At a daily press briefing on January 30, Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador surprised reporters by declaring about the drug war that has ravaged swaths of his country, “Officially now, there is no war; we are going to pursue peace.” He explained, “This is what matters to me, to lower the number of homicides, the number of robberies, that there are no more kidnappings, this is what’s fundamental.”
His statements were made on the heels of reporting by Mexico’s Executive Secretary of the National Public Security System that cartel-related homicides increased dramatically in 2018 to more than 33,000, up from more than 23,000 cartel murders in 2017. In fact, the annual murder rate has risen exponentially each year with 2018 being the deadliest on record, roughly 15 percent of the reported 200,000-plus deaths since 2006, when the military anti-narcotics campaigns began under command of former president Felipe Calderón.
López Obrador is also pushing for a national guard with tens of thousands of soldiers that would officially bring civilian police duties under military control, according to AFP, the French news agency, which was represented at the briefing. Rights groups say the national guard plan would militarize the country permanently.
In an editorial published last week in Time, Casey Quackenbush suggested there is merit to their concerns. He wrote, “The focus on prosecuting kingpins has fragmented drugs gangs and fueled internal fighting. López Obrador swept into office promising to curb the widespread violence, and to take a different approach,” which includes commissioning local police to deploy any necessary military-style tactics to get the violence under control. For some, this would appear contradictory to the other half of the strategy: Amnesty.
Contradictions in an unconventional approach stirs controversy
López Obrador’s approach has stirred some controversy because it involves amnesty of low-level drug offenders as part of a strategy to diffuse cartel power and curb corruption of police entities that have fallen under the monetary influence of cartel lords. Critics warn that it will take more than a declaration that the war is over to end the war. Given that hundreds of thousands of military and police personnel have been deployed to secure high-violence areas and anti-narcotics teams have been sent to destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of cannabis crops in recent weeks, it would seem the war is far from over despite best intentions.
“The transition team, scarce in resources and experience, has decided to carry out dozens of events with ill-explained purposes, with rigid formats that induce the conclusions,” said security expert Alejandro Hope in a recent Op-Ed. He also raised concerns about the contradictions in the President Elect’s strategy. He told reporters at AFP, “His anti-crime strategy barely changes anything, it’s not different from that of previous governments, and even accentuates the use of the armed forces for public security.”
While the President Elect is not the first elected official to try to end cartel violence and aim for more national security, recent pressure to answer public outcry for solutions to the growing number of people who have reported missing persons may have prompted his more radical approach. One clue is the unveiling of the new administration’s plans to implement a new “National Strategy for the Search of Missing Persons” and establish National Institute of Forensic Identification, which aims to match unidentified victims with families that have reported missing persons by comparing their DNA. The estimated number of missing persons assumed dead dwarfs the reported homicides, which is at an all-time high. According to reporting in Mexico City’s El Universal, “The strategy is trying to respond to a tragedy of great magnitude, as logcial information reveals there are around 40,000 people missing, 26,000 unidentified bodies, and over 1,100 clandestine mass graves.”
Hope’s Op-Ed raised a deeper concern: the team of the president-elect is “trying to shoehorn the theoretical scaffolding of the transitional justice” to a situation that is more complex than circumstances under which such tactics would be effective. in this instance, Hope explains, transitional justice refers to a set of mechanisms other than the normal operation of the judicial system that seek to clarify the truth, repair the damage to the victims, the prosecution of serious violations of human rights, and the reform of the security organs.
“The concept includes instruments such as truth commissions, special laws to give special treatment to certain types of crimes or offenders, or special courts to process sensitive cases. Often, there is an exchange of legal benefits for the demobilization of armed groups or confessions of people who violated the law,” said Hope. “In many contexts, transitional justice is the only route to exit an armed group or to restore conditions of democratic normality. In Colombia, for example, the FARC would not have decided to demobilize if they were not granted an arrangement that would prevent them from being sent to jail for a long period. But in that case (and in others), the scope of transitional justice was limited to specific crimes, committed by specific actors in well-deined periods. They were also given in the tail of a conjunct, when a dose of stability had already been reached. Also, as a rule, the groups subject to transitional justice have or had some kind of political objective, even if they later suffered an overtly criminal drift.”
With respect to López Obrador’s proposed plan, Hope argues that it isn’t clearly defined and is riddled with contradictions. “It can not be limited to an amnesty for small nonviolent offenders, because a) that can already be done to a great extent with the accusatory criminal system, and b) it does not reduce violence. So, what violent offenders would be included and what would be the terms of an arrangement with them? Nobody knows for now… What crimes and what criminals would be subject to mechanisms of transitional justice?”
Lofty ambitions… Will they work?
Despite the ambiguity of the President-Elect’s plan to implement his strategy, his goals are ambitious. “The strategy is no longer operations to detain capos,” or drug barons,” he said. But rather, he explained his intent is to “bring down the number of homicides… The principal function of government is to guarantee security.”
Bill Weinberg zeroed in on another inconsistency with his approach in an article for Cannabis Now: “Troops may no longer be sent to hunt down capos like Chapo, but this is clear: They are still being sent to eradicate cannabis crops, bringing federal forces with a long legacy of human rights abuses into impoverished campesino communities growing the only crop that can sustain them.”
“Two days later, federal police ‘decommissioned’ more than 129 kilograms of compressed cannabis found stashed along the banks of the Río Grande near the border post of La Playita, in the violence-torn northern state of Tamaulipas,” he explained. “In early January, army troops were actually dispatched to the southern state of Chiapas to join with federal police in a cannabis eradication campaign. A plot of 40,000 plants was reported destroyed at the village of Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan in the state’s Maya Highlands. Over the course of January, army troops reported burning 3,600 square meters of cannabis in plots across the state of Zacatecas.”
These measures were extreme considering the growing movement to legalize cannabis in Mexico. Personal drug use has largely been decriminalized in Mexico, according to its 55th president, Vicente Fox. In an interview here at TCR, the former president said, “Mexico is suffering from this war on drugs and suffering from these cartel leaders in the amount of homicides and crimes that affect tens of thousands of kids in Mexico. And this is the case that finds us in between the mammoth consumer market in the United States and the producer nations in the south like Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. So with troops right there in the middle paying a price that is unsustainable to Mexico — on economic cost or loss of foreign investment — and causes this fear on the people on the streets of Mexico when all of this can be corrected as soon as we move from prohibition to legalization.”
What’s the real cause of the War On Drugs?
Near the end of the Fox administration in 2006, Mexico’s crime rate had sharply declined under his leadership. The exponential rise in cartel killings and kidnappings began again when the Calderón administration militarized the War On Drugs.
“The problem is that the drug ‘problem’ is not a problem of criminality. It’s a problem of governments who impose criminal penalties on [what should be considered] a problem of public health.” said Fox.
He explained that governments should focus on prevention and treatment to help eliminate the demand for illicit drugs. The demand is greatest in the United States, where, he estimated, consumers funnel in excess of $5 Billion a year to the cartels. “That’s what’s bringing to these cartels such a mighty power to corrupt people, to corrupt government officials, to buy all the weapons and ammunition they need. And, they buy them in the United States.”
The former president said he is convinced that the real problem originated with U.S. drug policy and that the trend toward state legalization is helping to diminish cartel power to an extent. However, he warned that the cartels’ power won’t end until there is no longer consumer demand for their drugs.
“[Legalization] will take a huge amount of money the away from the cartels and put that money in the hands of government through taxation,” said Fox. “It’s very important that we leave the money that is going to be raised in taxes then invest that money into education, in prevention, into solving cases that are already impacting our lives. And so this is the right way to go.”
Mexico has been entertaining legalization for years, although it has only allowed for the legal sale of CBD since 2017.
According to Weinberg, López Obrador had broached the idea of legal cannabis as a way out of the narco crisis and a national cannabis industry association is working toward more expansive legalization policy. He opined, “Former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who now sits on the board of Toronto-based cannabis cultivator Khiron Life Sciences (and has emerged as something of a YouTube star with his excoriating lampoons of Donald Trump), is today perhaps the foremost advocate of legal cannabis as an opportunity for a positive transformation of his country.”
“Following a Supreme Court ruling last October recognizing a right to consume cannabis on individual liberties grounds, Mexico’s congress is obliged to pass some kind of general legalization measure,” he wrote. “Upon the high court decision, then-president-elect López Obrador sent members of his transition team to Canada to study how cannabis legalization is unfolding there. One member of the delegation was Olga Sánchez Cordero, a respected jurist and longtime legalization advocate who is now López Obrador’s interior secretary.”
Does the path toward peace lead to cannabis legalization in Mexico?
The President Elect may be well-served to implement legalization as part of the strategy of dealing with the cartel crisis rather than solely rely upon more war to end the War On Drugs. With any luck, or persuasion, he will send delegates to conferences such as the CannaMexico World Summit, which is hosted each year by ex-President Fox at his presidential library, Centro Fox. There, they can learn from experts and integrate that collective knowledge into sound policies that will help Mexico and her allies address the real cause of the drug war and end cartel violence for once and for all. Rather than spending resources on pointless immigration tactics such as a wall that would further thwart diplomacy, the U.S. government would be well-served to collaborate with its neighbors on sensible drug policy reforms that would strip power away from the cartels.
In the meanwhile, President-Elect López Obrador’s proposed reforms have passed the lower house and are pending Senate and state legislative approvals before legalization is eventually presented as a constitutional amendment.
About the Author
Editor of The Cannabis Reporter and host of The Cannabis Reporter Radio Show, Snowden Bishop is an award-winning producer, journalist and former anchor of NBC affiliates. Considered a thought leader on environmental issues and cannabis, she frequently speaks at events and is a juried member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Association of Health Care Journalists and Climate Reality Leadership Corps. Read More