In Mexico, AMLO’s Presidency Turned One
Here’s how he’s delivering on his security promises.
In early November, assassins from one of Mexico’s fearsome drug cartels brutally murdered nine members of the LeBarón family, dual U.S.-Mexican citizens with a long history in Mexico’s border areas. The unprovoked killings led to a predictable nationalist din in the United States and mutual recriminations. They also prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to speak of a terrorist designation for Mexico’s drug cartels.
This tragedy follows an even more shocking episode. On Oct. 17, a fierce gun battle broke out in Culiacán, Mexico. Mexican security forces closed in on Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of the country’s famed narcotics kingpin, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, and started to detain him. Ovidio, a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel and one of the most recognizable faces in Mexico’s criminal underworld, has been indicted on drug trafficking charges and is wanted for extradition to the United States.
What happened after he was initially rounded up, though, was a humiliating blow to López Obrador and his public-security policy. In the face of automatic weapons, rocket launchers, and torched vehicles, besieged Mexican security forces implored Ovidio to call the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel and urge the sicarios—mercenaries who are hired to handle security—to cease their assault. When the cartel’s leaders demurred, the severely outgunned Mexican security forces decided to release him. It was more important to avoid bloodshed, López Obrador later reasoned, than to push for the capture of a kingpin.
U.S. President Donald Trump has offered to help Mexico obliterate its drug cartels by way of a U.S. operation in the country—a proposition López Obrador has rebuffed. Earlier this year, he declared an end to the war against drug trafficking in Mexico. Yet this is no time to be threatening intervention or pointing fingers. With a large number of Mexican criminal organizations operating at full capacity in significant swaths of territory and, at times, behaving like criminal insurgencies, national-security challenges on both sides of the border need to be taken seriously. Both American and Mexican lives would be saved by developing and implementing a comprehensive security plan, rather than relying on operational decisions made in the heat of the moment.
Under López Obrador’s yearlong watch, Mexico’s homicide numbers have continued to rise. In the first nine months of 2019, the country saw a 2.4 percent increase over the same period in 2018, placing Mexico on pace to eclipse its 2018 and 2017 homicide numbers—both all-time highs. Nationwide, there are about 28 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, but in some areas the rate is higher: The state of Guerrero, long the home of the lucrative poppy trade, has 52 murders per 100,000. According to estimates from the University of San Diego, a large portion of homicides in Mexico are related to organized crime. Even these shocking numbers fail to convey the full story, since they don’t incorporate the tens of thousands of people who have been declared missing and are only now beginning to be identified among the thousands of dead.
In some ways, the rising violence and the fumbled Culiacán operation are no surprise. On the campaign trail and after, López Obrador has been critical of the previous government’s strategy of targeting drug kingpins, preferring instead an approach focused on preventing crime with social policy, although he’s struggled to articulate a full security strategy himself. That includes any real indication of the extent to which he’d like to work with the United States.
Twelve years ago, when Mexico likewise faced a major security crisis relating to drug cartels, it called on the United States to form a historic security cooperation agreement. The agreement, known as the Mérida initiative, has seen about $3 billion in aid, assistance, and investment flow into Mexico since 2008. Crucially, the initiative endorsed the concept of “shared responsibility,” which captured the complex interdependence of U.S.-Mexican security. Under Mérida, the United States accepted its obligation to reduce the demand for illegal drugs and the flow of illegal weapons south of the border—approximately 70 percent of the weapons seized in Mexico are smuggled in from the United States. In turn, Mexico accepted its responsibility to curtail production and the flows of drugs north—a majority of drugs seized in the United States come from Mexico. Assistance has been wide-ranging, from traditional military hardware to support for strengthening institutions, rule-of-law initiatives, combating money laundering, conducting police training, prison reform, and modernizing Mexico’s judicial system.
But López Obrador was elected on a security platform that shifted the conversation away from interdiction and toward prevention. Along with an array of anti-corruption proposals, the president’s vague and mostly unrealistic security agenda focuses on mitigating the socioeconomic factors of crime, captured memorably by his (much maligned) campaign slogan Abrazos, no balazos (Hugs, not bullets).
Even López Obrador’s most fleshed-out plans have consistently collided with reality. His signature proposal, the creation of a new National Guard, fails to improve upon initiatives of his predecessors because it was cobbled together rapidly and has relied upon military recruits, who are not trained specifically for policing and drug interdiction work. Recruiting from the military is likely to increase the risk of human-rights violations and moves critical attention away from civilian law enforcement development. Worse, under the threat of tariffs from Trump, López Obrador has been forced to deploy a large contingent of National Guard members to the country’s border with Guatemala to stymie the flow of Central American migrants, which means that there are fewer to focus on drug-related violence.
The U.S.-Mexico security relationship need not be this dysfunctional. Ending polarizing rhetoric on both sides would be a crucial first step. There is scant room for collaboration when one side is fanning the flames by threatening to designate drug cartels as terrorist groups, while the other is offering peace and hugs for appeasement. Rather, a new Mérida-like initiative would increase the likelihood of success by focusing on social services and state-building at the local level, dovetailing with López Obrador’s emphasis on crime prevention, while strengthening local police and judiciary capacities, speaking to the United States’ preference for greater interdiction efforts.
Most importantly, Mexico needs to focus on rooting out impunity for all types of crimes. This implies a long-term effort to increase state capacity and rebuild the police, judicial, and penitentiary system. Most police, criminal investigators, prosecutors, and judges remain underpaid and at risk of being coopted. The volume and complexity of crime in Mexico often overwhelms judicial institutions and prevents convictions. The implementation of Mexico’s new criminal justice system, an accusatory justice system designed to increase transparency and strengthen the rule of law, which began in 2008, has been haphazard and subject to the political whims of the day.
Meanwhile, the splintering of major cartels has created a more fluid and decentralized set of challenges that demand significant capabilities from state and local officials. In short, Mexico needs to spend more on institution-building at the federal level, but also find ways to ensure that state and local authorities do the same. Supplemental federal grants to state and local entities that reach certain standards are one possible solution.
Little progress has been made in improving the enforcement of anti-money laundering laws. The new president has strengthened Mexico’s financial intelligence unit, but thus far it has focused on high-profile corruption cases rather than systemic issues, and civil-society organizations have accused it of significant political bias against the president’s political rivals. Meanwhile, criminal organizations’ financial prowess is only growing stronger with changes in the international financial landscape and the advent of cryptocurrencies. Efforts must be directed towards the development of better law enforcement instruments devoted to limiting the ability of criminal groups to enjoy the fruits of their crimes.
Most importantly, the United States still has work to do to slow the southbound flow of high-caliber weapons and curtail the demand for illicit narcotics. Previous attempts were ill conceived and led to major scandals, such as Operation Fast and Furious, when the U.S. Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) permitted weapons trafficking into Mexico in an attempt to identify the final recipients and then dismantle their criminal organizations. The ATF lost track of many of these weapons, which later turned up at major crime scenes. Beyond thorny domestic debates about guns, it is clear that the arrival of U.S. weapons on Mexican territory is a violation of the law on both sides of the border. A clear commitment from the United States to decrease this illegal flow would allow for specific interdiction goals, which might induce Mexico to reciprocate on the illicit narcotics front. Regarding the demand for illicit narcotics, the United States should recognize that combating the rise of powerful synthetic drugs is the future of interdiction. To this end, one top priority should be the construction of a joint task force on fentanyl disruption, leveraging new technologies such as drive-thru X-ray machines to detect the presence of precursor chemicals or the final product at the border.
In the wake of rising insecurity, much has been said about the perceived failure of the “kingpin strategy,” the strategy that emphasized the death or capture of the capos running cartels as the most effective way to weaken them. Yet the criminal organizations cannot be dismantled without going after these groups’ most dangerous elements. The United States and Mexico have collaborated extensively on the identification and capture of high-value criminals in the past, and they now need to redouble efforts to capture cartel leaders who work on both sides of the border.
While López Obrador’s approval ratings are still very high, Mexico’s increasing body count could eventually erode his popularity and provide incentives for both sides to cooperate once again. At the end of October, one survey revealed that 56 percent of Mexicans believe the president’s security policy is failing, and that Mexico’s criminal groups are growing stronger than the government. Violent episodes in Culiacán, Guerrero, Coahuila, and Michoacán have made these places bywords for a failing security strategy—displaying in gruesome terms what losing the monopoly on violence really means. It is high time that the United States attend to the full scope of its relationship with Mexico. Rather than view migration as the benchmark by which all U.S.-Mexican cooperation is measured, the United States should cultivate security collaboration with willing Mexican state authorities and find subtle ways to nudge López Obrador to take on broader issues in the relationship.
Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where his research includes Latin American foreign-policy issues.