Familiar Avalos: AMLO’s Greatest Challenge
Mexico is set to surpass its impressive 2017 numbers—in homicides. With an official total of 29,168 murders, last year was Mexico’s most violent since the government began recording the count in 1997. 2018 is certain to be worse. According to government statistics, the first nine months of 2018 saw 25,394 killings, dwarfing 2017’s 21,460 over the same period. Mexico trailed only Syria in killings of journalists last year, with 11 dead. Mexico is not a war zone, and the majority of its inhabitants do not directly experience violence. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of people are losing their lives, and thousands more are victims of extortion and kidnapping.
In some parts of the country, there is no rule of law and justice is non-existent. The western state of Guerrero is last in World Justice Project’s rankings of the Mexican states’ justice systems. There, only one in every 15 murder cases results in a conviction, while the state’s 2017 homicide rate surpassed that of El Salvador and Honduras, considered some of the most violent countries in the world.
With his December 1 inauguration as Mexico’s president less than a week away, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised to prioritize ending the recent spate of violence. To this end, he announced his National Plan for Peace and Security on November 14, which explains the general tenets that will guide his domestic security policy. While the Plan offers a new and deeper recognition of the social and economic factors that inspire violence, it ignores the key to bolstering Mexico’s criminal justice system: public prosecutors that Guerrero and other states lack.
The Plan’s second sentence identifies poverty as “the base of this criminal boom that Mexico faces.” The logic behind this statement is straightforward: poor Mexicans, looking to provide for themselves and their families, turn to organized crime absent other opportunities. The OECD reports that 22% of Mexicans aged between 15 and 29 are neither in school, employed, nor in vocational training. This population of so-called ninis, 300,000 strong, provides the criminal organizations driving the violence with a reliable recruitment pool. The Plan promises new efforts to increase access to education and healthcare among Mexico’s most marginalized, and López Obrador has already proposed a program to extend social support and employment opportunities to the ninis.
The Plan openly questions the prohibitionist approach that has guided both Mexico’s and the United States’ narcotics policies for decades. It calls bans on illicit drugs “discretionary and arbitrary” because they “do not affect the production and sale of alcohol, tobacco, beverages containing taurine and caffeine, nor the free consumption of certain antidepressants and sleeping pills,” expressing doubt over the strategy’s legitimacy. It suggests that prohibition has created a black market in response to 27 million American users’ demand for drugs, with tremendous profit margins that foster the trafficking of Mexican-produced marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine, as well as South American cocaine. It is no secret that the drug trade has played a central role in the current crisis, with over 200,000 dead and over 30,000 missing since 2006, when then-president Felipe Calderón deployed the army and began Mexico’s Drug War. Major drug trafficking organizations have been active in Mexico since at least the 1980s, but they have grown increasingly territorial and aggressive in large part because of the militarized enforcement of recent years.
Armed with US guns—approximately 253,000 firearms are illegally trafficked south of the border every year—and boatloads of cash—the Mexican drug trade’s estimated annual revenue is between $25 billion and $30 billion—trafficking organizations use indiscriminate violence as they spar with each other and law enforcement for control of routes. López Obrador’s plan attempts to target the economic underpinning of this process. Specifically, it calls for a new police force to specifically address money laundering, an indispensable asset to cartels’ finances, and to negotiate a shift in drug policy toward decriminalization with the United States, a move that could end organized crime’s grip on the drug trade. López Obrador’s party has already submitted legislation to decriminalize the sale and use of marijuana, signaling his desire to dismantle the informal economy that inspires much of the violence in Mexico.
There is no guarantee that the Plan’s social and economic proposals will be successfully implemented, or work as intended if they are. But even if this were the case, these proposals miss the bigger picture. Poverty contributes to Mexico’s insecurity, but it is not the sole factor. After all, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who appeared on the Forbes World’s Billionaires rankings in 2009 with a net worth of $1 billion, was certainly not trafficking because he was in squalor then. And drug trafficking is not Mexican organized crime’s only activity. Extortion, kidnapping, and gasoline theft are all on the rise. Rather, the proximate cause of Mexico’s abhorrent wave of violence is a weak criminal justice system that breeds impunity. Due to inefficiency, backlogs, and corruption, only one in five reported crimes is fully investigated, and only one to two of every 100 crimes results in a sentence. The criminal justice system is further hindered by a history of distrust for law enforcement; it is estimated that less than 25 percent of all crimes are reported. With successful prosecution hard to come by and impunity easily within reach, violent organized crime represents a low risk, high reward opportunity for those at its highest levels.
The key figure in all this is the public prosecutor. In Mexico’s legal system, prosecutors are charged with investigating reported crimes and making the case for a sentencing before a judge. Mexico’s criminal justice system would be a different beast if willing and able prosecutors were available everywhere throughout the country. However, organized crime’s threats and inducements have made this an impossibility. Traffickers doubtlessly understand the important role prosecutors play, and they have the resources to target or subvert prosecutors, securing impunity by plata o plomo—the silver of bribes or the lead of bullets. Thus, Mexico’s next government must empower and protect the nation’s public prosecutors. Unfortunately, the Plan pays no real attention to prosecutors. On matters of justice and enforcement, its main recommendations are a law to classify corruption as a felony and the establishment of a new National Guard comprised of both military and civilian enforcement officers. The former will mean nothing if it is not enforced, and the latter is being criticized as a rebranded version of the current militarized enforcement model, albeit with an expensive name change.
Much of the National Plan for Peace and Security focuses on the social and economic conditions that have fostered violence, but the very essence of justice—the rule of law—cannot be forgotten if the homicides and disappearances are to end. If López Obrador is serious about pursuing peace, he must prioritize a solution to Mexico’s prosecutorial problem.