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Mar 11, 2017 | 14:18 GMT

Staying the Course Against Mexico's Cartels

Despite his campaign promises, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is likely to maintain Mexico's current security strategy if he wins the presidency.
(NORBERTO DUARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Mexico's next presidential election is around the corner, and it has many people wondering how the new leader will tackle the country's enduring security problems. Mexican citizens will head to the polls in July 2018 to choose a head of state to lead their nation through the next six years, and according to a recent poll, populist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is poised to win a third of their votes. Should he perform as well as he is expected to, Lopez Obrador could bring even greater uncertainty to Mexico as he assumes the country's highest office.

At least, that is, if his statements are an accurate gauge of his actions as president. Lopez Obrador has routinely criticized the security strategy of his old political rival, former President Felipe Calderon, who defeated the populist politician in 2006 by a margin of less than 1 percent of the popular vote. Lopez Obrador has argued that Mexico City's long-standing policy of using the country's armed forces to target criminal organizations has led to greater violence. And as groups fracture under the pressure of law enforcement, their competition for the resources and territory left in the wake of military operations has certainly intensified. Meanwhile, Lopez Obrador's vehement opposition to the views of U.S. President Donald Trump has also raised questions about how he would treat with Washington if he is elected. After all, the United States is an important intelligence-sharing and defense partner to Mexico in its efforts to rein in rampant crime.

Still, appearances can be deceiving. Mexico's approach to security is largely shaped by forces at home and abroad rather than by the whims of any one leader. In fact, Lopez Obrador would probably follow his predecessor's lead and, for the most part, leave the government's tactics unchanged. This isn't to say that he won't make some cosmetic adjustments to Mexico's security strategy, such as scaling down the number of troops across the country that are permanently deployed to combat crime. But pressure from the United States, federal budget cuts, institutional corruption and the prevalence of violent crime will limit just how many forces Lopez Obrador could actually withdraw from the fight.

A Difficult Promise to Keep

As is true of many politicians, Lopez Obrador's policies will not necessarily match the promises he makes on the campaign trail. For example, his pledge to pull Mexican troops back from their war on organized crime is probably a bid to set himself apart from his predecessors and competitors; it is not a decision any new administration would take lightly once in office.

Even so, Lopez Obrador might have at least one way to make good on his vow if he decides to fulfill it. Two draft bills aimed at regulating and eventually reducing the armed forces' role in securing the public's safety have been put before the Mexican Congress. Both pieces of legislation call for mechanisms to determine when the military's presence is necessary in carrying out such duties — a measure that would, in theory, give the next president a means to withdraw forces more easily. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether Congress will be able to agree on a final draft, let alone pass it, in the 16 months left before the election.

Even if the legislature does strike a deal in time, cutting back on the military's involvement in cracking down on crime will not be easy.

If Lopez Obrador begins to call back forces in large numbers, Washington would be quick to protest. Mexico's fight against crime is critical to the U.S. government's own efforts to stem the flow of illegal drugs northward across the Mexican border. With fewer Mexican troops disrupting the country's cartels, the United States would have fewer options for interdicting overland trafficking of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin through Mexico. Moreover, Washington may not hesitate to leverage negotiations on NAFTA (assuming they are still underway during the next administration) to persuade Mexico City to change tack.

The Same Limited Options

Impediments to reshaping the military's mission would arise within Mexico's borders, too. After violence spiked toward the end of Calderon's administration, which wrapped up in 2012, the incoming Pena Nieto government searched for a way to end the military-centric approach to combating cartels by prioritizing the creation of a civilian-led gendarmerie to take the soldiers' place. But the initiative has since stalled, thanks to the government's weighty financial burdens and the inherent difficulties of building a new security force amid persistent problems like corruption. Though federal tax revenues have risen by about 55 percent since 2010, plunging oil prices and rapidly rising national debt in 2014 siphoned away the money intended to finance the gendarmerie's creation. Even if Mexico City could scrape together the funds for the force, there is no guarantee that an expanded police branch would be any more effective than the military has been in tamping down on crime. So, although Pena Nieto's successor will likely continue his efforts to create new local and state police forces, they will complement — rather than supplant — the military's current role in law enforcement.

Enduring security threats in certain parts of the country, meanwhile, will make it impossible for Mexican troops to withdraw nationwide. After a three-year dip, Mexico's national homicide rate has begun to inch back upward, rising from 12 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014 to 15 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016. (This number peaked at 18 deaths per 100,000 people in 2011 during the height of Mexico's bloody drug war, though murders were likely underreported.) At the same time, security has noticeably deteriorated in several cities and regions, including Tierra Caliente in the country's southwest, areas of the Pacific coast formerly controlled by the Sinaloa Federation, and the border towns of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. The heightened violence and crime stemming from feuds between the regions' cartels — and from federal operations against them — will doubtless continue beyond 2018, making it tough for the next administration to order a troop withdrawal without risking a sharper decline in public safety.

These issues will shape the options — and actions — of Mexico's next president, regardless of who it may be. If Lopez Obrador wins the race, he will enter office with a popular mandate to pursue his populist agenda. But that will not change the fact that when it comes to security, Lopez Obrador will have little choice but to stay the course his predecessors have set.

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