Murders in Mexico rose by 33 percent in 2018, shattering the previous record for the second year in a row, according to an official tally released last month. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO as he is known in Mexico, campaigned on a new approach to the country’s spiraling security crisis, promising to de-militarize law enforcement efforts and address the social issues that he says are the root causes of violence. But in an interview with WPR, Eric Olson, a global fellow and security expert with the Mexico Institute at The Wilson Center in Washington, says a closer look at AMLO’s policies since he took office in December reveals “a sharp departure” from his campaign rhetoric.

During
the campaign, transition and soon after taking office, AMLO promised
not to repeat the mistakes of the past. He promised a new strategy to
address the plague of violence facing Mexico, focusing on social
investments, poverty reduction and economic opportunity. He floated
ideas such as an amnesty for some involved in the drug trade,
de-militarizing the fight against illicit drugs and building up the
civilian police. 
These are
all potentially beneficial approaches to improving Mexico’s security
landscape, but they have not seen much follow-through from AMLO since he
took office on Dec. 1. Two and a half months is not enough time to draw
conclusions, but so far, AMLO and his team have primarily focused on
the sort of traditional punitive responses to drug trafficking
organizations that were the hallmarks of his predecessors. In
particular, AMLO has gotten behind a controversial and hotly debated
proposal to form a National Guard. 
The
constitutional amendment required to form this new National Guard has
passed the lower house of Mexico’s Congress and is currently awaiting
approval in the Senate. In the meantime, the government last week
announced a new initiative, one that does not require congressional
approval and is being implemented now. It deploys up to 10,200 officers
in combined units of approximately 600 federal police, marines and army
to assist with security duties in 17 of the country’s most violent
regions. These deployments are permanent in nature and can be viewed as
precursors to the National Guard, according to the government.
Taken
together, these two initiatives indicate a sharp departure from AMLO’s
campaign rhetoric. Rather than demilitarizing the fight against drugs,
he appears to be increasing the military’s role and creating the legal
parameters to make it permanent—a long sought-after priority for
Mexico’s military. In fairness, the government also continues to talk
about other anti-poverty and social programs that it considers central
to its security strategy. But at this early point in the new
administration, the focus on the military’s role, the likely creation of
a National Guard and the lack of detail around anti-poverty programs
has surprised many observers. AMLO’s
government maintains that this will be a civilian-led force, but a
closer look at the details shows it is not so clear-cut. The personnel
will be largely drawn from the military, and they will follow military
procedures despite receiving civilian police training, according to the
draft legislation. That means that operational control, budget,
recruitment, discipline and salary structures will be in the hands of
the military. 
This is
concerning, because Mexico’s armed forces are famously independent and
have resisted the creation of a civilian defense ministry to oversee
them. Traditionally, the Mexican military has maintained that it is
accountable to civilian authority because it reports to a civilian
commander-in-chief: the president. They do not, however, accept
intermediaries such as a civilian secretary of defense. Given the
prevalence of this view within the military, it is unclear how effective
a civilian administrative structure overseeing the National Guard can
be, especially when its ranks are primarily military and operationally
under military control.
The
argument in favor of the military’s involvement in public security
efforts is that it is necessary on a temporary basis due to corruption
and poor training within the civilian police. That is reasonable given
the state and local police forces’ genuine lack of capacity, but the
military has been “temporarily” involved in public security efforts
since 1997. Since then, Mexico has made limited progress toward
strengthening the federal police and has seen even less improvement at
the state and local levels.
It
is telling, then, that the AMLO administration is not relying on this
argument anymore, offering the National Guard as a “permanent” solution.
Alfonso Durazo, AMLO’s head of public security, made this clear in his
announcement deploying the combined security units to 17 hotspots. These
are permanent deployments, and discussion of strengthening the civilian
police seem to have fallen by the wayside.
Finally,
one of the lasting criticisms of the military’s involvement in public
security is that it is rarely accountable to civilian judicial
institutions. Over the past 10 years, Mexico’s Supreme Court has
established a precedent for military accountability in civilian courts
for human rights abuses, but this has rarely been put into practice.
Furthermore, even when the military is not accused of violations, it is
often reluctant to cooperate with civilian investigators and prosecutors
when they seek information from the military. AMLO is not addressing
these concerns and he has not moved to create a more independent
attorney general who might be able to more effectively. 
AMLO
has talked about replicating some of the programs he started as mayor
of Mexico City. These include student grants for improved educational
opportunities and the creation of afterschool programs. He has promised
to reduce poverty, believing it reduces the risks of young people
joining gangs and engaging in criminal activity.
But
as worthy as these initiatives might be, there are serious questions
about their specific impact on security. There is significant evidence
that programs specifically targeting at-risk youth have a positive
impact on crime prevention, but AMLO’s team has not articulated a clear
vision for these kinds of programs. Instead, he talks more generally
about poverty reduction as an anti-crime strategy, but these potential
impacts are only felt over a long period of time. Meanwhile, specific
prevention programs targeting troubled youth can have a more immediate
impact. 
Furthermore,
social programs have to be complementary to law enforcement efforts, and
coordination between implementing agencies is key. But the mechanisms
for coordination are not at all clear and have not been addressed by
AMLO’s government so far.