Mexico’s New President Squares Up to High Hopes for Peace

On 1 December, Andrés Manuel López Obrador will assume Mexico’s presidency. He won pledging to end a drug war that has killed tens of thousands. But, as Crisis Group’s Mexico Senior Analyst Falko Ernst argues, he faces formidable challenges that will make it hard for him to uphold his promises.

What are the main challenges facing López Obrador?

Andrés Manuel López Obrador inherits several deepening crises. The first is crime: at least 200,000 people have been killed or disappeared since Mexico’s “war on drugs” began in late 2006, and the violence is getting worse. 2018 has already surpassed 2017 as the year with the largest number of homicides on record in the country. Behind the higher murder rate is a cycle of failed efforts to reform state institutions – above all, to curb corruption and police collusion with organised crime – and the metastasis of organised crime itself.

Ten years ago, there were a handful of criminal organisations dedicated to drug trafficking in Mexico. These have largely mutated into a collection of narco-warlords feuding with each other over patches of territory and, while still selling illegal drugs, also preying on civilians for income through extortion. Mexico increasingly resembles a patchwork of regional armed conflicts that the past two governments have been unable to tame or contain with their military-led approach.

A second priority for López Obrador is the “caravans” of Central Americans looking to escape appalling living conditions in their home countries and reach the U.S. by way of Mexico. Xenophobia toward these migrants and refugees has flared up on both sides of the Rio Grande, as well as in southern Mexico, where many of the Central Americans are stopped, and further strained already tense Mexico-U.S. relations. President Donald Trump placed the migration issue at the centre of his barnstorming for Republican candidates before the 8 November mid-term elections. He has promised a tough approach that would require asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until U.S. courts rule on their claims, a process that could take years in each individual case.

On the border, the first migrants to arrive are lodged in ad hoc shelters. Thousands more are set to show up in coming weeks. For López Obrador, the “caravans” pose an acute dilemma: many Mexicans would recoil if he succumbed to Trump’s pressure and agreed to host the asylum seekers, seeing a betrayal of his campaign pledge to protect Central Americans’ basic rights. That said, conciliating Trump could prevent unwanted frictions with the U.S. and the possible economic fallout they could generate.

Finally, López Obrador has sown uncertainty even before taking office by subjecting key political decisions concerning security, justice and infrastructure projects to so-called popular consultations. Carried out by López Obrador’s own party without independent oversight, and with voter turnouts of usually around 1 per cent, they have given policies championed by the incoming president overwhelming majorities of up to above 90 per cent of votes cast. The president elect and his allies cast these as expressions of the people´s will despite the limited participation.

Economic headwinds, including the falling value of the Mexican peso and a decline in foreign direct investment, pose a further challenge for the incoming president, who is intent on implementing ambitious social programs aimed at addressing the socio-economic root causes of organised crime. Despite private sector concerns, fuelled in particular by the cancellation of a $13 billion airport construction (approved in a “popular consultation”), that he will adopt radical “populist” economic policies, López Obrador has made efforts to win over political and business elites, including the incorporation into an advisory council of key business and media figures he had previously called emblems of corruption.

What are López Obrador’s security plans?

López Obrador has brought fresh thinking to the debate about how to mitigate Mexico’s criminal violence. In contrast to his predecessors, he and his team have been frank about the seriousness of the problem, and the ways in which state corruption and militarisation of public security have made matters worse. His key campaign promises – eradicating corruption and ending the military-led campaign against crime – stem from this understanding of the security challenges.

As López Obrador and his team have fleshed out their policy ideas, however, their approach appears to have shifted. A Plan for National Peace and Security, presented to the public three weeks before the inauguration, proposed relaxing legal controls on drug production and use, above all of marijuana, and supporting peace and reconciliation efforts in violence-affected areas, including judicial reprieves for non-violent offenders who show genuine remorse and offer reparations. Such efforts held promise and are consistent with López Obrador´s campaign pledges. But the plan also said the civilian police are in such a state of disrepair that the country could not possibly rely upon them to combat crime effectively. Instead, López Obrador announced the creation of a National Guard: a new security force to be manned, commanded and trained by the military, which is usually considered less corrupt than the police.

Human rights and victims’ groups criticise the plan for seeming to place the armed forces’ deployment in public security on a permanent footing. They are particularly concerned that López Obrador declared his intention to change the constitution to ensure a legal basis for the National Guard. Critics have also decried the incoming president for his recent pledge not to prosecute any past acts of corruption committed by high-level public officials, including his predecessors, on the grounds that doing so would be dangerous and destabilising. Some forgiveness for past crimes is inevitable, given that Mexico’s justice system is overloaded and pursuing all those responsible for graft would likely provoke a backlash from entrenched interests that could paralyse his reform efforts. But to effectively draw a line in the sand, make clear that corruption and collusion will not be tolerated in the future and satisfy a popular demand for justice, López Obrador should hold at least some of the worst perpetrators accountable. Doing so would also reinforce his pledge of zero tolerance for corruption from the moment he takes power.

What’s at stake?

Few doubt López Obrador’s sincere determination to improve Mexicans’ livelihoods, but his confidence in his own powers as a pioneering, reformist president is likely to face a stiff test. As a recent Crisis Group report has shown, attempts at institutional reforms and makeovers have been common under past presidential administrations but have done little in reality to reduce corruption or state collusion with criminal groups. Meanwhile, the armed forces upon which the new president’s security policies seem to rely have been responsible for extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances and torture, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

One answer to López Obrador’s dilemma would be to accompany his proposed measures with mechanisms ensuring independent transparency and oversight, for instance by making sure civilian justice is granted full investigative rights. These would need to enjoy real disciplinary teeth to prevent such abuses from recurring, especially if the military’s role in policing Mexico’s streets remains entrenched. The incoming administration has promised action in this regard but so far has laid out no concrete measure. Of course, it would be premature to pass judgment on the incoming president’s reforms. But warning signs are there: López Obrador ought to take more innovative steps to maximise chances he can build competent and accountable security and judicial institutions that protect Mexican citizens and outlast his six-year term. In particular, Crisis Group has argued that his government should: