Even before he takes office Dec. 1, Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, has presented a plan to cut the country’s high crime rate. Homicides in Mexico have hit new records in 2017 and are headed higher in 2018, while many other crimes have intensified across the country.
While the plan includes stronger enforcement, AMLO also hopes to bring a wholly different approach, or as he describes it: “Violence can’t be faced with violence; fire can’t be put out with fire, and you can’t confront evil with evil. Evil needs to be faced with good, and the causes of violence must be addressed.”
Mexico may have no alternative. For more than a decade, the federal government has been unable to devise an effective strategy to stop the spread of crime, More than 200,000 people have been murdered, according to official estimates.
Many Mexicans voted for AMLO because he offered alternatives on both crime and corruption. Under outgoing President Enrique Peña Nieto, criminality spread widely, going far beyond drug smuggling. The law enforcement and justice systems failed. The government’s inability to arrest and convict criminals effectively gave them impunity and encouraged more crime. Corruption was too rarely prosecuted.
AMLO’s proposals range from creating jobs for young people to legalizing some drugs to forgiving criminals who confess and make amends. Popular expectations for the plan are high. There are significant concerns to work through and to be debated. Yet with a country rife with criminal insurgencies and weak institutions, a multi-pronged approach is badly needed.
Some of his ideas are still too vague, such as promoting family values and civic culture. And it is not clear which drugs he would legalize or how cartels would be demobilized and reintegrated into society. Others are more obvious, such as improving the conditions and security at prisons.
The most novel idea is a new national guard, which would carry out law enforcement duties as a “service” of the armed forces. Staffed by Army, Navy, and federal police, the new service would initially total 50,000 members, but could grow to three times that size. The Constitution will need to be changed to permit the use of military personnel for local law enforcement. And there are massive challenges to train them for civilian law enforcement and to integrate them with a more effective justice system. Also in doubt is whether federal forces should intrude on the sovereignty of Mexico’s states.
AMLO would do well to make sure his approach is compatible with the demands of the United States to counter more effectively the massive flow of illegal drugs across the border. It also behooves the US to deepen its cooperation in this new struggle to curb crime in Mexico. Both countries may be ready to try new ideas. Both can win with an approach that deals with the root causes of the violence as well as providing better solutions for improving security and rule of law as quickly as possible.