When Andrés Manuel López Obrador takes office as Mexico’s president in December, his biggest challenge will be to stanch the escalating problem of criminal violence. Last year, there were a record-breaking 25,339 murders in Mexico. Armed criminal groups and militias undermine security, particularly in the areas where the illegal drug trade dominates the economy. Local people, alienated from the state, face extortion and abuse but often still look to vigilante groups and criminal organizations for protection.
López Obrador has promised to turn Mexico’s security situation around, largely by focusing on socioeconomic interventions to reduce crime. He has proposed granting conditional amnesty to some accused criminals, and his administration will consider legalizing marijuana and licensing illegal poppy cultivation for the production of medical opiates. The president-elect has also promised to pull the military back from the policing functions it has increasingly assumed.
This program has many promising elements, but will undoubtedly encounter an unyielding reality. Both of López Obrador’s predecessors found the problem of demilitarizing policing fundamentally bewildering, for example. Peña Nieto approached the issue through justice and police reform, but these measures never matured enough to make prosecution and policing effective on their own. In the end his administration deployed almost 53,000 soldiers. Already in August, López Obrador’s officials, too, conceded that withdrawing the military from policing functions would not soon be possible.
Any solution to Mexico’s security problem will require a fundamental recalibration of the state’s capacity to deter crime. To get there, the López Obrador administration must focus on developing a detailed strategy for transitioning to civilian policing and the rule of law. Instead of targeting criminal bosses, law enforcement should build the intelligence capability necessary to go after the middle operational layer of criminal groups. And the new administration must act resolutely against anti-crime militias. Without such serious shifts in policing strategy, the incoming administration’s best laid plans for socioeconomic outreach, amnesty, and poppy licenses will
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