – Central American migrants often face discrimination, extortion and killings in Mexico long before they reach the US border

When it comes to the top job, there is only really one candidate on the pitch.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the runner-up in 2006 and 2012, has seen his big poll lead from early in the year become a truly enormous advantage as the election approaches. One poll on Wednesday, from the business newspaper El Financiero, puts him 32 points ahead of his nearest challenger. Even looking at the average surveys from multiple sources, he has at least a 20-point lead.

López Obrador, known across Mexico by his initials as AMLO, said on Wednesday that he hopes that this will be “his last campaign” after the two previous defeats in presidential elections. He ran in those campaigns for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution but this time he is on the ballot representing the party he founded in 2014, MORENA (Movement for National Regeneration). He is standing on a loosely-defined manifesto, speaking out against governmental corruption, calling for a possible amnesty for low-level criminals and urging caution over energy reforms that opened out the sector to private investment.

The business community likes these reforms and they are also pleased about a planned new airport for the capital – an idea that AMLO wants a second look at. There has been unease among business about the impending victory of a man they fear as populist, left-wing and statist.

However, there are the opposite worries among his supporters. The election coalition he has formed has seen MORENA tie up with the anti-abortion, conservative Social Encounter party – not a natural fit with AMLO supporters. Moreover, MORENA has outgrown its social activist and left-leaning stripes to become a catch-all party, with many defectors from the rightist National Action Party (PAN) and the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In fact, much of the swelling support for AMLO is not direct backing for him, but rather a protest voto de castigo from an electorate furious over corruption and violence.

The two other leading presidential candidates are trailing in the wake of the AMLO powerboat. Ricardo Anaya is lying second at the moment, and he is running for the strange coalition of PAN (conservative) and PRD (socialist). Behind him is José Antonio Meade, who is standing as the governing party candidate.

Anaya is young and polished but his campaign has been hamstrung by internal divisions in the PAN with former first lady Margarita Zavala quitting the party early on and going it alone as an independent candidate, though she has since withdrawn. And the coalition with unlikely bedfellows the PRD adds another fragility to Anaya’s position.

The outlook is even worse for José Antonio Meade. Handpicked by the outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto to represent the PRI, a deep dissatisfaction with the governing party, several government corruption scandals – added to Meade’s undeniable ties to the last two administrations (he served as finance secretary under both the PAN’S Felipe Calderon and current PRI president Enrique Peña Nieto) – leave him tarnished as a member of the disliked elite.

All of this paves the way for López Obrador to sweep the board on Sunday, with MORENA set to do well in the lower and upper house elections too. If he avoids a shocking upset and wins the top job at the third time of asking, it will be a fleeting moment of joy for AMLO. Overseeing his unwieldy coalition, sorting out a stumbling economy, trying to rectify a growing migrant crisis and working out how to deal with with a belligerent counterpart to the north will force him away from the woolly rhetoric and out into the open; for decades an opponent from the sidelines, he will now have to prove that he is indeed capable of doing the job he has coveted for so long.

This blog is in Mexico, covering the election from the capital, Mexico City