Mexico will soon have a new president. What happens to its drug war?

  • Azaera Amza
  • 4 Jul 2018

President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has pledged to decrease violence when he comes into office but the factors compounding the volatility in Mexico may make it a hard task to shoulder.

Mexico's President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador promised during his campaign that he would reduce drug violence if elected to power. ( Edgard Garrido / Reuters )

Mexico’s elections are over, but it has been a long and deadly stretch in the run-up to voting. 

This past election season saw an unprecedented rise in violence  – at least 132 politicians were killed, about  80 candidates withdrew and the murder of a mayor in the town of Ocampo resulted in the arrest of an entire police force

But the violence this election cycle is more than a flash in the pan – Mexico last year had the highest murder rate in 20 years. That's an average of at least 63 people killed every day.

Ever since former president Felipe Calderon waged a war on drug cartels in 2006, violence in Mexico has become a norm – plaguing incumbent President Enrique Pena Nieto’s rule. 

Mexico's then President Enrique Pena Nieto adopted military tactics to control the drug cartels but failed to decrease violence on the streets.(Reuters)

But Mexico’s President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says he wants to change this. Voted into power on Sunday by 53 percent of the electorate, Lopez Obrador has suggested a new way of dealing with the uptick in drug related violence – floating the idea of amnesty to those convicted of drug-related crimes. This approach, if fulfilled, will be a pivot away from what his predecessors attempted to do militarily, failing to resolve the violence. 

The violence in Mexico has been on the rise for various reasons. 

“You have civilians affected by extortion and murder, those sorts of practices. You have criminal groups fighting one another, for drug trafficking routes, extortion rackets, theft of oil,” says Crisis Group’s Program Director for Latin American, Ivan Briscoe. 

In this early Thursday, June 29, 2017 photo, two bodies shot earlier lie on a road in the town of Navolato, Sinaloa State, Mexico. Mexico is seeing its highest murder rate in 20 years, outpacing the worst days of the drug war in 2011. The violence is fueled by drug cartels splintering and battling each other for control as old alliances dissolve and new gangs arise.(AP)

“You have state security forces fighting criminal groups, which will often lead to shootouts involved in the security operations as well. And you have extrajudicial killings by state forces involved in the fight against organised crime.”

The crackdown on drug cartels, which began during Calderon’s time in power, was done militarily – security forces stormed the streets of several cities that were known for high rates of drug violence. But this also led to extrajudicial killings that reduced public trust in the government. Added to this, was the reputation that Mexico’s security apparatus had gained for being in cahoots with the cartels. 

“The military contrary to public opinion, is not really fighting the drug war, but facilitating certain parts of it, because there is so much money in it,” says the director of the America’s Program, Laura Carlsen. 

But even when the state attempts to crackdown on drug cartels, there is no real incentive for kingpins to back off. Drugs are a lucrative business and the harsher the state policies against the traffickers, the more profitable it becomes. As soon as authorities detect the areas or ways of transporting banned substances and initiate action, cartels tend to evolve and get more creative and vicious with smuggling the contraband. 

The cartels also know how not to put all their eggs in one basket. They diversify, invest in other sectors like oil and real estate in order to manage their cartels with smooth cash flows. 

In this Feb. 7, 2018 photo, "community police" vigilante Rene Zeferino rides in the back of a pickup as his unit patrols the streets of Ayutla de los Libres, Guerrero state, Mexico. Fed up with police corruption and drug gang violence, a number of communities in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero and neighboring states have formed citizen police groups.(AP)

Another move that contributes to violence is the kingpin strategy. A technique used extensively by the Calderon administration, it attempts to bump off  the leaders of most powerful cartels and foment unrest within their ranks. The final aim is to make it hard for the business to survive the chaos. But this strategy backfired as it triggered intense drug wars, claiming dozens of lives, including civilians. The New York Times described  it as “the tumult" that was "widely viewed as evidence of disruption: a signal that more deadly and unpredictable gangs were competing to fill a vacuum.”

With all of these issues compounding the overall issue of drug violence, how will Lopez Obrador’s proposed idea for tackling drug violence pan out?

The president-elect ran his presidential campaign vowing to reduce  the violence, take back control of the streets, reduce corruption and alleviate poverty. The proposals he has touted also represent a shift away from the traditional response to drug violence. 

“Lopez Obrador has promised a move away from militarised policing towards an approach based on peace building, construction of a different security model for the country, quite short on the specifics,” says Briscoe.

In addition to his proposal to provide amnesty towards low level offenders, Lopez Obrador has also floated the idea of a truth commission – much like the one seen in South Africa – and has talked about broader police reform. 

In this April 15, 2016 file photo, a forensic officer helps a woman place a sheet over the body of Alejandro Gallardo Perez, 23, after he was shot dead near his home in San Agustin, on the outskirts of Acapulco, in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The man was shot by unknown gunmen.(AP)

But as of now, these ideas are nothing more than Lopez Obrador's election rhetoric – ideas that Briscoe believes need to be fleshed out and would not necessarily prove easy to carry out. 

“It is very unlikely in very high violent context that you see in Mexico, that he would be able to immediately withdraw the military from all policing and security activities,” Briscoe says. 

“There is much more likely to be a gradual approach, the cultivation of new ideas with more emphasis on construction of peace, on crime prevention, on economic measures aimed to change the fundamental root causes of violence but that’s a really long term project.”

Part of fixing the chronic state of violence and enacting an effective crime prevention strategy also involves ending the culture of impunity that runs rampant in Mexico. 

“There is virtually no justice system that is capable of confronting this problem. And there is no message going out to people, if you get involved in this, you will face consequences,” says Carlsen.