Mexico's President-Elect Plans to End the Nation's War on Drugs
On July 1, leftist politician Andres Manuel López Obrador—often referred to with the acronymic AMLO—won the Mexican presidency in a landslide. When he takes office in December, with his party in control of both houses of the Mexican Congress, Mexico’s drug policies are likely to see some radical changes.
Just what AMLO does will have significant consequences on both sides of the border. His policies will impact how much heroin and cocaine make it to the streets of America, as well as how many Mexicans flee north to escape prohibition-related violence, and how much drug money flows back into Mexico, corrupting politicians, police, and the military.
That AMLO—and Mexico—wants change is no surprise. A vigorous campaign against the country’s powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations—the so-called cartels—unleashed by rightist president Felipe Calderon in 2006 brought the Mexican military into the fight, but instead of defeating the cartels, the campaign, still ongoing under President Enrique Pena Nieto, has instead led to record levels of corruption and violence.
In 2012, when both the U.S. and Mexico had presidential elections and the drug war death toll was around 15,000, Mexico’s drug prohibition-related violence was big news north of the border. But in the years since then, as U.S. attention to Mexico’s drug wars wavered, it’s only gotten worse. Last year, Mexico saw more than 30,000 murders, and the cumulative drug war toll in the past dozen years is more than 200,000 dead and tens of thousands of “disappeared.”
But the toll runs deeper than just a count of the casualties. The relentless drug war violence and the endemic corruption of police forces, politicians, and even sectors of the military by cartels have had a deeply corrosive effect on the citizenry and its belief in the ability of the country’s political institutions to address the problem.
López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, campaigned heavily on the need for change, especially around drug policy, corruption, and public safety. “Abrazos, no balazos” (“hugs, not gunfights”) was one of his favorite campaign slogans. AMLO campaigned cautiously, hammering away at crime, corruption, and violence and mentioning different drug policy-related changes, but not coming out with specific policy proposals. Still, from his own remarks and those of people who will be assuming key positions in his administration, we can begin to sketch an outline of what those policies may look like.
Mexico is one of the world’s largest marijuana producers (although the local industry has been taking a hit in recent years from completion north of the border), it has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of the herb, and it has legalized medical marijuana.
AMLO’s pick for interior minister, former Supreme Court official Olga Sánchez Cordero, has made no secret of her plans to seek full legalization and said last week that AMLO may seek a public referendum to gauge popular support for it. Why maintain pot prohibition when Canada and U.S. states are legalizing it, she said. “What are we thinking? Tell me. Killing ourselves. Really, keep on killing when… North America is decriminalizing?”
The possession of personal use amounts of all drugs has been decriminalized in Mexico since 2009, but that hasn’t stopped the violence. AMLO and his advisers say he is open to considering taking the next step and legalizing all drugs.
“We’ll analyze everything and explore all the avenues that will let us achieve peace. I don’t rule out anything, not even legalization — nothing,” AMLO told the New Yorker during the campaign.
“The war on drugs has failed,” wrote Sánchez Cordero. “Nothing contributes to peace by legislating on the basis of more criminal punishment and permanent confrontation. Violence is not fought with violence, as López Obrador rightly points out.”
Drug legalization would be a radical step, indeed. It probably isn’t going to happen under AMLO, since that would pit Mexico not only against the U.S., but also against the international anti-drug treaties that serve as the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. But he is putting the idea squarely on the table.
As a candidate, AMLO floated the idea of amnesty for those involved in the drug trade, a notion that created huge controversy and forced his campaign to clarify that it did not mean cutting deals with bloody-handed cartel leaders or their henchmen. Instead, his campaign clarified, he was referring to peasants growing drug crops and other low-level, non-violent workers in the illicit business.
“Kidnappers? No,” said Sánchez Cordero about possible amnesty recipients. “Who? The people working in rural areas, who are criminals because they work in the illegal drug business, but haven’t committed crimes such as murder or kidnapping.”
Demilitarization and Policing Reforms
For the past 12 years, the Mexican military has been called on to fight the cartels and suppress the drug trade. But the level of violence has only increased, the military is implicated in massive human rights violations (as can only be expected when a government resorts to soldiers to do police work), and finds itself subject to the same corrupting influences that have turned state and local police forces into virtual arms of the competing cartels.
With regard to cartel violence, AMLO repeatedly said on the campaign trail that “you don’t fight fire with fire” and that what was needed was not soldiers on the streets, but social and economic assistance for the country’s poor and unemployed—to give them options other than going to work for drug gangs. Just this week, AMLO announced a $5 billion package of scholarships and job training support for the young.
Still, AMLO isn’t going to send the soldiers back to the barracks immediately. Instead, says one of his security advisers, his goal is to do it over the next three years. He has also proposed replacing the military presence in the drug war with a 300,000-person National Guard, composed of both military and police, a notion that has been bruited by earlier administrations as a means of effectively replacing tainted state and local police participation.
Here, AMLO is not nearly as radical as with some of his other drug policy proposals. He as much as concedes that the bloody drug wars will continue.
“I’m not overwhelmed by any of it,” Eric L. Olson, an expert on Mexico and security at the Wilson Center in Washington, told the Washington Post. “It falls well within the norm for what other politicians have been saying.”
The U.S.-Mexico Relationship
Over the past couple of Mexican administrations, Mexican security agencies have cooperated closely with their U.S. counterparts in the DEA and FBI. It’s not clear whether that level of cooperation will be sustained under AMLO. When he was running for president in 2012, he called for blocking U.S. intelligence work in Mexico, but during this campaign, he insisted he wanted a strong relationship with the U.S. on security and trade issues.
While Mexico may chafe under the continued threats and insults of President Trump, it benefits from security cooperation with the U.S. and would like to see the U.S. do more, especially about the flow of guns south across the border.
“We are going to ask for the cooperation of the United States” on gun trafficking, said Alfonso Durazo, one of AMLO’s security advisers, repeating an ongoing refrain from Mexican politicians.
Mexico has also benefited from DEA intelligence that allowed it to kill or capture numerous cartel figures. But AMLO is a much pricklier personality than his predecessor, and between Trump’s racist Mexico- and immigrant-bashing and his imposition of tariffs on Mexican exports, U.S.-Mexico relations could be in for a bumpy few years. AMLO’s moves on changing drug policies at home are also likely to sustain fire from the White House, further inflaming tensions.
“The bottom line is he’s not going to fight the drug war in the way that it’s been fought in the last few decades,” David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego who is an expert on security issues in Mexico, told the Post. “That is potentially a huge change.”