In Mexico, a New Approach to Crime Produces the Same Old Results

Mexico’s president has promised to improve security, but progress has been slow.


Six months after Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office promising to restore security in Mexico, violence remains a huge problem in the country. According to Mexican authorities, there were 11,221 homicides between Jan. 1 and April 30, a 7 percent increase from the same period in 2018, a year in which homicides reached a record high. Lopez Obrador has said the problem can’t be solved overnight, and he’s right, but the lack of tangible results thus far has sparked concerns over his new approach to an old problem.

(click to enlarge)

At a press conference earlier this month, Lopez Obrador said he would combat crime and violence through a series of measures that fall into six broader components: address the root causes of crime by investing in development and welfare programs; protect public security, mainly by developing a new National Guard; invest in youth education and employment; ask the U.S. to boost efforts to reduce youth drug consumption within the United States; address drug consumption within Mexico, possibly by legalizing certain substances; and develop a national peace agreement that would include multiple segments of Mexican society, even potentially members of organized crime groups. Details on each of these initiatives, especially the last two, are still murky, but it’s worth examining the progress, or lack thereof, so far – and what’s impeding it.

Progress and Setbacks

The first step in Lopez Obrador’s plan to improve security in Mexico is to reorient efforts away from traditional security institutions (and violence associated with them) and focus on social and economic development. Under the president’s strategy, security authorities would play a supporting role rather than serve as the driver. The strategy is still in the early stages, but projects to address youth addiction have recently been launched and more complex programs related to youth education and employment are being discussed. Still, the programs that have been initiated have limited reach, and funding is a major barrier to implementing a nationwide strategy.

More progress has been made on establishing the new National Guard, a civilian-controlled national security force made up of federal police and soldiers. The government has already passed the legal framework for the body, though supporting legislation is still under consideration; only time will tell how long it will take before the National Guard is up and running. The government estimated that it would take three years in total, but addressing public concerns over its composition and appropriate use of force might require more time.

The fourth component in Lopez Obrador’s strategy requires cooperation from the United States to reduce drug consumption in the U.S. However, the United States’ historical approach to fighting organized crime has focused on targeting drug production and transport and financing of criminal groups. In other words, the U.S. prefers to target activities taking place in other countries rather than its own contributions to the drug trade, including high levels of consumption and arms supplies.

In addition, Washington has been preoccupied with border security rather than regional development in the countries in which drugs are being produced and through which they’re transited. Lopez Obrador wants the U.S. to focus on development projects instead of providing funding and logistical support to fight organized crime for two reasons. First, Mexico’s current administration genuinely believes that economic and social development will, over time, help improve security in Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador). The U.N. recently backed some Mexican-driven development projects involving Mexico and the Northern Triangle, but these projects are too limited to bring about a real transformation in the region. Such a transformation will require the support of a wealthy partner like the United States. Mexican officials have estimated that an investment of $20 billion to $30 billion is necessary, and the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that could singularly make this level of investment.

The second reason the president wants the U.S. to focus on development is that Mexico has had a complicated security relationship with the U.S. in the past. One of the main frameworks for cooperation on organized crime and law enforcement between the two countries is the Merida Initiative, which supports security efforts in Mexico using U.S. funds. It’s much weaker and smaller than Plan Colombia, the U.S. program to help combat the FARC, and for a reason. Mexico is willing to accept only certain types of assistance from the U.S. because it doesn’t want any U.S. incursions into Mexican territory. In 1848, Mexico lost large swaths of territory to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War. And just over 100 years ago, U.S. troops marched into northern Mexico and occupied the Mexican port of Veracruz for six months during the Mexican Revolution. Such an incursion today would be entirely untenable for Mexico. Lopez Obrador has thus said he wants to end the Merida Initiative and divert U.S. funds to development projects. The U.S., however, has no intention of suspending the program. U.S. Embassy officials even told Mexico’s Foreign Relations Commission that Washington will support the implementation of the National Guard though the Merida Initiative.

The most controversial parts of Lopez Obrador’s security plan are his proposals to legalize consumption of certain substances and introduce a national peace agreement. It’s still unclear, however, whether these proposals will come to fruition. The government hasn’t said what substances would be legalized, though marijuana has been the most discussed option. The national peace agreement would offer amnesty to members of organized crime groups, but the government doesn’t have a lot of leverage over criminal groups to force them to the negotiating table, and there are no indications that talks behind the scenes have even begun.

Indeed, Lopez Obrador still talks of the two measures as possibilities rather than realities. And despite significant public backlash, he seems insistent on going ahead with them. Last August, Lopez Obrador started holding town halls across the country to discuss his security strategy, and since then citizens have been voicing their concerns. Last August, participants reportedly criticized the then-government-elect’s lack of organization, respect and protocol. Attendees in cities like Ciudad Juarez objected to the possibility of granting amnesty to criminals. Subsequent meetings were either restricted or canceled due to concerns over clashes involving civil society, and possibly criminal, groups. The town halls ended two weeks early and skipped some of the country’s most violent states like Veracruz, Sinaloa, Tabasco, Morelos and Tamaulipas. Since then, the backlash against Lopez Obrador has grown and protests have erupted, the largest of which took place on May 5, when demonstrators called for the president’s resignation.

(click to enlarge)

The Corruption Problem

One issue that’s noticeably absent from Lopez Obrador’s strategy is corruption, a problem he promised to tackle during his campaign. Succeeding in this area will be instrumental to his broader security agenda; development projects may be the cornerstone of Lopez Obrador’s plan, but they require lots of government funding, which has been misused in the past. Lopez Obrador has himself said that the barrier to executing development plans isn’t a lack of funds but rather corruption. This rings particularly true when it comes to law enforcement and state security officials. Organized crime groups have deep pockets that can persuade police, judges and other government officials to turn a blind eye to illicit activities. Improved vetting and monitoring of officials as well as increases in salaries can help, but such measures are costly and the government has limited financial resources at its disposal.

Progress on this front, therefore, has been minimal. The most notable achievement thus far is the creation of the “Institute to Return to the People What Has Been Stolen From Them,” a project funded by auctioned luxury items confiscated from organized crime groups. The problem, however, is that it’s impossible to know how much money these auctions will raise. Lopez Obrador said they will also help fund the National Strategy to Prevent Addictions, so both programs will be competing for funds from the same source. It’s likely, then, that the government will also need to pitch in, and its ability to do so is questionable at this point.

Lopez Obrador’s anti-corruption efforts have been limited and focused on two main targets. The first is international companies and investment. Lopez Obrador has postponed auctions for major projects like oil and gas development due to corruption concerns. However, whether corruption is being rooted out is still in question given that, in the first quarter of 2019, more than 70 percent of contracts were awarded without a competitive bidding process, according to the nonprofit Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity. Many in Mexico see this as evidence that the government isn’t serious about tackling corruption. Lopez Obrador has also targeted past presidents for their alleged involvement in corruption. He has proposed a public consultation on whether to investigate past presidents over corruption allegations, an idea that has been fiercely debated by both politicians and civil society groups. It has been put on hold, purportedly because supporting legislation must be implemented first.

Lopez Obrador said he would follow a new and novel approach to fighting crime in Mexico. Past administrations had made little progress, and he promised to be different. But while his approach is certainly different, its results have been more of the same. Constraints, including lack of funding, corruption and insufficient support from other parties, make the viability of his strategy even more questionable. It could also strain U.S.-Mexico relations, as U.S. cooperation will be critical to addressing Mexico’s security problem.

Allison Fedirka
Allison Fedirka is a senior analyst for Geopolitical Futures. In addition to writing analyses, she helps train new analysts, oversees the intellectual quality of analyst work and helps guide the forecasting process. Prior to joining Geopolitical Futures, Ms. Fedirka worked for Stratfor as a Latin America specialist and subsequently as the Latin America regional director. She lived in South America – primarily Argentina and Brazil – for more than seven years and, in addition to English, fluently speaks Spanish and Portuguese. Ms. Fedirka has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international studies from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in international relations and affairs from the University of Belgrano, Argentina. Her thesis was on Brazil and Angola and south-south cooperation.