For many Mexicans, insecurity is commonplace. They look at the news and see stories of new vigilante groups, or they learn about the piles of bodies that were the most recent victims of organized crime, or they hear anecdotes of how business was obstructed or suspended because of some unnamed security concern. Now, the media coverage they watch tends to overemphasize these kinds of acts of violence while de-emphasizing the fact that Mexico has a mostly functional government and thriving economy. Still, violent crime, especially associated with the country’s drug cartels, is a serious issue in Mexico. So serious, in fact, that President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s radical proposal to resolve it – which features amnesty and reconciliation rather than confrontation – helped win him the presidency. He will soon begin to execute the plan, but as he does, he needs to bear in mind that virtually every previous plan to eliminate the cartels in the past few decades has failed.

A Spectacular Failure

This stands in stark contrast to the success of the cartels themselves. Their run began in the 1980s, when they went into business with Colombia’s cocaine producers looking for alternate transportation routes to their biggest market, the United States. At the time, Mexican drug trafficking was essentially a monopoly. But things changed in the 1990s. The business was divvied up partly by function and partly by region to inoculate itself from counternarcotics operations. Where some saw safety in numbers, others saw competition, which inevitably and violently ensued. The government, meanwhile, tried to curb cultivation but did not conduct large-scale operations against drug traffickers.

Enter Felipe Calderon, the president from 2006 to 2012, who all but declared war on the cartels. On his first day in office, he enlisted the military to help manage public security, employing a decapitation strategy on the leadership of the biggest groups. Calderon’s successor, Enrique Pena Nieto, mostly pursued the same strategy.

The strategy failed. In fact, it succeeded only in balkanizing and militarizing the larger cartels. The number of large drug trafficking organizations – that is, ones capable of controlling large swaths of territory – jumped from four in 2006 to nine in 2017. (This figure excludes the 45 or so smaller organizations that operate on a local level and whose associations with larger groups may change, depending on their business interests.) The cartels continued to produce, move and profit from their trade. Poppy cultivation, for example, increased 38 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, yielding an additional 111 metric tons. Higher numbers of cocaine-related overdoses and increased levels of coca production in Colombia suggest cocaine use is on the rise in the United States, a market in which Mexican cartels control supply.

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Homicides, meanwhile, shot up dramatically under Calderon. They dipped slightly from 2011 to 2014 before increasing again. In 2017, Mexico registered 25 homicides per 100,000 people. More alarming than the sheer number is the speed at which the number is increasing. 2017 set a record for registered intentional homicides, and 2018 is on track to be the bloodiest year ever, with a reported 15,973 intentional homicides in the first half of the year alone, according to the National System of Public Security. 2018 has also been notable for its uptick in political assassinations. In the nine months leading up to recent elections, 132 politicians and candidates were killed, according to risk analysis firm Etellekt. (The previous record, set in 2010, was 20.)

Clemency Is Controversial

AMLO, as the president-elect is often called, promised to solve these problems knowing full well the failures of his forebears. And he did so by taking a new approach, articulated in his 10-point Pacification and National Reconciliation Plan for Mexico. Though short on detail, the plan calls for opening public debate on contentious issues and a re-examination of how the law is enforced. Controversially, it proposes amnesty for some offenders, the formation of truth commissions, the use of pardons and penalty reductions, the professionalization and purging of law enforcement entities, the gradual demilitarization of public security, and the possible legalization of drugs beyond medicinal marijuana.

Some of these, especially those that redress problems among law enforcement personnel, are direct responses to public demand. Mexico does not have enough police officers to keep the peace, and the ones it does have are often underqualified. At the beginning of the year, the country had a total of nearly 120,000 officers or 0.8 officers per 1,000 residents, short of the minimum standard of 1.8 officers per 1,000 residents. In some places, there is no functional police force at all. In the places where the police do exist, many officers were not current with their performance evaluations; 66,000 had no evaluation at all. Roughly 24,000 have no initial training. Nearly 80,000 uniformed officers failed to meet the evaluation of basic skills. And this is to say nothing of rampant allegations of criminal collusion and corruption.

Other proposals are not so popular. Take the proposed amnesty law, which will apply only to young people co-opted by organized crime, women forced to mule drugs, and farmers forced to produce drugs. It is not meant to forgive crimes against humanity, torture and forced disappearances. Still, clemency is controversial – just ask anyone in Colombia, whose citizens remain deeply divided over the deal to bring members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia into the political fold – and the government has not yet decided how it will prosecute full-fledged organized crime members.

The legalization of drugs is also contentious. It’s unclear which drugs AMLO’s plan would apply to, and it’s unknown whether the law would focus on consumption, production, sale or any other segment of the business cycle. Drugs are, moreover, just one component of an organization’s portfolio. Legalizing drugs in Mexico may do little to prevent a criminal enterprise from continuing to profit in foreign markets, nor will it prohibit the countless other illicit activities in which it engages. Hence why AMLO means to target their finances. But if he does that, the groups won’t have much of an incentive to participate in his peace plan.

The Greater Good

At this point, AMLO’s primary objective is to open the debate on alternative ways to solve Mexico’s security problems, a goal that invariably touches on sensitive topics. And so, from Aug. 7 to Oct. 24, he will hold public discussions throughout Mexico to identify public needs and hear ideas of how to address them. Participants will include farmers, indigenous groups, academics, business members, religious communities, local authorities, politicians and the military.

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It will be interesting to see what details, if any, come from the discovery phase of his plan. Many of Mexico’s security problems are structural and so are difficult to solve. Revamping municipal police and gradual demilitarization alone will take at least three and a half years to execute (according to the National System of Public Security) even if everything goes exactly according to plan (which it rarely does). The U.S. has already criticized the plan to legalize drugs, and it could discourage AMLO from making good on the proposal by linking the issue to other issues. And in any case, there is always a chance that the public consultations will backfire.

AMLO may listen to all sides, but ultimately he will be forced to ignore some suggestions – and the groups that made them – for the greater good. And in doing so he will create enemies. With all these potential roadblocks, it’s no wonder a poll by the National Survey of Urban Public Security showed that 35 percent of the population thinks security will be equally bad in the next year while another 33 percent thinks it will get worse. AMLO’s predecessors came to office with grand plans too. His strategy is different, but unless he can secure buy-in from both cartels and civil society, the outcome will be the same.

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.