Two Years of AMLO in Office: A Brief Look at his Security Strategy

02/01/2021 (written by emarinoni) – It has been just over two years since Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, took office in December 2018. This provides an opportune moment to reflect on the impact and effectiveness of his security strategy–a strategy that promised to be a key focus during his administration.

On December 1, 2020, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador celebrated two years since he took office, completing one-third of his mandate. Photo: Expansión Política.

Presidential Campaign

Since his early days on the campaign trail, President López Obrador (2018-2024) proposed a security strategy based on four key pillars. This includes the creation of economic and social opportunities for youth; an amnesty law for specific crimes under specific conditions; the lifting of the ban on illicit drugs, together with the rebuilding of resources for social reintegration and detoxification programs; and finally, the promotion of sanctions for non-compliance with recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH). In addition, AMLO’s administration rooted its security strategy in a policy based on the slogan “hugs not bullets” (abrazos no balazos), moving away from the strategy of the militarization of public security and the focus on killing cartel leaders. This represented a pivot from previous administrations’ approaches, including those of former Presidents Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018).

First Years of Government

During the first two years of the López Obrador administration, several reforms were implemented in support of the strategies AMLO proposed during his presidential bid.

Budget Reforms for Social Programs

In the budgets for 2019-2021, a significant amount of money was earmarked for social programs. By the close of FY2021, AMLO is expecting to have reached 2.3 million young adults aged 18 to 29 who will benefit from social programs. Three of the most noteworthy social programs aimed at job creation among youth are Sowing Life (Sembrando Vida), the Benito Juárez Scholarships (Becas de Benito Juárez), and Youth Building the Future (Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro), all of which launched in 2019.

According to El Economista, in FY2021, the Sowing Life program’s budget increased 15.1% compared to FY2020. The budget of the Benito Juárez Scholarships also increased by 65,333 million pesos (almost $3 million USD) compared to a 17,280-million pesos increase (almost $800,000 USD) in 2019. The Youth Building the Future program, however, experienced a 17.5% decrease in its budget from FY2019. Since that program was launched in AMLO’s first year, it has seen an overall budget reduction of 40%. Nevertheless, its budget and the program’s overall impact still rank it among the most influential youth development programs AMLO has put forward.

Legal Policies

In addition to the budget reforms, a second important piece of legislation put forth by the López Administration came in April 2020 when the Senate adopted the Amnesty Act (Ley de Amnistía). This law establishes the acquittal of secondary offenses that do not include murder, kidnapping, or the use of a firearm. These include abortion (both the individual seeking an abortion and the medical practitioners), possession and transportation of narcotics, and crimes committed by members of indigenous peoples who have not been guaranteed due process.

In November 2020 the Mexican Senate also approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational, medical, scientific, industrial, and medical use. It is a step forward in the policy of legalizing light drugs in the country. The new law regulates and legalizes the use of marijuana in private homes when there are no minors, establishes that individuals may possess no more than 28 grams, and allows for up to eight marijuana plants to be cultivated at an individual’s home.

Security Strategy

Despite the progress made with the budget reforms, Amnesty Law, and the law on marijuana use, the López Obrador administration did break from its proposed security strategy when it approved and initiated the use of the National Guard (Guardia Nacional). In June 2019, the first contingent of Mexico’s National Guard was deployed. In addition to the gradual increase in government spending on public security, militarized forces have also been assigned a growing number of security tasks. This culminated in May 2020 when AMLO announced the extension of armed forces’ involvement in public security affairs until March 2024, a controversial decision that drew condemnation from human rights and civil society groups alike.

First Results and Indicators

The main indicators that monitor the state of public security in Mexico worsened in the first two years of President López Obrador’s government. According to the Executive Secretary of the National System of Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP), from 2017 to 2019, intentional homicides jumped from 28,870 in 2017 to 33,742 in 2018 when AMLO took office in December. This rose to 34,588 in 2019, but appears to have leveled off in 2020, which recorded 34,515 homicides according to SESNSP’s most recent data released in January 2021. 

In addition to homicides, the INEGI national security perception index also recorded an increase in the level of insecurity perceived by citizens between 2017 and 2018, jumping from 74.3 to 79.4 in a single year. In 2019, this value leveled off at 78.9–just slightly below that of 2018. According to data from the World Justice Project, Mexico’s position in terms of its rule of law has worsened in recent years; in 2019, it ranked 99 out of 126 countries–down two places from its 2018 rank of 97. In 2020, it fell even further to 104 out of 128 countries.

In addition to empirical data recorded over the first two years of AMLO’s term, several key events occurred that challenged the effectiveness of AMLO’s security strategy. These included the arrest and subsequent release of the son of notorious kingpin Joaquín Guzmán, El Chapo, on October 17, 2019. His son, Ovidio Guzmán, was released from government custody after a violent and dramatic battle broke out between the Sinaloa Cartel and security officials in the streets of Culiacán, Sinaloa. This was followed just weeks after by a massacre that raised bilateral tension when a local Mormon family with dual citizenship was ambushed by affiliates of an organized crime group. The attack on November 4, 2019, took place in northeastern Sonora along the U.S.-Mexico border with Arizona. Most recently, in June of 2020, Mexican officials confronted a failed attempt by members of organized crime to kill Omar García Harbuch, Mexico City’s  Secretary of Public Security. Experts say these events underscore Mexico’s ongoing, and in many ways, worsening, security crisis.

Conclusions

Mexico is facing a serious security crisis characterized by high levels of violence, much of which is caused by organized crime. Although empirical data do not indicate a substantial improvement in the security situation in Mexico, the observed violence has no singular cause, which makes it a fluid process with no easy solution. Still, based on the approach of the past two years, it is likely that the López Obrador administration will continue to implement a security strategy based on militarization, centralization of security operations, and social support programs.

Sources

Zavala, Misael. “AMLOO will pay MXN$5,000 a month to tree growers in Mexico.” El Universal. September 10, 2018.

Amparo Casár, Maria. “El Gran Benefactor.” Nexos. March 1, 2019.

Serrano Carreto, Mónica del Carmen. “La estrategia de seguridad de AMLO. ¿De la pacificación a la militarización?” Revista IUS. July 1, 2019.

Estrategia de seguridad de AMLO no convence y genera más dudas entre analistas.” Infobae. November 1, 2019.

“The Capture and Release of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, Sinaloa.” Justice in Mexico. November 5, 2019. 

Velázquez, Marisol. “Presupuesto 2021: Bienestar (programas sociales, salud, adultos mayores).” El Economista. September 8, 2020.

El Senado de México aprueba la legalización para el uso medicinal y recreativo de la marihuana.” El Confidencial. November 20, 2020.

Dávila, Israel. “Aprueban Ley de Amnistía en el Estado de México.” La Jornada. December 17, 2020.

Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública. “Incidencia delictiva del Fuero Común.” Gobierno de México. Last accessed January 23, 2021. 

Non-contributory Social Protection Programmes Database. “Beníto Juárez Scholarships for the Well-being (2019-). United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Last accessed January 26, 2021.

Non-contributory Social Protection Programmes Database. “Youth building the future (Jóvenes construyendo el futuro) (2019-). United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Last accessed January 26, 2021.

Secretaría de Educación Pública. “Becas Beníto Juárez.” Gobierno de México. Last accessed January 26, 2021.

Secretaría de Educación Pública. “Programa Sembrando Vida” Gobierno de México. Last accessed January 26, 2021.

Web. “Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro.” Gobierno de México. Last accessed January 26, 2021.

Mexico Clears Former Defense Minister Cienfuegos of Criminal Allegations

01/26/21 (written by rramos) — On January 14, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) announced in a press release that it would not prosecute General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the country’s former defense minister who had been accused by authorities in the United States of collusion with drug trafficking organizations. In absolving the retired Army general of the allegations, the FGR affirmed that Cienfuegos never had any contact with members of the criminal organization that U.S. authorities had cited in court documents related to his October 2020 arrest, nor did he ever carry out any action aimed at protecting or helping said individuals. The FGR also stated that an analysis of Cienfuegos’s financial records did not reveal any discrepancies or indications of illegal income. This comes after U.S. prosecutors unexpectedly dropped all drug trafficking and money laundering charges against Cienfuegos and returned him to Mexican custody for further investigation in November 2020. The arrest of Cienfuegos by U.S. authorities a month prior was reported to have outraged Mexican officials, including President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, purportedly because the U.S. had never informed them about the investigation being conducted against the former general.

General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, who served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018, was cleared of all criminal charges on January 14. Photo: Milenio.

In reaction to the announcement that the Mexican government would not pursue prosecution, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said it was “deeply disappointed” and added that it “fully stands by its investigation and charges in this matter”. U.S. officials also sharply criticized a move by Mexico’s Foreign Ministry (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, SRE) to publish 751 pages of evidence against Cienfuegos that U.S. authorities had collected and subsequently shared with Mexican counterparts. A spokesperson for DOJ stated that the SRE’s public release of investigative documents, apparently done on President López Obrador’s instructions, “violates the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance between Mexico and the United States, and calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico’s own criminal investigations.”

President López Obrador seemed to shrug off the heated U.S. response at a January 18 press conference, in which he slammed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation into Cienfuegos’s alleged ties to organized crime. Asserting that the evidence against Cienfuegos was fraught with “contradictions” and “errors,” President López Obrador argued that documentation provided by DEA did not prove any of the U.S. accusations because it relied too heavily on “screenshots” and written messages with spelling errors that could not be attributed to the former defense minister. At another press conference days later, the president again alleged that the DEA had “fabricated” evidence against Cienfuegos, a claim he had reiterated several times since the FGR announced it would not move forward with criminal charges.

Military’s Continued Clout over Corruption Probes

The swiftness in clearing Cienfuegos of the allegations against him has raised fresh concerns about the enduring ability of Mexico’s military to influence the fight against corruption. Speaking to InSight Crime, Siria Gastelum of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime noted that the speed at which Mexican authorities were able to exonerate Cienfuegos would inevitably cast doubt on the government’s capability and willingness to properly investigate accusations of wrongdoing within the military. Indeed, at the time of the U.S. decision to drop charges against Cienfuegos in November 2020, observers in both Mexico and the United States expressed worries that the political weight of the Armed Forces would ultimately allow a high-ranking military official like Cienfuegos to escape persecution. Catalina Pérez Correa, a criminal law professor affiliated with the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE) think tank, predicted that the former defense minister would not face charges upon his return to Mexico, citing the military’s ever-increasing influence within the government and long record of impunity. Mike Vigil, a former chief of foreign operations for the DEA, agreed, telling the Los Angeles Times that Cienfuegos’s “chances of being prosecuted in Mexico [were] slim to none.”

It was widely reported that the López Obrador administration’s vigorous efforts to have Cienfuegos returned from U.S. custody and the subsequent decision to quickly clear him of all charges were the result of strong pressure from the military. This suggests that the Armed Forces will continue to be in a position to impede genuine investigations into other high-profile cases of alleged military corruption, such as the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa and the killing of civilians in Tlatlaya that same year, both of which occurred during Cienfuegos’s tenure as defense minister.

Uncertain Future for U.S.-Mexico Security Cooperation

The ongoing fallout from the Cienfuegos case may have wide-ranging implications for security cooperation between Mexico and the United States moving forward. Arguably the most important and immediate challenge to bilateral security ties is the recently passed reform to Mexico’s National Security Law that was largely the result of Mexican anger over the United States’ unilateral decision to arrest Cienfuegos. The reform severely restricts the ability of foreign law enforcement officers, including U.S. DEA agents deployed in Mexico, to operate within the country by imposing strict authorization requirements for meetings with contacts in Mexican law enforcement. In addition, it requires them to share “any and all security-related intelligence” with Mexican officials. Notably, the new law also eliminates diplomatic immunity for foreign agents, leaving them vulnerable to prosecution if they fail to abide by the new regulations. 

When combined with these new operational restrictions, the Mexican Foreign Ministry’s aforementioned publication of investigative materials provided by the DEA regarding Cienfuegos’s alleged links to criminal groups may significantly lessen the willingness of the United States to continue exchanging intelligence with Mexico. This would represent a serious deterioration in bilateral security cooperation, in which information-sharing has long been a central pillar. 

At the center of the uncertainty regarding the future of U.S.-Mexico security ties is a fundamental breakdown in mutual trust. The decision by the López Obrador administration to push for new restrictions on DEA agents in Mexico even after the U.S. had dropped charges against Cienfuegos was viewed by Washington as a duplicitous act. The subsequent hasty exoneration of Cienfuegos, the release of DEA documents, and persistent accusations of fabricating evidence have only compounded the strains in the bilateral relationship. Both countries can take concrete steps to begin to rebuild confidence and ease the tension that has arisen from the ongoing Cienfuegos saga. Such measures will be crucial to security on both sides of the border given the transnational nature of threats facing the two countries.

Sources

Pradilla, Alberto. “Más allá de Tlatlaya y Ayotzinapa: el historial militar que dejó el General Cienfuegos.” Animal Político. October 17, 2020. 

McDonnell, Patrick J. & Linthicum, Kate. “In a stunning reversal, U.S. drops charges against Mexico’s ex-defense chief.” Los Angeles Times. November 17, 2020. 

Kuckertz, Rita E. “United States Will Drop Charges against Former Mexican Defense Minister Cienfuegos.” Justice in Mexico. November 18, 2020. 

Pérez Correa, Catalina. “La inmunidad militar.” El Universal. November 24, 2020. 

“Mexico lawmakers restrict foreign law enforcement agents.” BBC. December 16, 2020. 

Berg, Ryan C. “The Mérida Initiative may be dead, but restarting US-Mexico security cooperation will be crucial.” American Enterprise Institute. January 6, 2021. 

McGinnis, Teagan. “Mexican Security Law Reforms May Impact Bilateral Initiatives on Organized Crime.” Justice in Mexico. January 11, 2021. 

“Comunicado 013/21. FGR Informa.” Fiscalía General de la República. January 14, 2021. 

“Acusa AMLO a DEA de fabricar delitos contra Cienfuegos.” Aristegui Noticias. January 15, 2021. 

Asmann, Parker. “Mexico Clears Ex-Defense Minister, Accuses US of ‘Fabricating’ Drug Charges.” InSight Crime. January 15, 2021. 

Hosenball, Mark & Esposito, Anthony. “U.S. ‘deeply disappointed’ Mexico closed probe of ex-defense minister.” Reuters. January 16, 2021. 

Villamil, Justin. “Mexico Slammed By U.S. After Documents Released in Drug Case.” Bloomberg. January 16, 2021. 

Domínguez, Pedro. “Estoy decepcionado del trabajo de la DEA, afirma AMLO.” Milenio. January 18, 2021. 

Brewer, Stephanie. “Explainer: Key Points for Understanding Mexico’s Cienfuegos Case.” Washington Office on Latin America. January 19, 2021. 

Felbab-Brown, Vanda. “The U.S.-Mexico security relationship in 2021.” Brookings Institution. January 19, 2021. 

“DEA tiene que explicar quién fabricó el expediente Cienfuegos: AMLO.” Aristegui Noticias. January 22, 2021.