Mexico’s President Does Not Know How To Fight Crime

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is struggling to respond to the historically high number of violent crimes. In 2021, over 33,000 people were killed in Mexico.

As a candidate, Lopez Obrador promised to invest in social programs and send the military back into barracks. As president, however, he has embraced the Mexican military to a greater extent than any of his recent predecessors. Unfortunately, Lopez Obrador has not invested energy and resources in reforming and improving the Mexican police force.

Current trends in violent crime in Mexico are alarming. Over 100,000 people were killed in Mexico in the first three years of Lopez Obrador’s administration. If current trends continue, Lopez Obrador’s government will be remembered as the most violent six years in modern Mexican history.

But rather than adjust his strategy, Lopez Obrador has chosen to attack his critics and lobby Congress to change Mexico’s constitution to give the Mexican military a more permanent role in patrolling Mexico’s streets.

At a recent press conference, he downplayed the idea that current trends in violence represent a crisis and refused to change his strategy.

“We will not change the strategy because it will bring us results,” he said.

In another speech, he attacked critics who questioned the role he ascribes to the military and accused militarization skeptics of being corrupt, aloof fascists.

“It’s only the backward… corrupt… angry… admirers of the fascists” who are opposed to putting the military in charge of policing, he said.

In a recent interview, Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington DC think tank, stated: “The Mexican government needs to develop a comprehensive law enforcement strategy. There is no law enforcement strategy other than sending forces into the streets and doing pretty much nothing.”

For years, security analysts have advised Mexico that soldiers are not a substitute for the police.

When asked to choose a word to describe Lopez Obrador’s security strategy, Felbab-Brown said, “I would probably choose ‘militarization,’ but that’s not quite right. There are no concrete plans [and] Strategy, so maybe the other word I would choose would be ‘contain’ because non-prosecution is even more defining than militarization.”

Felbab-Brown also said the truck hijacking issue was a symptom of the broader flaws in Lopez Obrador’s security strategy. Mexico recorded 3,717 violent truck hijackings in the first six months of 2022, a 4.9% increase from the 3,543 reported in the first half of 2021.

“This is a poignant symbol of what happens when the government abandons any sensible strategy to fight organized crime, it gives them license to do whatever they want. Unfortunately, that’s the case in Mexico today,” she said.

Foreign company executives who carefully review potential investments in Mexico must understand the risks posed by security issues and organized crime activities. Mexico attracted US$11.9 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the first quarter of 2021, the highest level recorded since Mexico began pursuing FDI in 1999. However, security problems are likely to prevent Mexico from benefiting from a potential big boom in foreign investment.

“Competition with China is driving nearshoring. Mexico should benefit dramatically, and yet the security situation is undermining the economic benefits that Mexico could reap. Many large companies will calculate that new investments in Mexico may have to be suspended until the security situation improves,” Felbab-Brown said.

In 2006, former President Felipe Calderon launched a major offensive against Mexico’s drug cartels. Around the world there was a feeling that Mexico was at war and Mexico was tainted with a reputation for being violent and insecure.

Now President Lopez Obrador is insisting that the security situation is improving. But the numbers belie Lopez Obrador’s optimism.

A little over 40,000 people were killed in the first three years of Calderon’s administration in Mexico. Over 100,000 people were killed in the first three years of Lopez Obrador’s administration. By that measure, Mexico is now more than twice as violent as it was when Calderon began the war on the cartels.

“This is happening under the nose of the military and they are not intervening. The National Guard has easily become the most expensive mannequins in Mexico,” Felbab-Brown explained.

However, the current spate of violence does not appear to have significantly dented Mexico’s soft-power brand or image. Mexico attracted a record 31.9 million foreign visitors in 2021. Mexico City has been embraced by globally mobile “home office” nomads from the US and around the world.

Lopez Obrador is unlikely to make any major revisions to his security policy. Instead, he can simply claim that the situation is improving and his policies are working.

Felbab-Brown has simple advice for Lopez Obrador.

“The state needs a law enforcement strategy. Right now, there simply isn’t a law enforcement strategy. Back to the police!” she said.

Watch the full interview with Vanda Felbab-Brown here.

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