Four presidential candidates, photographed with the host before an electoral debate on Mexican TV. Source: Insight Crime. All Rights Reserved.
This adds to mounting evidence that the heavy-handed approach of the past two presidents has failed to improve security in the country.
But are the candidates for the rapidly approaching July 1 elections promising anything different? And if they are, will it work?
The frontrunner: Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Running under the banner of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), former Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known widely as AMLO, is the favorite at this stage of the race, with double-digit leads in most polls.
As a virulent critic of former presidents Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, a victory by AMLO would give him a strong mandate to break with the past.
The best example of this is his proposal to award some form of amnesty to members of criminal groups. This remains mostly a nascent idea, but AMLO has repeated and refined it, despite a furious reaction from his opponents.
The former mayor has spoken favorably of phasing out the use of the military for domestic security tasks.
Most recently, his campaign clarified that the amnesty would be intended not for violent capos, but rather for low-level lawbreakers whose lack of legitimate opportunities led them to engage in crime.
It is unlikely that the amnesty will prove politically viable. But like other elements of AMLO’s agenda, it is notable for its distance from the get-tough reflex. For instance, the former mayor has spoken favorably of phasing out the use of the military for domestic security tasks.
He has also promised to emphasize rehabilitation as part of prison sentences, to better prepare inmates for reinsertion into society and to reduce recidivism.
This plan would address a key driver of insecurity in Mexico — namely, the chaotic prison system, which systematically tramples on human rights, frequently serves as a base of criminal operations, and often places convicts on a path to further criminal activities.
Though AMLO’s ideas lack specificity, they reflect a concrete rhetorical shift toward emphasizing a more empathetic and nuanced consideration of the incentives that push some into criminal activities.
While the efficacy of the plans behind this discourse depends almost entirely on details that remain unknown, this emphasis has been lacking for years.
In other ways, however, AMLO’s ideas are not only lacking in detail, but they could be counterproductive. As with most Mexican presidential candidates, AMLO has exhibited a proclivity toward institutional reorganization that fails to address any obvious defects. He has promised to abolish Mexico’s intelligence organization, the National Security and Investigation Center (CISEN), without explaining what entity would absorb its responsibilities. He has also proposed the return of the Public Security Secretariat, without describing why its absence has harmed Mexico.
In essence, López Obrador is pushing a massive revolution of the federal security bureaucracy without any idea of which problems it will solve or what new tools it will create. At best, pursuit of such poorly thought-out plans represents wasted effort; at worst, it would be a step backwards.
The contender: Ricardo Anaya
The candidate of the National Action Party (PAN), Ricardo Anaya, is currently polling in second place. Although the gap separating him from AMLO is big, Anaya seems to be the only candidate who could conceivably upset the current favorite.
Anaya is the former president of the PAN and a fierce intraparty rival of ex-President Felipe Calderón, giving him sufficient distance from the authors of Mexico’s security failures to mark a change in direction.
Anaya’s campaign has published a compendium of security commitments that reads a bit like a disorganized laundry list of security-related truisms, with no clear priorities or consideration for the resources needed to implement any of such proposals.
Anaya promises to “strengthen the capacity” of the nation’s investigative magistrates, for instance, but such rhetoric tends to emphasize the ends while ignoring the means.
He includes a series of items aiming at professionalizing the police and improving the prestige of law enforcement careers, linking poor policing to the lack of esprit de corps among officers.
Where Anaya does dip a toe into specific ideas, they are often laudable. He includes a series of items aiming at professionalizing the police and improving the prestige of law enforcement careers, linking poor policing to the lack of esprit de corps among officers. This connection, which many experts on security in Mexico say is vital, is often absent from policy proposals.
Anaya has also promised to beef up campaign finance laws to target electoral donations from criminal groups. His platform includes a proposal to block cell phone signals around jails, as part of a broader effort to reduce criminal control over the penitentiary system.
Such ideas are lost in the larger flood of superficialities and cliches, but should he acchieve the unexpected in July, hopefully Anaya will put them at the centerpiece of his new strategy.
The third candidate: José Antonio Meade
Rounding out the list of serious candidates is José Antonio Meade, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Meade has proposed a security strategy built on five points: reduction of arms trafficking, better training and salaries for police, standardized punishment for crimes, preventive policies, and a revamped intelligence and information apparatus.
As with his adversaries, Meade’s proposals include both logical aims and genuine head-scratchers. The United States has done little to tighten its lax gun laws, so attempting to curtail arms trafficking may seem a futile undertaking, at least in the short term.
Meade was a high-profile cabinet official under both Calderón and Peña Nieto. His indelible association with years of failure fatally undermines his potential as the author of a new way forward.
But the prevalence of US-sold weapons is a major factor contributing to violence in Mexico, and limiting the quantity of guns in circulation in Mexico is worthy of consideration.
At the same time, it is unclear how different sentencing practices in different parts of the country have much impact on the overall levels of crime. Standardization sounds reasonable enough, but the idea that it could contribute to lower nationwide crime rates, and therefore merits inclusion among the basic pillars of Meade’s plans, is dubious.
Similarly, preventive crime policies and redoubled intelligence systems are fine, but without any details or concrete policy steps attached to them, they are vague objectives without practical meaning.
Regardless of the content of his ideas, Meade’s background leaves him deeply compromised on security issues. Meade was a high-profile cabinet official under both Calderón and Peña Nieto, and he was hand-picked by Peña Nieto as the nominee of their party. His indelible association with years of failure fatally undermines his potential as the author of a new way forward.
Ultimately, however, the virtues and defects of Meade’s proposals are largely academic, as he is more than 20 points behind López Obrador in most polls.
The closer we come to election day, the more it seems that López Obrador will occupy the nation’s highest elected office, and the quality of his ideas and his governance will be put to the test.
This article was previously published by Insight Crime and can be read here