The July presidential elections are not opening a serious debate about the fight against drug trafficking

The “hard hand” that Felipe Calderón (PAN) began in 2006, with the deployment of the Armed Forces in the fight against narcotics, was extended in 2012 by Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI). In these twelve years the situation has not improved, but violence has increased. In the 2018 elections, none of the main candidates present a radical change; the populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Morena) proposes some striking measures, but he continues to count on the work of the Army.

El presidente mexicano en el Día de la Bandera, en febrero de 2018

▲The president of Mexico during a ceremony with the Armed Forces, February 2018 [Presidency of Mexico]

ARTICLE / Valeria Nadal [Spanish version]

Mexico faces a new sixth-year term after closing 2017 as the most violent year in the history of the country, with more than 25,000 homicides. How has this situation been reached? Can it begin to be resolved in the coming years?

There are several theories about the beginning of drug trafficking in Mexico, but the most consensual argues that Mexican drug trafficking saw its birth when Franklin Delano Roosevelt – president of the United States between 1933 and 1944 – promoted the cultivation of the poppy in Mexican territory with the veiled intention to encourage the production of large quantities of morphine to relieve the pains of American soldiers during World War II (1939-1945). However, drug trafficking was not a serious national problem until the 1980s; since then, the cartels have multiplied, violence has increased, and crimes have been expanded by Mexican geography.

The new stage of Felipe Calderón

In the fight against drug trafficking in Mexico, the presidency of Felipe Calderón marked a new stage. Candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), Calderón was elected for a six-year term, from 2006 until 2012. His program included the declaration of war on the cartels, with a "hard hand" plan that resulted in the sending of the Army to Mexican streets. Although Calderón’s speech was forceful and had a clear objective, to exterminate the insecurity and violence caused by drug trafficking, the result was the opposite because his strategy was based exclusively on police and military action. This militarization of the streets was carried out through joint operations that combined the forces of the Government: National Defense, Public Security, the Navy and the Attorney General's Office (AGO). However, despite the large deployment and the 50% increase in security spending, the strategy did not work; the homicides not only did not decrease, but increased: in 2007, the first full presidential year of Calderón, 10,253 homicides were registered and in 2011, the last full year of his presidency, a record of 22,409 homicides was reached.

According to the Institute of Legal Research (ILR) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (NAUM), in that record year of 2011 almost a quarter of the total Mexican population over 18 years (24%) was assaulted on the street, suffered some robbery in public transportation or was the victim of extortion, fraud, threats or injuries. The rates of violence were so high that they surpassed those of countries at war: in Iraq there was between 2003 and 2011 an average of 12 murders per 100,000 inhabitants per day, while in Mexico that average reached 18 murders per day. Finally, it should be mentioned that the number of complaints against this indiscriminate wave of violence was quite low: only 12% of the victims of the violence related to drug trafficking denounced. This figure is probably related to the high rate of impunity (70%) that also marked the mandate of Calderón.

The new approach of Peña Nieto

After the failure of the PAN in the fight against drug trafficking, Enrique Peña Nieto – candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – was elected President in 2012. With this, the PRI – that had governed for uninterrupted decades – returned to power after two six-year terms followed by absence (presidencies of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, both of the PAN). Peña Nieto took office promising a new approach, contrary to the "open war" posed by his predecessor. He mainly put the emphasis of its security policy on the division of national territory into five regions to increase the effectiveness and coordination of operations, in the reorganization of the Federal Police and in strengthening the legal framework. All in all, the new president kept the Army on the street.

The results of Peña Nieto in his fight against drug trafficking have been worse than those of his predecessor: during his term of office, intentional homicides have increased by 12,476 cases compared to the same period in the Calderón administration and 2017 closed with the regretful news of being the most violent year in Mexico to date.

A few months before his term ends and in a last effort to amend the errors that have marked it, Peña Nieto led to the approval of the Internal Security Law, which was voted by the Mexican Congress and promulgated in December of last year. This law does not remove the military from the streets but seeks to guarantee legally that capacity for police action on the part of the Armed Forces, something that before had only a provisional character. According to the law, military participation in daily counter-narcotics operations is not to supplant the police, but to reinforce it in those areas where it is unable to cope with drug trafficking. The initiative counted on critics who, although they recognized the problem of the shortage of police means, warned of the risk of an unlimited military deployment in the time. Therefore, although Peña Nieto began his term trying to distance himself from Calderón's policies, he has concluded by consolidating them.


Annual intentational homicides in Mexico

Source: Executive Secretariat, Government of Mexico


What to expect from the 2018 candidates

Given the evident ineffectiveness of the measures adopted by both presidents, the question in this election year is what counter-narcotics policy the next president will adopt, in a country where there is no re-election and therefore each presidential six-year term represents a change of face. The three main candidates are, in the order that the polls have been marking: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena); Ricardo Anaya, from the PAN coalition with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and José Antonio Meade, from the PRI. López Obrador was close to reaching the presidency in 2006 and in 2012, both times as a candidate of the PRD (previously he had been a leader of the PRI); then he created his own party.

Meade, which represents a certain continuity with respect to Peña Nieto - although in the electoral campaign he has adopted a greater anticorruption tone - has pronounced in favor of the Law of Internal Security: "It is an important law, it is a law that gives us framework, that gives us certainty, is a law that allows the participation of the Armed Forces to be well regulated." Anaya has also favorably positioned himself for that law, since he considers that a withdrawal of the Army from the streets would be "leaving the citizens to their fate". However, it is committed to the need for the police to recover its functions and criticize harshly the Government's lack of responsibility in matters of public security, alleging that Mexico has entered a "vicious circle that has become very comfortable for governors and mayors." In any case, neither Meade nor Anaya have specified what turn they could give that would actually be effective in reducing violence.

López Obrador, from a position of left populism, supposes a major change with respect to previous policies, although it is not clear how effective his measures could be. In addition, some of them, such as granting amnesty to the main leaders of drug cartels, are clearly counterproductive. In recent months, Morena's candidate changed the main topic of his speech, which was earlier focused on the eradication of corruption and then expanded to security issues. Thus, he has said that if he wins the presidency he will take full responsibility for the country's security by integrating the Army, the Navy and the Police into a single command, to which a newly created national guard would be added. In addition, he announced that it would be exclusively him who would assume sole command: "I will assume this responsibility directly." López Obrador is committed to ending the war against drug trafficking in the first three years of his term, ensuring that, along with measures of force, his management will achieve economic growth that will result in employment creation and the improvement of well-being; which will reduce violence.

In conclusion, the decade against drug trafficking that began almost twelve years ago has turned out to be a failure that can be measured in numbers: since Calderón came to the presidency of Mexico in 2006 with the slogan: "Things can change for the better", 28,000 people have disappeared and more than 150,000 have died as a result of the drug war. Despite small victories for the Mexican authorities, such as the arrest of Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán during the presidency of Peña Nieto, the reality that prevails in Mexico is that of an intense criminal activity by the drug cartels. Unfortunately, given the electoral proposals of the presidential candidates, a rapid improvement cannot be expected in the next six years.

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