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Mexico to take new tack in 'war on drugs'

Sandra Weiss Mexico City
October 29, 2018

Mexico's new president has declared war on the drug mafia – and is putting citizens at the heart of his approach. Drug use will also be regarded not so much as a security problem in future but as more of a health issue.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Image: Reuters/G. Graf

Peace instead of war, paying closer attention to the social causes of criminality, and a clear commitment from the security forces that they will respect human rights: these are the key points in the security strategy of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who takes office as Mexico's new president on December 1. Last week, in Mexico City, Lopez Obrador — who's known by the sobriquet AMLO – presented his ideas for ending the bloodshed in his country, caused by a drugs war that has lasted more than a decade. Victims' associations and civil society were the main focus of the event. They presented the findings of peace forums held at AMLO's instigation all over the country in the past few months.

Eunice Rendon is a university professor and the coordinator of the citizen's network Viral. She praises this "ability to listen:" "The forums have shown how deeply rooted mistrust of the state is," she told DW. "Building new bridges between the government and the people is one of the biggest challenges. People want to be listened to. And the new government has shown it's not afraid of that, even though things sometimes got loud, aggressive or chaotic in the forums."

Read more: AMLO's election is a turning point in Mexico's history

Protest call for the murder of 43 student teachers to be resolved
Incoming government members were sympathetic to the call for a representative for the disappearedImage: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/A. Leyva

She sees this participation as the "beginnings of a new strategy," though of course it's "still very fragmentary." Rendon says right now there's still a lack of clarity around key themes, such as the security law, criticized by human rights activists, which was signed by AMLO's predecessor Enrique Pena Nieto. It's currently before the Supreme Court, which is examining it to see whether it is constitutional. Critics of the security law say it militarizes public space and guarantees extensive immunity for the armed forces — even though they have often committed serious human rights violations.

Change of policy on drugs

Also present at the event in Mexico City were key figures in AMLO's future security cabinet, like Interior Minister Olga Sanchez Cordero and Public Security Minister Alfonso Durazo. Falko Ernst from Crisis Group Mexico, who had expected to be presented with a detailed program, had criticisms: "The plan to demilitarize security policy is praiseworthy, but it doesn't elaborate on how that would be implemented without falling back into old patterns."

Read more: Medellin takes victims' side as 'narco tours' brings tourists

Not all of civil society's demands will be met. The call for an official representative for the disappeared fell on sympathetic ears; but the only case for which a truth commission is likely to be established is that of the 43 disappeared student teachers of Ayotzinapa.

Mexican soldiers clear a poppy field in the state of Chihuahua
Mexican soldiers clear a poppy field in the state of ChihuahuaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Düttmann

There will also be a change of policy on drug use. Bucking the regional trend toward increased repression and controls, Mexico's new government will pin its hopes on legalization, and will no longer define drug use as a security issue but as a health problem. Sanchez Cordero, the future interior minister, left no doubt about that. Here too, however, the devil is in the as-yet-unspecified detail: It's still not clear which model the government will use, and whether it will apply only to marijuana or also to other drugs like cocaine and opium.

Transparency and accountability

AMLO has clearly moved away from the idea of a general amnesty as announced during the election campaign. In the forums, victims decisively rejected this point; they demanded truth and justice before there could be any talk of forgiveness. Around 234,000 people have died in the Mexico's drug wars since 2006; more than 30,000 have disappeared.

Read more: Bound for US, migrants gamble with their lives on the 'death train' 

For analyst Falko Ernst, the main problem is the security forces' entanglement with organized crime. "In order to break this circle, effective ways of establishing transparency and accountability must be created," he said. "Until that happens, we should take a critical view of restructuring, such as the proposed subdivision of Mexico into 265 territories. The military and the police should work together on prevention, and take action against organized crime." It's still not clear, though, who will control the security services, with the responsibility of reforming their deep-seated, anti-democratic culture: "The political will is there, but that on its own won't be enough."