How the Drug War Debate Reshaped Mexican Politics

How the Drug War Debate Reshaped Mexican Politics

By Devon Van Houten Maldonado


Colombia’s peace pact was historic — and Mexico has thrice as many people.  

By Devon Van Houten Maldonado

Update: Andrés Manuel López Obrador celebrated a landslide victory over his rivals in Mexico’s presidential election on July 1, 2018. The drugs debate was central to a campaign marred by the killing of more than 130 candidates and party workers.

When Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist National Regeneration Movement (Morena) proposed amnesty for cartels in December to end the country’s drug war, he drew sharp criticism from multiple stakeholders. But three months later, he retains his lead for the July 1 elections. He hasn’t retracted his proposal. His critics haven’t backed off. A deepening divide is shaping the discourse ahead of the upcoming polls.

Current President Enrique Peña Nieto of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled Mexico for most of the past century, has said that amnesty would be a betrayal of the country. The conservative National Action Party (PAN) has mocked Obrador’s proposal, calling him confused. And many parents of the more than 200,000 men and women killed in the drug war over the past decade have challenged the suggestion of amnesty. Last year — 2017 — was the deadliest of the past 10 years, with 25,000 killed. If Obrador wins, he says, his administration would consider amnesty “when and if it includes the support of the victims.”

You have to rebuild the social fabric.

Nancy Garcia Fregoso, adviser to Mexico’s Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary

But recent surveys by reputed polling firm Parametria show that while 30 percent of the country’s citizens think amnesty would increase crime, an exact same number think it would help curtail violence. And 43 percent of respondents said that the cartels “do more public works in communities than the government,” while 42 percent disagreed — highlighting a deep distrust in government. Obrador’s proposal for amnesty isn’t giving him an edge, but Colombia’s example — 100,000 people associated with the drug trade reentered the mainstream after the country’s milestone peace pact with the left-wing rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) last year — is increasingly also echoing in Mexico.

“In some way, you have to rebuild the social fabric,” says Nancy Garcia Fregoso, former director of research for innovation for the national digital strategy of the presidency who is now advisor to the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary [she spoke with OZY before her latest appointment]. 


Since the presidency of Felipe Calderón of the PAN starting in 2006, Mexico has adopted a military-first approach to tackling drug cartels. It is an approach that has resonated for large periods of the past decade with a nation angry at the bloodletting of the drug cartels. Calderón’s successor, Peña Nieto, constituted a National Gendarmerie to battle the cartels.

Not atypically for a seasoned politician — Obrador is contesting for the country’s top post for the third time — the reality of his platform is a lot more nuanced than some of his public pronouncements. He has held up the ongoing violence — including almost 19,000 executions by organized crime in 2017, according to public policy analysis firm Lantia Consultores — as evidence that the old approach is failing. His campaign document, called the Project of the Nation 2018–2024, promises to break with armed conflict, reform the country’s crowded and corrupt prisons and focus on reintegration and alternative penal models for minor crimes. “The country’s penitentiary centers have become true schools of crime” reads the document. And “prioritizing intelligence over force” is a theme that runs through the document. At the same time, though, he has proposed creating a National Guard of more than 200,000 soldiers and 50,000 navy servicemen and women. It is unclear how this force would be any different from the one Peña Nieto instituted.

And amnesty won’t be easy to accomplish. It would require the passage of a law that clearly defines the advantages for the government, the criminals and society at large. It would also require temporary enforcement measures to bring about what is known as “transitional justice,” says Garcia Fregoso.

But Obrador’s proposal has sparked a debate that continues to rage as a key political theme ahead of the presidential elections. The central argument against unconditional amnesty has been that of victims’ human rights, including their right to justice. “Granting amnesty for serious crimes is against international law where victims’ right to justice must be granted,” says Pascal Hubatka, a human rights consultant based in Mexico City. Victims and their families have a right to justice, reparations and to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones, he adds. 

In Mexico, justice — and not just for victims of the drug war — has long proven elusive. According to the country’s National Institute of Statistic and Geography, 94 percent of all crimes go unreported, and only about 1 percent are punished by jail. And to some families of those killed in the drug war, Obrador’s proposal is akin to rubbing salt on wounds. “Can you in good conscience ask us to forget the victims, especially the victims of the disappearings, who still haven’t found their loved ones?” Javier Sicilia, poet, activist and father to Juan Francisco, who was killed in 2011, wrote in an open letter in January.

Political opponents too continue to criticize Obrador. PAN leader Damián Zepeda says the Morena presidential candidate is “confused about the solutions that Mexico requires to confront the problems of corruption, violence and education.” Meanwhile, Alfonso Durazo, Morena’s candidate for public security secretary, has insisted on national television that amnesty is a viable option, citing the example of Colombia.

A poll of polls by Mexican agency Oraculus in February concluded that Obrador stood a 99 percent chance of winning if the elections were held then. Every poll since then has only backed the assessment that he remains in the lead ahead of the upcoming elections. But as Peña Nieto and Calderón found, ending the drug war is harder than winning the presidency. The growing rift in Mexico on how best to approach drug cartels won’t make it any easier.