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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.