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

Portraits of a Search – review

A woman traipses through scrubland, brushing aside dusty bushes with a stick, looking for a piece of clothing, a shoe; anything that may give her a clue as to her son’s whereabouts.

Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search) follows three mothers whose children’s names have sadly been added to the growing list of ‘disappeared’ in Mexico. The documentary tells a familiar story but tries to do so differently from similar films.

The director, Alicia Calderón, explained at a screening this blog attended that she wanted to shy away from a simple portrayal of the women as listless and unorganised mothers. Instead, she preferred to focus on their resilience and resolve; the lengths they will go to exhaust every avenue that could aid them in their search.

One of the mothers enlists the help of the FBI in sourcing DNA tests on the alleged body of her daughter. Another cradles a notepad full of names and numbers as she tries yet another call to yet another unhelpful person in the authorities.

Towards the end, we see all three women endure a seven-day hunger strike outside the local government offices.

Some of the scenes are heart-breaking. One of the mothers plays hide-and-seek with her grandson, who is happy in his innocence as he runs outside to feed the chickens. His missing parents have “gone to the United States”, he tells us, but his grandma worries over how and when to tell him the truth: they have disappeared and are likely dead.

A documentary like this, with the subject matter as it is, will always have parts that are particularly harrowing.

One of the women shows remarkable strength to recount the story of extreme violence and depravity that her daughter suffered. Detail by disturbing detail, she documents the violations of her child while she was alive and then the violations of her body after she had been killed. It is uncomfortable to watch and creates a confusing human picture: that this barbarity continues to plague Mexico; how the simple design of family life has been ruptured in so many complex ways.

So what can be done – what policy changes are needed?

I wondered if there was any hope for answers from the highest level of government, with a presidential election due next year. Alicia Calderón replied that the “justice system has collapsed” and the only light at the end of the tunnel would come from the pressure groups established by members of the public.

Consecutive presidents have tried differing but unsuccessful methods to combat the kidnappings, extortions and killings.  The day before this film was screened, the attorney-general in the state of Guerrero admitted that his office did not have the “capacity to confront organised crime”.

What Portraits of a Search shows us is that these mothers certainly do have the capacity to confront the disappearance of a loved-one with dignity, determination and a drive for answers.

Guatemala talking

On Monday 11 February, the Guatemalan foreign minister, Fernando Carrera, attended several events in London. This is a review of the talk he gave at Canning House, the UK-Iberia/Latin America cultural institute

Guatemala is a small nation. With a population of 14 million, it is dwarfed in many ways by its huge northern neighbour, Mexico. So on matters of policy it generally tends to stick together with the other little Central American states. Its foreign minister is a stocky, smooth-talking economist who was at great pains last night to point out the much larger ambitions that his country has – particularly in terms of regional integration.

Fernando Carrera, in a late afternoon talk at Canning House, focused his short speech on regional integration and relations between Latin American countries as a whole and the democratisation of the region.

INTEGRATION

Carrera could not have been more excited by the prospect of a closer economic and political club for the Central American countries. He was especially vocal about the possibilities of partnership between the southernmost five states of Mexico long with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – “[that will be] part of our future, for sure”. He then added Cuba to the guest list for entry to what he labelled the ‘4 x 14 million’ group. These are four areas: Southern Mexico; Guatemala; El Salvador and Honduras; and Cuba that have about 14 million people and may be open to getting together to form another Latin American bloc. Such alliances are not rare. From the Organisation of American States (every North and South American country), through CELAC (the same lot minus the US and Canada) to ALBA (a leftist group of eight states), the politicians of the region seem to spend a lot of their time dreaming up acronyms for the next combination of countries.

One of these blocs that Carrera eulogised was the Pacific Alliance (Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile); he praised its abilities to “go beyond traditional markets”. This comment could have been seen as a slight nudge to some of those aforementioned blocs, which pander to regional trade and policy. The Pacific one is trying to get the nations on the other side of the ocean involved as well. Guatemala is an observer of the Alliance. However, he did also make sure he underlined the importance of running a healthy home as well as planning holidays abroad – “by supporting each other, we learn how to get out of war” and “it’s clear today that creating economic opportunities in Central America is very easy”.

DEMOCRATISATION

Mr Carrera used the latter part of his talk to address the current state of democracy in the region. He was openly happy that Latin American countries had finally got over the hurdle of arguing about different political ideologies and got on with some proper dialogue at the head-of-state level. He said that a “united Latin America can now be considered” and that democracy had opened the minds of the people of Latin America in a way that had not been previously possible.

After his talk, Fernando Carrera took four QUESTIONS, of varying themes:

He was first pressed on Guatemala’s relations with Belize. The two countries have been disputing their shared border for many years and have agreed to hold simultaneous referenda in October on submitting Guatemala’s territorial and maritime claims to the International Court of Justice. Mr Carrera did not mention Belize when he was discussing teaming up with his neighbours, despite the two countries’ proximity to one another. This omission was noted by the audience; the minister called the issue “challenging” but he did say that he would “love Belize to be part of the regional integration plan”.

The second question focused on co-operation between Guatemala and its neighbours to try to combat the ongoing violent crime in the region. The politician said that one major problem that needed fixing was the weakness of the state actors of Central American countries. He conceded that this had been lacking in his nation, saying that the strengthening of national executives, legislatures and judiciaries across the area was paramount to being able to take on the violence in a strong and measured manner.

After that, Mr Carrera was asked about further integration with Mexico. He referenced simple ideas such as academic exchanges and grander plans like a possible chamber of commerce between certain areas of southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Finally, I wanted to know what steps the minister could take through his foreign affairs role to try to safeguard the lives and rights of Central American migrants making the dangerous journey through Mexico to the United States. Crimes against migrating workers – regularly travelling illegally and therefore taking even more hazardous decisions and routes – are common and range from robbery to rape and murder. Mr Carrera had spoken a lot that evening about integration and it seems that it is only with international action that such violence could possibly be confronted. The minister said it was a “pity not to be able to guarantee the migrants’ lives and rights”, saying that his government will “do our best to avoid this horrible situation”. He highlighted that one way to try to act was through ensuring that “we strive not to allow state actors to violate rights or perpetrate crimes” against the migrating workers.

Kazakh cure

What can we expect from Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation?

Kazakhstan is about to complete its first month in the hotseat of the OIC – one of the most important Islamic blocs along with the Arab League and the World Islamic Economic Forum. The OIC, (the ‘C’ recently changed from ‘Conference’ to ‘Co-operation’), aims to promote common understanding, ambition and to foster goodwill and unity between member-states.

When one calls to mind Islamic countries, Kazakhstan does not often roll off the tongue naturally. It is true that there are bigger voices in the Islamic world, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia and Turkey, and their reach goes beyond the borders of the Muslim world. But other, smaller members are beginning to show a bit more bite to their roles. The African Francophone members of the organisation are starting to grow in confidence but it is probably the Central Asian nations that are set to be the most significant group in the bloc. Kazakhstan embodies the image of a modern, political driver-nation that many countries, both within and outside the OIC, aspire to be.

Kazakhstan has said it wants to advance the OIC’s aim of continuing peaceful development with the rest of the world. It also wants to address the economic imbalances that exist within the organisation: Somalia and Benin are minnows compared to Malaysia and the UAE. The Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, outlined his proposals ‘to switch [the Islamic world] from commodity development to industrial innovation’, to develop a joint plan of actions in the energy sector and to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, an idea which he hopes could kick-start international de-nuclearisation.

Kazakhstan comes into the chairmanship in the right frame of mind and at the right time. From a global point-of-view, it is a nation well-positioned in the main pack chasing the front-runners – it is a forward-looking and forward-thinking country. From an Islamic perspective, it will be a reassuring but not tranquilising influence on a bloc still rocking from recent challenges. Arab uprisings in the Maghreb and Middle East, (notably the ongoing conflict in Libya and violence in Syria), ethnic unrest in Kyrgyzstan, political violence in Ivory Coast and the war in Afghanistan are some of the issues confronting Astana.

But secularism is written into the constitution and Kazakhstan underlines the right to freedom of religion, although more than 70% of the population is Muslim. It has successfully modelled itself as a bridge-state: between Europe and Asia; between ex-Soviet nations and the West; and now, hopefully, between hardline Islamic nations and more open members of OIC. It is a time for a safe pair of hands. Kazakhstan has the perfect platform to press on with social, industrial and economic ambitions, backed up by a significant but not overbearing Muslim tradition.