Mexico - Three years of hugs and bullets
Halfway through his term, AMLO has no security strategy. He has time to turn the situation around, but does not appear willing to do so.
Just short of the three year point in AMLO’s term in office, it’s clear his security policies are failing. Violence hit record high levels in 2019 and remains within a few percentage points of those levels, significantly higher than the periods under Presidents Calderon or Peña Nieto. On top of the high levels of violence, two criminal groups - the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG - have expanded their influence and economic gains with impunity.
I was going to write “security strategy” instead of security policies in that previous paragraph, but it’s not clear that there is a strategy at the national level or at local levels.
Prior to becoming president, AMLO promised “hugs, not bullets,” a demilitarization of security, an end to high value targeting and a focus on social spending and anti-corruption to reduce the root causes of violence.
Instead, over the past three years Mexico has gotten an expansion of the military’s role in the country into non-security issues including infrastructure, the creation of a heavily militarized National Guard that doesn’t have a clear mission, a mixture of austerity and clientelistic social spending plans that benefit AMLO supporters, and a politicized anti-corruption mission that AMLO uses to target his political opponents.
Earlier this month, AP published an excellent article on how Mexico’s security forces simply enforce the boundaries of criminal-controlled territory in Michoacán rather than attempt to push back the criminal groups. Extortion, drug trafficking and open carrying of large weapons is occurring within view of the military, which does nothing to stop criminal activity.
This type of enforcement of boundaries instead of direct confrontation is potentially (maybe, possibly) a good strategy and appears to match the rhetoric on which AMLO campaigned. I could imagine a hypothetical scenario in which it succeeded in reducing violence. But that’s not what’s happening. It’s not working. Michoacán’s levels of homicides and other violent crimes are at their highest points in years.
The fact that it’s not working doesn’t seem to bother the AMLO administration. They haven’t attempted anything different in the state, which remains among the most violent in Mexico.
On top of its inability to adapt, one big failure of the López Obrador government is its inability to set and enforce red lines on violence. Massacres of police officers in Guanajuato and Michoacán, the CJNG attack in Mexico City last year and the recent attack on the hotel in Cancun, all incidents that should have led to serious consequences against the violent groups who engaged in them, were instead met with no response or with minimalistic symbolic actions. The government gave in to the Sinaloa Cartel’s show of force in Culiacán to force the release of one of El Chapo’s sons two years ago, showing criminal groups that they can use violence to enforce their own red lines instead of the AMLO administration.
There is an argument for not pro-actively targeting criminal groups with massive levels of military force and stirring up the hornets’ nests when not absolutely necessary, but allowing groups to commit such public acts of violence and failing to respond undermines the legitimacy of the state.
A few small groups and their leaders such as the CSRL in Guanajuato have been hit hard by the government’s security forces. However, the successful takedown of those groups has often strengthened their rivals, the CJNG in the case of Guanajuato, and done little to reduce violence.
Entering the second half of the AMLO administration, analysts should be thinking about what sort of security situation López Obrador will leave behind for his successor. Right now, the answer appears to be that AMLO will hand his successor some of the highest levels of violence in Mexico’s history, with two consolidated powerful criminal groups fighting against an otherwise fragmented field of local gangs.
It took Felipe Calderon almost four years in office, four years after he first deployed troops to combat the violence in Michoacán, to finally come up with a strategy that started to reduce the levels of homicides and improve security. For all of Calderon’s flaws, things did improve in those final years of his administration. There is still time for López Obrador to adjust his policies and begin to improve the situation around the country, but with high approval ratings and a desire to focus on energy nationalism over security, there is little reason to believe that the president is considering doing anything different.
Mexico Security Analysis - Training Announcement
At noon EST on December 2, I will be holding an online training session on recent developments in Mexico’s security landscape. Today’s newsletter provides some bigger picture comments while the training will look at the local dynamics driving violence in Quintana Roo, Tamaulipas, Michoacán and other hotspots. The 90 minute session is open to everyone; however, the target audience members are analysts and managers at GSOCs and corporate intelligence teams who help the private sector monitor and understand security issues.
Paying subscribers can register for the course at a rate of $100. Registration for everyone else is $300. We can provide bulk rates if you want your whole team to attend. I can also send your firm an invoice if needed.
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