Mexico’s Old-School War on Crime Gets a Surprising New Champion

Why is AMLO attempting to further militarize policing, instead of pursuing the progressive reforms he promised during his campaign?

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a press conference in the seventh military zone in Monterrey, Nuevo León, on Feb. 20. (Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a press conference in the seventh military zone in Monterrey, Nuevo León, on Feb. 20. (Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images)

On the campaign trail in 2018, Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, promised a radically different strategy to tackle the country’s long-standing problem with violent crime. Running on a progressive platform with the slogan “becarios sí, sicarios no” (“yes to scholarships, no to hitmen”), the leftist politician better known as AMLO vowed to withdraw the military from regions wracked by drug violence and focus on education, social programs, and job creation to help young people avoid falling into the hands of criminal organizations.

A fresh approach is badly needed. In 2017, Mexico experienced its most violent year in terms of absolute number of homicides for two decades, a figure that spiked again in 2018 with over 34,000 killings. With police forces poorly paid, underequipped, and widely viewed as corrupt, the solution for recent governments has been to deploy the military to combat the country’s heavily armed drug cartels. For many, López Obrador’s campaign vision represented a genuine change in policy and perspective. But three months into his term, that vision has largely failed to materialize.

“Officially, the war is over,” the president, who took office in December 2018 following a landslide election victory last July, announced in a press conference Jan. 30. “We want peace, and we’re going to get peace.”

Yet just one day later, the National Regeneration Movement leader emulated his predecessors by dispatching Army and Navy troops to Tijuana, the border city across from San Diego, where gang wars—reportedly over control of local crystal meth sales—saw the city’s homicide rate reach a historic high last year with 2,518 murders.

López Obrador also disappointed many sympathizers by proposing legislation to ramp up the militarization of Mexico’s crime-fighting forces even further. Days after taking office, he submitted a bill to Congress to create a new militarized police force called the National Guard, which human rights groups and security analysts warned could set a dangerous precedent in terms of the constitutional powers granted to the country’s armed forces. “Communities that have been greatly affected by violence in Tijuana often see police as perpetrators of violence and instruments of criminal groups.”

Mexico’s war on crime is far from over. And while López Obrador’s proposed constitutional reform was blocked by the senate Feb. 21, the path to police reform and safety for civilians remains fraught with obstacles.

A decade ago, the city of Tijuana was one of the principal battlegrounds for Mexico’s cartels. Not only did the bodies pile up, but they were also hung from public bridges on busy thoroughfares as gangs sought to outdo each other in spectacular acts of brutality. Tourism dried up rapidly. The local economy was shattered. In 2007, then-President Felipe Calderón of the center-right National Action Party controversially deployed Army and Navy troops, along with heavily armed federal police, to reel in the gangs.

With this policy, Calderón instigated the current incarnation of the country’s so-called drug war, involving unprecedented numbers of federal troops and military involvement, a policy that continued under his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto of the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party. Yet with only 6.8 percent of crimes, from car theft to murder, reported to authorities, Mexico’s real war has always been against impunity, the inability of criminal justice institutions to protect citizens and uphold the law, a legacy of decades of authoritarian rule and institutional decay.

“The position of Tijuana along the U.S.-Mexico border makes it a valuable asset for criminal groups, which include drug trafficking groups, but also those involved with human smuggling and human trafficking,” Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, a researcher at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego, told Foreign Policy. “While it is difficult to establish what groups operate where, we do know the criminal actors have changed in the last decade.

“Communities that have been greatly affected by violence in Tijuana often see police as perpetrators of violence and instruments of criminal groups,” she added, citing research that shows citizens are increasingly unwilling to report crimes to the police.

Despite the Mexican public generally possessing more confidence in the armed forces, the role the military plays in supplanting police in areas of Mexico affected by cartel violence has always been contentious. While officially, the Army and Navy face constitutional restrictions to their powers and only act in a supporting role to civilian law enforcement, they have also been accused of widespread human rights violations. In one high-profile instance, the 2014 Tlatlaya case, soldiers were charged with murdering 22 people, several unarmed.

Successive Mexican governments have touted the use of the military as a temporary stopgap while the country’s police forces are reformed, yet while Mexico embarked on a sweeping reform of its criminal justice system in 2008—which involved changes to court procedures and the prison system—police reform has remained elusive.

In late 2017, López Obrador’s predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto met with protests by human rights groups after pushing through the Internal Security Law, which granted greater powers and legal protection to armed forces involved in domestic policing. The bill was controversially approved, yet on Nov. 15 last year, days before López Obrador was sworn in as president, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.

López Obrador had other ideas. He immediately drew up a new bill to amend the constitution and touted the creation of a new, militarized police force known as the National Guard. According to Lilian Chapa Koloffon, a public policy analyst and researcher at the World Justice Project in Mexico City, if approved, the law would have potentially permitted the agency to operate above and beyond the powers traditionally granted the military, empowering it to carry out investigations and intervene in nonviolent crime, a move she believes would have set a troubling precedent.

“The military are trained to meet violent force with violent force, not to perform the day-to-day duties associated with police work, or investigate crimes,” she told FP.

When questioned on his change of position by the media, López Obrador cited the dire performance of Mexico’s police forces at all three levels of government. However, Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political scientist at the Center for the Research and Teaching of Economics in Mexico City, believes the decision may have also been politically motivated.

“López Obrador has a very ambitious agenda of change for Mexico with the potential to affect many interests, including those of the military,” Bravo told FP. “Under his plan for the National Guard, both sides gained. The military has always wanted a stronger legal framework within which to carry out law enforcement operations; López Obrador wanted the Army’s political support.”

Only a concerted effort by civil society organizations and political opponents prevented the bill, which was approved by Mexico’s lower house of Congress in January, from passing through the senate in its original form. On Feb. 21, lawmakers reached a compromise, permitting the creation of the new force but insisting that it operate under civilian rather than military command. Under the modified bill, the Army and Navy will continue to assist in law enforcement duties for the next five years until the new agency, expected to consist of 50,000 active members, is fully operational. State and municipal-level police forces will also be expected to strengthen their institutional capacity during this timeframe.

“In one sense, the Senate decision is a victory for civil society, and we now have a timeframe for demilitarization,” said Chapa Koloffon. “But it really brings us back to square one—how to reform Mexico’s police forces at all three levels of government?”

“The reality is that the Mexican state has traditionally done little to support the police,” she added. “They are poorly paid, work long hours, and the path to promotion is fraught with nepotism. There are simply no incentives for them to improve.”

While Chapa Koloffon cited isolated success stories of reform at the local level, notably in the city of Chihuahua, according to a 2018 survey just 6.1 percent of citizens nationally have confidence in the federal police, while only 4.6 percent expressed trust in municipal forces.

One key barrier is economics. Mexico currently lacks the resources to fully support its police forces. According to the economist Macario Schettino of the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico City, while the United States and the European Union spend roughly 5 percent and 4 percent of their GDP—and Colombia around 6 percent—respectively on law enforcement, justice, and national defense, Mexico’s stretched budget manages barely 1.3 percent.

“But it really brings us back to square one—how to reform Mexico’s police forces at all three levels of government?”

Mexico is not alone in its dilemma. According to a report released last year, Latin America is currently one of the world’s most violent regions, with some 33 percent of global homicides. While media coverage overwhelmingly focuses on drug prohibition as the root cause of crime, research suggests that a variety of factors have exacerbated the problem, including social inequality (approximately 6.6 million Mexicans between the ages of 15 and 29 are unemployed and unenrolled in higher education), demographics (data show that both the victims and perpetrators of the majority of crimes are young people), and a lack of institution building.

Since democratization in the 1990s, “Mexico has faced a serious problem in strengthening public institutions, and law enforcement institutions have been one of the principal failures,” said Bravo of the Center for the Research and Teaching of Economics. “Short-term thinking, professionalization, budgeting, and a tense relationship between federal and local authorities have all been factors.”

López Obrador took office promising a more progressive approach to addressing crime and gang violence. The fierce resistance to his initial proposal regarding the National Guard, and this about-face itself, shows that despite his anti-establishment rhetoric on the campaign trail, he faces very much the same institutional and political challenges as his predecessors. As such, it remains to be seen if he can confront the violence afflicting Mexico or if, like former presidents, he’ll be consumed by it.

Paul Imison is a Mexico City-based journalist covering politics, economics, and crime. Twitter: @paulimison

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